The Dawn of Simulated Process Color
At a time that many high-end garment printers were struggling to produce realistic images in CMYK, an artist took an entirely different approach that would eventually take the industry by storm.
In our special Innovation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on an important technology in the industry today. Here, we take a deep dive into the development of simulated process color.
Around the time that printed T-shirts were becoming the uniform for American teenagers in the mid-1970s, the artwork of the medium began to grow beyond line art and boldly lettered slogans. Litho transfers such as the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit photograph created a new demand for realistic images on apparel. The problem was that litho-printed transfers were uncomfortable to wear and had terrible durability, causing them to quickly fall out of favor with consumers.
Screen printers were poised to fill the void, but none had figured out how to get a process-color image onto a shirt. “The consensus was it couldn’t be done,” says Mark Coudray, who by the time of the litho transfer boom had changed his major at Cal Poly from mechanical engineering to graphic communication and devoted his thesis to the limitations of halftone screen printing. He began playing with process-color prints onto shirts while still at the university, quickly realizing that the halftone work of the day was being done for other printing processes at line counts that screen printing was incapable of reproducing. “I found a guy who could do separations, but the coarsest screen he had was 85 lines,” Coudray remembers, laughing, “so that’s what I had to start with.”
The award-winning Nocona Boot series, produced by Mark Coudray of Serigraphic Designs in 1979, was the first four-color process shirt to feature a highlight white.
He taught himself tricks with a process camera that gave him more suitable line counts for screen printing, but this was just the first of many obstacles. The transparency of CMYK inks – the quality that allows them to produce secondary and tertiary shades through the overlapping of halftone dots – exposed every limitation of the garment screen printing technology of the day. And there were many, from the quality of the inks, meshes, stencil systems, and printing equipment to the countless variables that had to be controlled in order to get consistent results.
“It was a time when we learned that our squeegees had to be sharp, our tensions had to be correct, the [emulsion] coating had to be consistent,” recalls Andy Anderson of Anderson Studio. “Everything had to be documented and dialed in so the variables were controlled. It was a very involved process, and very technical, and if you didn’t have all of your procedures and elements in place, the outcome was iffy, at best.”
Pioneers like Coudray and Anderson soon discovered the advantages of supplementing CMYK with additional colors. “We’d always been using touch plates and bump plates because you couldn’t get a good red or a deep royal blue,” Coudray says. “The process-color inks that were available then were horrible. I used photographic masking and multiple contacting techniques to reverse and drop colors out, as opposed to just dropping a red on top of a yellow and magenta. We were always concerned about having too much ink down on the garment, so that meant removing the yellow and magenta in the correct densities, and it involved a lot of calculations.”
By the late 1970s, Andy Anderson was using solid color inks through halftones to produce dramatic color blends.
In 1979, Coudray’s award-winning Nocona Boot series included the first four-color process shirt that incorporated a highlight white into the print sequence. By the early 1980s, Anderson (who would also go on to win awards for his process-color work) began printing solid color inks through halftones to produce line art with rich color blends. But a newcomer to the industry soon took those ideas in a radical new direction.
A Different Kind of Process Print
In 1983, Dave Gardner was a few months short of receiving a B.F.A. in oil painting from SUNY Buffalo when he headed to Texas seeking a job as an illustrator. He spotted an ad from a Fort Worth company called 3D Emblem that was looking for an artist to produce designs for Harley-Davidson T-shirts. Though he had no professional screen printing experience, Gardner had experimented with it since he was 15. “My parents gave me a Hunt Speedball home kit and I started making my own Kiss shirts,” he recalls. “I started out with one-color prints, and then I figured out I could airbrush on additional colors. I had the drive to do more complex things, and eventually I began making my own heat transfers.”
What may be the first simulated process-color print, a 1984 Harley-Davidson design and the first work Dave Gardner did at 3D Emblem.
Gardner joined the industry right as the stakes for producing branded apparel grew exponentially higher. Within two weeks of starting at 3D Emblem, he says the company received a cease and desist letter from Harley-Davidson, which resulted in them becoming one of the first three licensed producers of apparel for the brand. The artwork wouldn’t just be sold to individual dealers any longer – it had to be great.
