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How to Create Successful Distressed Effects

(February/March 2017) posted on Tue Feb 28, 2017

Everything old is new again, making distressed garment effects highly popular with today’s apparel buyer. Learn to create simple, original designs that will avoid the on-press problems such artwork can cause.

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By Thomas Trimingham

1. Save the design with a background that approximates the shirt color and pattern that it will be printed on.
2. Import the photo and place it off to the side of the design.
3. Reduce the gamut of the photo by changing the mode into grayscale.
4. Adjust the photo to knock out the midtones using the curves adjustment.
5. Change the image back into a monochrome bitmap.
6. Place the photo into a powerclip to control where it shows. (In Illustrator, the powerclip is called a nested object.)
7. Place the distress image over the design and adjust the powerclip if necessary.
8. You may need to duplicate and/or reduce the powerclip with the distress overlay to get it just right.

Often, you may need to combine several effects or textures in one design. Prepare each element using the steps above, then place the different distress elements onto the design and overlap or blend them as you wish. Use a separate powerclip for each distress effect so you can carefully control the placement and location of each element.

Creating digital mockups of the design when you’re finished is easy. In CorelDraw, a monochrome bitmap with no fill will appear transparent; you can set the outline color to match the shirt color so it gives the illusion that it has knocked out that part of the design. With a distress filter, the monochrome bitmap will show the background image as transparent, and you can set the distressed pieces to black or whatever color the outline is. To do your separations, set the outline color to white so that it extracts the distress pattern out of the positive film.

Toning Down and Blending Distress Filters
When using multiple distress effects on one project, it’s easy to overdo it and cause too much breakdown of the original design. To avoid this problem, set up some of the distress layers as halftones in your design software so they will be adjustable percentages instead of 100-percent knockouts. In CorelDraw, you do this by converting a grayscale design to a bitmap image and then assigning the halftone pattern and frequency to it. This technique is particularly useful when distressing typography because you may not want to distress whole parts of the letters, but would still like the worn-out effect to show.

One final method that is very useful when working with type is to create an inside contour for the letters and contain the distressed effect to just that area. This prevents the edge of the fonts from being degraded, avoiding many of the legibility issues that can cause client complaints while still capturing some cool-looking patterns in your design.

Using distress filters doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process or a last-minute race to slap a bunch of cracks on your artwork. With the right tools, photos, and methods, you can use these effects to help lift the appeal of the artwork and add a vintage feel without damaging the integrity of the design. The right distress filter can work wonders on a logo when it is added thoughtfully, and it can be the finishing touch to integrate all of the elements of the design and turn it into a bestseller.

Check out Thomas Trimingham's distinction between grunge and distress effects or learn about four mistakes to avoid when creating distressed designs.

Read more from Screen Printing's February/March special garment issue.


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