Kew Gardens Risograph Crop

Kew Gardens Risograph Close-Up printed by Colour Code Printing

While taking a screen printing class in the summer of 2012, I began to explore ways of simplifying my creative process by drawing in layers and using a limited colour palette. Even though I still feel more comfortable working in greyscale, screen printing forced me to give my colour choices more thought. It was a summer of over-air conditioned rooms, buying stacks of expensive cotton rag paper, and building arm muscles (well…kind of?) from pulling inks across large screens. Screen printing was a new, summer love that I didn’t want to say goodbye to once September arrived. 

Sadly, screen printing requires having a reasonably large studio space, proper ventilation, the ability to rinse off large emulsion-cured screens with toxic chemicals, not to mention vacuum tables*, and an UV exposure unit* (which you of course you don’t need, but I was spoiled when working at the OCADU printmaking studios). It also takes the better part of your afternoon, if not longer if something goes wrong (something almost always goes wrong). Without any of the aforementioned at home, I thought I should stick to pencils and photoshop until the next time I won the lottery**. 

It wasn’t until a few years later that risograph printing started popping up as an experimental method of printing that has a similar look and set up process as screen printing. Although risograph printers were originally designed as high-speed photocopy printers, artists and printmakers adopted it for its ability to print one colour at a time in soy-based inks. One particular draw was its capability to print in fluorescent and metallic colours that aren’t typically available in digital printers. Risograph printers allowed artists to reproduce their work economically using a method that was less messy than screen printing, but with a similar aesthetic. 

Risograph Printing Set Up + Colour Breakdown

Kew Gardens Riso Print Expectation Vs. Reality

Expectation vs. Reality: left is colour mockup using Pantone colour codes, right is actual risograph print.

This Kew Gardens illustration is my one of my first attempts at printing risograph (Everyday Magic was printed by Cabin Journal, and a few Rock Bottom illustrations were printed by Rivet/Shift), and although it didn’t totally turn out the way I envisioned, I learned a lot about the process to improve upon for next time!

A few things I sort of knew but didn’t really understand:

  • Pantone codes provided are just a guide, eyeballed by the printers to match their inks to make colour mock ups easier.
  • In order to print a colour at 100% saturation, you need to set the colour to 100% black on your colour separations – don’t just convert each layer to greyscale (ex: light colours like yellow would print too light). I somehow understood this when setting up my fluorescent orange and yellow layers, but not the sky blue layer as it printed much lighter than I anticipated.
  • Each colour reacts differently with one another; some colours are more translucent and this determines the order in which it’s printed.
  • The more colours you use, the harder it is to register. It’s usually best to stick to using 2-3 colours!
  • You can mix colours yourself by layering different transparencies of colours – after all, regular digital printers only print using 4 colours (CMYK)! This was how I was able to print browns and light-medium greens.
  • It is an experimental method of printing that has the potential to yield different results each time you print! It is dependant on the order the colours are printed, which is usually determined by the printer.

Pictured below are the colour separation files I sent to the printer. Even with screen printing experience, I found it quite hard to wrap my head around how to separate my colours into layers since I chose to print an illustration that I had completed without the forethought of printing it as a risograph print.

Kew Gardens Colour Separations Breakdown

Colour separation breakdown: Sky blue, Fluorescent Orange, Yellow, Dark Green.


Kew Gardens Print Picture

Kew Gardens Print | 1st Edition of 25

Thank you to Jenny & Jesjit from Colour Code Printing for printing my illustration, and also for patiently answering my many questions about the whole risograph printing process! Check out their Instagram to see other local Toronto pieces they’ve printed.

The Kew Gardens Risograph Print featured in this post can be purchased on my Etsy Store.

** I won a coupon for free ice cream from McDonald’s when I was six, for solving a puzzle in a school newspaper that my mom definitely helped me solve.