To Gardner, the challenge of bringing an iconic brand to life on the canvas of a black T-shirt inspired him to combine the techniques he had learned in art school with his earlier screen printing experiments. “My idea was basically to take what I had been doing with a transfer and print it in reverse. With transfers, you would start with the colors through a high mesh count and then finish with a low mesh white behind it so that it would stick to the shirt.” He realized that if he started by direct printing a similarly thick layer of ink and flashing it, he’d get a canvas of sorts onto which he could render highly intricate details.
A 1980 Serigraphic Designs four-color process shirt done with water-based inks and a highlight white.
But instead of attempting to reproduce a photographic image through process color, Gardner developed his own highly individual approach. He would start with simple line art or a photograph and use a Rapidograph to make a master black-and-white drawing, from which he would then create individual color separations by hand. “No full-color art existed,” he explains. “It was all created with black-and-white plates, kind of in my head visualizing what the final art was going to look like. To this day, when I think about the work that I put in, maybe 40 hours doing one separation, I don’t know that I could do it now.”
Because the company only had an eight-color press at the time, Gardner realized that further creativity would be needed to achieve the spectrum of colors he envisioned. Significantly, he decided to use a brown underbase instead of the traditional white. Beyond freeing up a print station and flashing much more efficiently than white, the brown allowed Gardner to get greater depth of color by printing on and off the underbase.
To get around the limited number of print stations, he decided to print everything but the underbase wet on wet, an unorthodox practice with design advantages others had not yet discovered. “As they say, paradigm shifts usually come from somebody who’s got no clue,” he laughs. “To me, I was just creating an oil painting on a shirt. Other people looked at screen buildup with ink picking up on the back of the screens as a negative, and tried to flash it and control the dot; I looked at it more like a palette knife. It was something that was going to help me blend the color underneath. I used it to my advantage.”
Another of Gardner’s early Harley-Davidson shirts from 1984.
Coudray says that this wet-on-wet, “smashed dot” technique was a big factor in the success of Gardner’s work. “The thing that was really cool was that he understood the relationship of the underbase to [color] saturation,” Coudray explains. “This is one of the reasons he was able to get such great-looking flesh tones, because the dot gain that is normally really intense in the highlight areas was now mixing with wet white, and in the process, it caused the color to pastel back.”
More than 30 years later, those early Harley-Davidson prints are still astonishing. “Dave’s work kind of set the foundation and the bar,” says Anderson. “It was very dynamic for what we were seeing in four-color process work back then, because it used solid colors to get all the forms and shadows of a full-color piece of art. It was very refined.” For the next few years, though, the work would remain known mostly to Harley enthusiasts until Gardner returned to Buffalo and entered into one of the most productive partnerships in the history of the industry.
An early simulated process print done in 1991 by Serigraphic Designs.
Meanwhile, process-color printing advanced throughout the 1980s as the technology improved and printers learned to tame the many variables, the subject of Joe Clarke’s book, “Control Without Confusion” (developed from a series of articles published in Screen Printing in 1985-86). Coudray remembers when a local separator purchased an early drum scanner, eliminating the painstaking logarithmic calculations he had been doing in his darkroom to get the reproduction quality he wanted. Soon after, he bought a used Crosfield 640 and was among the first to interface it to a Macintosh computer. “It was a hack to the system,” he explains. “We intercepted and jumped the signal out of the Crosfield, ran it through a special computer to interpret the signal, and sent it to a Quadra 950 where we could manipulate it and output the film to an imagesetter.”
When Simulated Process Went Viral
Jon Weiss was a motorcycle fanatic and the third-generation owner of New Buffalo Shirt Factory, then a small screen-printing business in Buffalo. He had done some Harley designs before the company started its licensing program. Soon, he began seeing shirts at his local dealer with prints like nothing he had seen before, all featuring the signature of the artist, Dave Gardner. “He did one that was an image of a panhead motor, and what fascinated me was that in the reflection of the chrome air cleaner, you could see an image of somebody taking a picture,” Weiss remembers. “That kind of stuff just blew my mind.”
Then one day, he got a call from a young artist who explained that he was semi-retired and looking to do contract work with a local printer. Weiss quickly realized that the caller had worked with all of the companies that then held Harley licenses, and asked him his name. “He said, ‘Dave Gardner,’ and I said ‘Oh my God. I’m wearing one of your shirts right now.’ It was the panhead shirt, my favorite.”
