How to Start Designing T-shirt Art

Published Jun. 27th 2013

Pretty much everyone wears t-shirts when they want to relax, work out, or create a funky outfit for a night out. So why not reach that huge market by placing your art on t-shirts?

You can create your own t-shirt line and sell them online through a variety of websites. Or you can approach licensing companies about having your artwork included in one of their ranges. This article will explain the basics of what you need to know about creating your own t-shirt designs as an artist.

What type of art works best on t-shirts?

When it comes to printing t-shirts, some designs work better than others. This is mostly because the equipment used for printing t-shirts has specific requirements.

For screen-printed t-shirts, each color in your design needs a separate layer during the printing process. The screen-printing method means it’s difficult (not impossible, but difficult) to get color gradients, so it’s best to produce your design in block colors.

In addition, because the printer needs to create a new layer for each color you use, the more colors in your design, the more complicated (and therefore expensive) the printing process will be.

For best results, keep things simple and stick to a palette of less than three colors.

Designing your t-shirt

Many artists adapt some of their existing artwork for t-shirts, but you can also come up with all new designs.

Think about how a t-shirt is worn – where will the elements of the design appear on the body? The shape of the human body will warp the image, so think about this as you place design elements. Some designs even play with this warping, with design elements that only make sense when the shirt is worn.

Also think about who will eventually be wearing your shirt. Who is your target audience? (This might be very different from your fine art audience.) What colors and styles do they like? What is selling in stores right now? Researching trends in your target market can give you great ideas for t-shirt designs.

Once you’ve settled on a layout, begin by scanning or importing your design into a vector-based program like Adobe Illustrator. From there, you can manipulate or recreate the design to be used in the printing process.

Here are a few tips to ensure that your final t-shirt looks exactly like you envisioned it:

• Create your t-shirt artwork entirely as a vector image
• Make your artwork the actual size you want it to appear on your t-shirt
• Convert any text to outlines before finalizing your design
• Save your finished design in PMS colors (not RGB or CMYK)

Creating your own t-shirt line

One design does not a profitable t-shirt line make. Most artists will create a few different designs to sell. This allows you to experiment with designs and styles and see what is most popular.

Once you’ve created 3-5 different designs, you can start thinking about where and how to sell them. You can either:

1. Print them yourself through a printer.
After getting them printed, you’ll want to get your t-shirts stocked by local stores, or sell them yourself at events or through a website. The disadvantage of this method is that it requires a significant investment up front and you may end up with several boxes of t-shirts you can’t sell.

2. Use a print-on-demand service.
Print-on-demand websites act as an online store—they’ll take orders from customers, then print and even ship out your items. This is a great way to offer your t-shirts with a low up-front cost. The disadvantage is that you can’t control shipping and you’ll usually earn a smaller profit than if you were assuming all the risk yourself.

3. License your t-shirt designs to a company.
Many clothing companies look for designs to license for their own lines. Getting a licensing contract for t-shirt designs is a great boost, since the company will have much wider distribution channels than you have on your own. The disadvantage is that a licensing deal for t-shirts can be hard to get, and the market is very competitive.

However you choose to sell your t-shirt designs, the process of creating and marketing them will give you some excellent hands-on experience in a different, and very unique, artistic medium.

Good luck! Here are some additional resources that may help as well:

T-Shirt Forum – a great place to research markets and learn about the business of designing and selling t-shirts.

I Am The Trend – another great resource for learning more about the t-shirt business.

How to Start a Clothing Company – advice for artists wanting to get serious about designing their own t-shirts.

Zazzle – a popular website for artists to upload designs to be printed on demand onto a variety of canvases, products and apparel items.

Society6 – another great print-on-demand website with high quality products.

Threadless – a creative community of designers and artists creating great t-shirts.

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