Printing gradients

Looking for advice on the best way to print a gradient.

I’m doing a small run of personal business cards, therefore I have a small budget and would like to avoid offset. My gradient is an organic shape (not linear or radial) and it’s in greyscale.

I’m worried that digitally printing a gradient will look bad — has anyone digitally printed a gradient and been happy with the results?

Alternatively, would a different technique work, such as screenprinting or risograph?

Thanks for your advice…

In the context of printing, “digital” is a fairly ambiguous term that doesn’t actually describe any specific print method. It might rule out or displace some fully analog process or other, but simply calling it “digital” doesn’t say anything about what’s going on the paper and how it’s getting there. In fact, I might argue that there is no such thing as fully digital printing. It’s pretty much always a data-actuated mecho-analog method.

But I’ll end my ranting there and ask what you mean by “digitally”? Laser printer? Inkjet?

I print “digital” gradients all the time. As in inkjet. REALLY BIG inkjet.

Where you say the gradient is grayscale, I wouldn’t so much be worried about your gradient being smooth if you are printing using black ink on white card stock (white ink on black stock, different story.)

I’d be more worried about your grayscale actually printing gray. Any kind of gray created with a CMYK mix is going to want to shift pink (magenta) or green (cyan.) So if you make a rich black and create a percentage of that as gray, you may run into issues depending on where you send it to be printed. A grayscale created with just the K channel is at the mercy of the ink itself. Some K black inks are reddish in nature; some are bluish; with red being the majority. Depends on who makes the ink.

Most reliable printers will keep their grays neutral thru profile/ISO/Gracol/other checks. These days, it’s all about the skill and level of caring of the print vendor.

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And if it is really important to your image, get a proof. Or live with the results. Budget is budget but your image creates that budget, right?

Digital machines vary wildly in quality especially with tints and grey is one of the worst. A gradient shows this up even more.

For digital - ask for a printed proof. It should cost nothing or very little and if you’re not happy, go somewhere else.

We use a RISO machine for forms and NCR but only on jobs without any tint - the results are unacceptable.

Screen printing might be ok if you don’t mind 85dpi but would normally cost more than digital.

It might be just us, but the denier of the fabric we have to use to do halftones in silk screen would be completely unacceptable on something as small as a business card.

We charge $75 for a press proof just to cover materials and man hours. Very reasonable imo.

But to get a press proof for a business card is a bit of overkill.

Not for digital

For gang run digital, proofing is usually done in batches. You aren’t setting up a press for one card.

Yeah, for digital.

If someone’s sending you free press proofs I’d like to know who so I can speak with them. My guess is they’re probably printing from a desktop that is color synced to their press - because - from start to finish, a press proof can take from 1 hour to 1/2 day depending on color matching. If you are getting a PRESS proof, you are running it on an industrial press. So you are paying for the setup, press time, materials, and man hours.

I missed the part about costing nothing… That doesn’t happen very often (it does happen though under very certain circumstances.)
Color matching is a separate charge altogether.
The most I’ve paid for a conventional gang-run digital proof (like for a 4-color brochure) was somewhere in the vicinity of $25-50. If it has anything to do with your brand image and if it is color critical, that is not a lot to pay for a proof.

We do labels, that’s why we’re $75.

We do free press proofs if we’re running a large job or for a long-term customer and can eat the cost, but we do minimum orders of 500 labels, so that would be the bulk of our profit it it were free.

I’m a bit late on my reply to this one, but here’s some advice from a digital, cut sheet print operator for 13+ years, I now work installing digital presses, training new operators, and doing color analyst work.

a simple answer is, depending on the density or %value of the K channel, greyscale gradients appear somewhat grainy. The press has no choice but to separate it’s dither or dot pattern to create a halftone and essentially use the human eye to fill the gaps. The lighter the gradient the more grainy it will appear.

The solution would be to use a rich grey to create the piece. However, the press operator must be diligent in creating a neutral grey for you - and you must be diligent in choosing the correct formula to assist the operator in doing this. Asking the printer would be the best approach.

Also keep mind, neutral in one environment is not neutral in all environments. The phenomenon is called chromatism, no, not like in music, but when certain lighting conditions are either absorbed or reflected back to viewer. Tungsten lighting can make a grey appear warm, while florescent has a cooling affect.

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This was sort of touched upon, but not specifically mentioned unless I missed something.

Neutral grays composed of CMYK (or any other ink combinations) are problematic since it takes a perfect balance of those colors to keep the gray neutral. Get the magenta printing a percent or two heavier, and the neutral gray will begin to look pinkish. The same is true of the other color — any shift is readily apparent. It’s best to deliberately make a warm or a cool gray, which isn’t so easily shifted to another color tint if the ink density of one of the inks is a tiny bit off.

Gradients make this problem even more difficult since, depending on the output device and what you’re creating, banding artifacts can occur. For example, a 5% density can suddenly shift to 6% or 7% or more, causing a noticeable shift. Since not all the bands of the different inks/plates/separations shift the same way or at the same spot, you can end up, for example, with a rainbow effect of a pinkish-gray band right next to a bluish-gray band. Once again, if you deliberately shift the entire gradient to a warm or cool gray, the potential banding isn’t nearly as noticeable.

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I did mention the red-blue shift above, but I forgot about the banding variances.
I see that more in color gradients, especially light blue ones where everything is going along fine until about 8-10 percent and you get that one big magenta band in there (if the blue has a magenta channel.)

And totally off topic, with RGB (Lambda, Lightjet) photo prints, when doing grayscale you can get processor shift. Especially if doing a large run. Everything starts off nice and neutral but as the chemicals “warm up” things start shifting magenta. Irksome.

The banding issue will be prominent in gradients that fill a fast coverage area. Isolated graphics shouldn’t band unless there’s something wrong with a charge roller or charge wire (for digital anyway).

As for the neutral grey, intentionally choosing a cool or warm grey is actually a good idea. Neutral grey is only neutral under a D50 lamp or in direct sunlight. Not the most ideal environments for viewing prints.


There’s a whole nuther level to neutral gray if you are using it on a TV studio set either frontlit or when backlighting it with LEDs. With backlit, you have to balance it to the type of white light on the strips (Usually cool white 6500K.)
Then you camera test it to make sure it doesn’t blow out.

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Good stuff!

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