They met, trying to find common ground as Gardner explained that he was looking for a set fee for each design and the accompanying separations, as well as a substantial royalty on orders that exceeded 6000 pieces. Realizing that they shared a love of sports, Weiss suggested that they take Gardner’s distinctive look into a new vertical niche.
Dave Gardner at New Buffalo Shirt Factory, in the mid-2000s.
Gardner went home and created a design of the then-Los Angeles Raiders mascot that started with a selfie he took with a dagger in his mouth. He called Weiss with puzzling instructions to buy specific inks from several different manufacturers. “So he came in with this film, and we burned the screens, and we set them up,” Weiss remembers. “I had to put screens in every head and flash in the unload station. We printed three shirts and I was absolutely dumbfounded. By the time he got to me, he had the entire process dialed in.
“I remember taking that shirt, going home at one in the morning, throwing it at my wife in bed, and saying, ‘We’re going to be millionaires.’”
This 1992 shirt from New Buffalo celebrating the back-to-back championships of the Chicago Bulls was worn by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the Bulls victory parade through Chicago instead of the official shirt the players were supposed to wear. A photo published the next day in USA Today of the players wearing this shirt led to hundreds of thousands sold.
Weiss and Gardner took that initial print to the NFL’s offices in New York hoping to obtain a license. Though they were initially rejected due to their unconventional pricing, they realized the same design effects would work at the collegiate level, where licenses were easier to acquire at the time. Soon, they had 38 universities under contract and a network of over 500 independent reps, taking New Buffalo Shirt Factory’s sales from $200,000 to $1.2 million in Gardner’s first year on the job.
One of Gardner’s favorite shirts from 1997, after New Buffalo had taken its look to the music industry.
Before long, the company cracked the NFL, doing Super Bowl shirts as well as a highly popular line known as Intense Mascots. The look that Gardner had pioneered – for which Weiss would soon coin the name “simulated process color” – caught the attention of printers around the country. “Andy Anderson and I would buy the Super Bowl shirts and take them back to Andy’s shop,” Coudray remembers. “We literally got out X-Acto knives and were scraping the things under a microscope to see what the print order was and what they were actually doing. I mean, it was brilliant work.”
Gardner remembers meeting printers at shows who had looked at his prints under a loupe and couldn’t figure out what he was doing. “They’d ask me what halftone line counts I was using because they couldn’t see any dots,” he says. “I’d tell them I was just using a 27-line or 32-line screen and they didn’t believe me. The dots disappeared because they were printed wet on wet and the back of the screens were mixing the colors. People who were imitating us were trying to run like 120-line screens and flashing every color.”
New Buffalo Shirt Factory quickly grew and acquired state-of-the-art presses that made flashing at the unload station unnecessary and enabled Gardner to achieve his color effects using more screens with dedicated colors. But he never abandoned his basic approach. “Even in a shop with 14 presses, the technical expertise varies,” he says. “Not every press operator is going to be able to print cleanly and hold their dots. So I kind of reduced it to the most common factors, and tried to standardize my meshes, standardize my squeegees, and control everything from the separation process. Basically, all I had to do was get it up and in register, and the job took care of itself.”
Adds Weiss: “What makes Dave a brilliant separator is that anybody could print his work. You just put ink on the screens and blasted it out.”
By the mid-1990s, the simulated process color look achieved by artist Dave Gardner and the team at New Buffalo Shirt Factory was wildly popular. New Buffalo owner Jon Weiss is depicted in the lower left of the design.
As desktop publishing gave more printers the ability to advance their separation techniques and experiment with simulated process color, Weiss and Gardner successfully took their distinct look into other vertical markets, including music. You can see echoes of their work to this day, when the average printer is still intimated by process color.
“When all this came out and took the industry by storm, printers were impressed with the vibrancy and dimensionality of the process,” says Weiss. “They were equally impressed that they no longer had to print 100 percent on the underbase. And that was Dave Gardner, because nobody knew how to do it before him. They could come close using four-color process over a 100-percent underbase, but it was Dave’s manipulation of the underbase and his understanding of ink opacity that made the process brilliant.”
Read more from Screen Printing's December 2017/January 2018 Innovation Issue.