Using Illustrator’s Live Trace to Create B+W Screen Printable Images

When creating images that will be exposed for screen printing, it’s best to create a high contrast black and white image to print onto your transparency. Anything black will be the areas where you’d want ink. I love to use my own photographs as screen printing inspiration. Using Photoshop and Illustrator, you can create high contrast black and white images in no time. Illustrator’s Live Trace function will be our best friend in this tutorial.

First, pick a photograph of an object you’d like to convert. Here is a very unartsy snapshot of a friend’s telephone that I thought looked pretty cool and would look nifty on a shirt or purse as a one-colour screen print design.

If you import the image into Illustrator and click on the image, you’ll see Live Trace as one of the options in the main toolbar:

There are many presets available, but I usually end up using Default, Comic Art, or One Colour Logo for screen print designs. The problem with photos like this one is that the background is in similar shades of lightness and darkness, so the object ends up being undefined:

To correct this problem, use Photoshop’s magic wand tool combined with the brush tool to white out the entire background. You can also fix other problematic areas of the source photograph as well if you are worried about the problems showing up the final design. A plus of screen printing: vintage style designs are popular, so little imperfections can look great!

Now when you import the image into Illustrator, the effect is much better:

Threshold: 56
Threshold: 196

Hand Drawn Sketch with extreme threshold values can create an entirely different look.

Once you have performed a live trace, you’ll have options in the main menu bar to change the trace preset and adjust the threshold. Threshold is value that determines what is converted to white and what is converted to black. Any colour value lower than the threshold value becomes white, everything higher becomes black. You can create dramatically different images from the same photograph by changing the threshold value as pictured above.

Keep in mind before printing: If you are printing directly from Illustrator, make sure that you resize the image to fit onto the 8x5x11″ canvas, otherwise your design could be too large or too small. Be sure to do a print preview before printing! Remember, you can also adjust your print using Illustrator or Photoshop before printing if you want to clean up some of the lines, or you can even draw directly onto your transparency with markers to thicken lines.

Test out this tutorial with photographs you have taken. Ordinary objects take on new life when converted to high contrast black and white!

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