Popular among the zine and small press community due to low production costs, Riso prints come with a naïve colourfulness that makes them seem easy to make. Appearances can be deceptive, though, as Risograph printing is a hard technique to learn, let alone master.
To create the perfect print requires finding the balance between your design and the way it will turn out best in print - and to know that the end result will always be a bit different than planned, such is its unpredictable nature.
To give advice on how to kickstart your own Riso print project, we've reached out to four artists with a long history of Risograph printing, beginning with We are Out of Office from the Netherlands.
Image: We are Out of Office
The Risograph is a kind of copy machine; on top of the machine there is a scanner table were you can put your original. More modern machines can also process digital files like a normal printer. The machine will print all colours separated, just like screen printing.
Inside the machine you can place a ‘drum’, which is a cylinder filled with one colour of ink and is covered with a metal screen filled with tiny holes.
When you start printing the machine makes a master, a sheet which will cover the screen of the drum. The master is a stencil and works the same as a silk screen. This will allow the ink to come through where it should, and will cut the ink off where you don’t want the ink to come through.
The rest is simple; the drum will turn around and the paper will pass through it. Where the master allows it, the ink will ‘stamp’ to the paper which leaves a print. If you want to print more colours you have to repeat this process with different drums and build your print layer by layer.
Our work needs bold and intense colours; digital prints look so dull next to Riso prints. The second factor is how the machine copes with grey tones; you can print one colour in all the tones at the same time, which means it's very easy to mix colours and get the nuances right.
Of course this can also be accomplished with offset printing, but that’s just way too expensive and not worth the work with small quantities. What we also like is that we can do it by ourselves, which means we can truly understand the printing process and adjust our use of colours and style to it.
First of all, when starting with Risograph printing don’t think about anything. Making mistakes can suck but it’s the best way to get to know the process as you can actually see what’s going wrong.
That said, there are some things to consider. When starting, try to narrow your colours down to two or three; when mixing these three colours you can already accomplish a ‘full colour’ feel. You want to print as few layers as possible in order to get the best result.
It can be hard to align each layer; some think that's the charm, others hate it. If you don’t like white lines in between colours, trap your design. This means you make each shape slightly bigger than it should be. An easy way for this when using vector images is by adding a little line in Illustrator.
Try not to hurry; the longer you wait in between layers, the neater the prints will turn out. If there is an ink stain on your paper you can erase it with a pencil eraser. Try not to make a perfect print, it’s just impossible.
The best way to learn is by doing. Start somewhere and when the printing is done reflect on how it went, what went well and what went wrong, and try to think about that working on your next design.
You need to be familiar with the limits of the process to get the most out of it. With Riso there are lots of limits that if not designed for can cause big problems down the line. Like all projects you have the campaign you want to communicate to the audience, but with Riso you have to design with these parameters in mind.
Typically, design for print is always confined to a budget no matter how large, and this will define the materials, quality and function for the end product. We would then design to best complement those materials, colour papers and finishes.
There is always more you can do to improve the quality of your files, and setting up files takes the most time; adding strokes to trap elements and improve registration, cleaning up scanned drawings, being mindful of the limitations of the process and managing your own expectations are all important.
The process was never designed to create art editions, so don’t expect to hit the ground running and create a perfect print on the first try.
A bad print doesn’t come so much out of choosing the wrong art work to print but more out of not choosing the correct format for that artwork.
Learning what images work well and what they should be made into takes time, and the advice of ourselves and people you can approach can help you make the best choice depending on your situation.
Artists that do well out of Riso printing as a business will probably say they made some expensive mistakes early on they’d sooner not repeat, for example a type of art work didn’t turn out so well, or a colour combination, or elements that didn't come out well on print.
Thinking about the long term value of the work you do and what you're building towards will outlast any short term flops. Success is about endurance, making better decisions with time, and staying true to your self as an artist.
Riso printing ticks so many boxes. It’s quick, cheap, ethical, not labor intensive, eco-friendly and looks great.
Riso suits my style as I love the irregularity of the textures and how the colours overlap each other in mis-alignment. It makes it look more handmade even though its done by a machine.
I often limit my colour palette to one or two colours and this perfectly suits this technique for printing. I wouldn’t say I’m a specialist in the field - I just love making Riso prints.
There aren't too many challenges and that’s the appeal to me. You do have to think in a clever way out how to use a limited colour plan and how not to layer too many inks on top of each other. That s a challenge I enjoy.
The maximum size of prints is A3 which might be limiting for some, but I like making postcard-sized prints.
I make my drawing and then scan it into Photoshop. Usually the image will have 2 layers each with a different colour. Make sure the layers are multiplied so they become ‘transparent’; that should give you an indication of how the finished print will look.
I then send my layered Photoshop file to the printers with colour instructions and what recycled paper I would like them printed on; they then return the finished product. I believe in getting the right people to make your prints for you so that you can concentrate on the designing.
I like to react to the surprises I get with analogue printing techniques. Etching gives all kinds of great textures, while in screen printing and Riso printing inks all blend differently. These techniques are also limited so you have boundaries to work in.
My illustration style is pretty flexible even though it might look complex since it's built from all these separate shapes (which is also nice when working on campaigns or products).
I think of Riso printing as a different, faster way of screen printing, even though there are a lot of other pros and cons. The similarity is you print separate colour layers over each other, so you can’t print multiple colours at once. (Ok, there are some machines with two drums which can print two separate colours right after each other, but it’s the same principle).
It all starts in my designs, where I keep colours separate. I usually design in 2-6 colours. You can also separate your colours in the CMYK or RGB channels, but it doesn’t give you as much control. Most people with a Riso printer have a limited amount of colours so first check which you can use.
Then you send your first colour layer to the machine in black and white; the black is 100% colour and the greys just give different intensities of the colour (you can also use the copy function if you decide to create the artwork by hand). Riso ink has to dry so I dry all prints and repeat with every colour.
I like that you can print large amounts pretty fast by yourself for a reasonable price. So it’s great for small gig posters, zines or a way of selling something else than your original works. Riso machines are not perfect and I like the quirks they give. I also like how it’s easy to experiment with the layers.
There are a lot of Riso printers out there, but everybody buys old machines and not every one is serviced well. So do try to find a machine or print studio with a good Riso printer to see what the possibilities are.
I learned a lot by letting the pros print my work and/or see how they do it and print together with them, side by side.