Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Paper to Pixel to Paper Again: Part 27

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A guide to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world

Part 27
Proofs and "Proofs"


This is the twenty-seventh (how old will I be when this is over?) installment of Paper to Pixel to Paper Again, a series that explains (in an overly thorough manner) the how-to's of preparing line art (and later in the series, color art!) for print.

And as always, if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!

Last week, while discussing working with your selected printer, we left off with discussing so-called "wet proofs".

Let's define our terms.

Back in the pre-digital days, when a printer was responsible for a comparatively large share of putting together a book, before going to press books were evaluated through a process called proofing. Of course, there's still "proofing" these days, but as you might infer from my scare quotes, it's petty radically different.

In the era of film negatives, there was an easy way to communicate the look of the final book without actually going to press. The negatives, already shot and developed and ganged on flats, were used to expose a light blue, photosensitive paper, which was then developed into a blue-line positive image—the proof. Since it came directly from the negative, this proof could be used to evaluate the book as it would look, accurate to everything save the color of the ink and the absence of any dot gain that would appear on press.

A bound blue-line proof of an unpublished Magus, Robot Fighter revival comic from 1982. Thanks, weird internet!

The problem is, there's no equivalent process in the current digital era. Nowadays printers will offer to supply you with two different types of "proofs"—scare quotes intended and necessary, as neither is really useful in evaluating image quality on press.

The first of these "proofs" types comes in the form of a raft of laser printed copies of your book. The issue here? Laser printers aren't capable of outputting anywhere near the resolution of a good press, and thus all of the issues you might want to check a proof for—lack of detail in the fine areas, copious fill-in, moire in screen tone etc—you won't be able to evaluate any of these things. So you'll have a giant stack of paper with crappy-looking printing on it and no sense of anything other than "did they keep the pages in the right order?"

The second type of "proofs" available to you in this era are screen "proofs", i.e. digital files that represent the book after the printer's prepress staff have made any adjustments they're going to make.

For the first few books I worked on for the Cerebus restoration project, I insisted on laser printer proofs. I've since come to the conclusion that these tell you absolutely nothing, and you're better off insisting on screen proofs, as it's easier to check for missing or moved pages, and you can also check the files over with your preflight settings (as detailed in previous installments). 

But neither of these is really a solution to the question—what will my book look like on this printer's press?

For that, you actually need to go to press! We need what's called a "wet proof", or "press proof" or even "press test".

Not your whole book, mind you. That would be extremely expensive. Rather, ask the printer what they would charge for a press proof of a single signature, and then output the required amount of pages.

Below you'll find a photograph of a wet proof put together by Marquis, in preparation for their printing Reads last year. 

A few details might jump out at you. For instance, the images above aren't actually from Reads, but from Church and State I. The reason is simple—I wanted to be able to compare their printing head-to-head with Tien Wah, the printer that worked on Church and State I. I selected a range of pages from that volume, emphasizing pages with the teeniest, tiniest tone, pages with densely-hatched or toned dark areas, pages with large black areas: in short, pages that would expose potential flaws in the printing.

I also asked them to include several different densities of black in their test pressing, so that I could judge what density they should aim at for the finished book. As discussed in previous installments, dot gain increases as ink density increases, so asking for a range allows you to select a sweet spot where the blacks and satisfying and rich, but the visible gain is (hopefully) minimal.

I also asked the press technician to check the signatures with his densiometer and write the density value(s) on the sheet, so there's a measurable metric to ask for when discussing the job.

Once we selected a target density range, I also asked Marquis to hang onto these press sheets to refer to when they were on press for the book itself.

Below is a wet proof from Friesens. Although these are Going Home pages, this was a proof attached to the Cerebus Volume One printing they put together in December 2016 (delivered to Diamond and released January 2017). Rather than being folded and gathered, these sheets (from their sheetfed offset press) were sent to me rolled up in a mailing tube. Notice the "color bars" in the trim areas of the sheet, used to tell dot gain at a glance.

And lastly, here's the press test for Minds, which will hopefully see print as soon as Diamond has moved the rest of their outstanding inventory for the previous printing of the book. Unlike every wet proof featured here, it actually uses pages from the volume we'll be printing! Very useful, as you can sneak in any difficult pages or things you're unsure about, and actually see them in print before going to press for realsies.

Lastly, cost.

A wet proof of a single signature should cost somewhere between $100 and $250 max. If a printer quotes you an amount significantly higher than that, they either think you're a sucker or they don't want your business. Or both, I suppose. If they quote you on the high end of that, you might try a. suggesting that another printer would do it for less (this really works! especially if it's true!) and/or b. ask that it be tied to the completion of the book. That is, "it's free if we do the book. Otherwise we'll pay $250" or something along those lines. Something that makes it clear—we're both on the same side. We both want me to give you all my money. And we both want me to be happy.

And really, can you expect any more from a business transaction?

Next week: More working with printers! And all of the amazing things they can do with their presses that cost more than your house (unless you live in southern California).

Sean Michael Robinson is a writer, artist, and musician. See more at


Anonymous said...

Oh! Wow! I now own that press test--the one shown above, with the 16 pages from MINDS. I received it in the mail yesterday from Sean, along with the copies of CEREBUS and MINDS, in which I had previously highlighted the suggested corrections for the remasterings.

Thanks, Sean!!!

Guess I owe you "between $100 and $250".

In case anyone is interested, the page numbers included on the press test are, in numerical order: 34, 40, 41, 97, 119, 126, 129, 130, 140, 153, 177, 179, 220, 221, 222, and 285. The latter page is the one where Dave does his best Bugs Bunny impression.

There is a handwritten notation next to page 41 (the Cirin page) that reads "K=1.30". I assume that was written by the printer. The press test itself measures 31 1/2 inches, horizontally, by 41 3/4 inches, vertically. It arrived folded six ways, so that it fit nicely in the box on top of the books.

The folds resulted in 16 "segments", each measuring slightly over or slightly under 8 inches, horizontally, and between 10 3/8 and 10 3/4 inches, vertically. Each comics image measured differently, with the largest image (Jupiter on page 47) being 7 inches, horizontally, by 9 3/8 inches, vertically. The page that reprises Jaka's Story, #140, measures 6 1/4 X 9 3/8 inches. The pages with the tape borders each measure 6 1/4 X 9 5/8 inches. Page 285 measures 6 3/8 X 9 1/4 inches. I assume that all of the measurements of the printed images will match those in the printed book.

So, there you have it--a one of a kind piece of CEREBUS ephemera that will cost a small fortune to have framed.

Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you, Sean and Dave!!!

--Jeff Seiler

Sean R said...

Hey Jeff!

The "K" measurement is the black density. K=the black ink plate in print terms, and the number is the density rating as measured by the pressman's densiometer.

Glad you enjoyed getting the sheet! It's actually a, ahem, 1/4 of a kind piece of Cerebus ephemera. They sent me 4 sheets, all with different densities. I still have two--you have one, and Lou C. has one. :) Send me a photo if you frame it! (better than spending a fortune--haunt your local thrift store until they have a terrible piece of framed art with the right sized glass and frame, and buy that sucker!)

Anonymous said...

But Sean, if each of the four press tests was at a different density, then doesn't mean that each of the four, technically, is a 1-of-1?


Travis Pelkie said...

At least you kept Jeff busy for a while measuring all this stuff....