Design Tips: I Have Become Halftone, Destroyer of Shirts... (Part One)

by Travis Gentry

Don’t go any further.

You heard us. Stop reading right now.

“But I want to learn all about halftones!” you whine. “They’re just dots and lines and all my friends are doing them.”

We were all that naïve once. Little shirt designing Pandoras and Oppenheimers, playing with a shiny new toy we didn’t fully understand. And then BOOM! A shirt spewed forth from the Tenth Circle of Velvet Painting Hell! If we’d only known…

Still here? OK, then let’s do this thing. But consider yourself warned: halftones should be used responsibly. A little goes a very long way.

Halftone Dots in Photoshop – The Quick and Easy Method

1. Create a new layer as shown below in fig1.1. Use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill it with the color you want your halftones to be. I’ve used Pantone 2925C and labeled it accordingly. At the bottom of the layer window click the button called Add Layer Mask...


2. You’ve just created a mask for your layer. It’ll automatically be selected once created. The mask operates using a grayscale. White makes your layer completely visible, black completely transparent. Grays are all of the in-betweens. Use the paint bucket tool to fill in the mask with black. Your layer will now disappear as shown in fig1.2.


3. Draw what you want this layer to look like, using soft brushes or gradient fills as shown in fig1.3. You’re using white and grays on the layer mask, not color (if you see the color in your tools swatch instead of white or black you have the layer selected and not the mask).


4. Once you’re done drawing, go to Filter>Pixelate>Color Halftones as shown in fig1.3 above. Adjust your Max Radius and Channel 1, which controls the primary angle on your halftones. Press OK. There you go, halftones!


Tip: Note that Max Radius is the maximum size your dots will be, not the minimum. In other words you could set Max Radius to a high number, but if your layer has only a 1% visibility, the dots will still be too small to print. This is why we don’t provide a minimum setting here. A good rule of thumb is to avoid a lot of dots made up of only one or two pixels as the files will be scaled down in order to print women and kid’s sizes, sometimes by up to 50%. That’s right, the file size you’re submitting is for the men’s shirts only. We have to scale it down for women’s and kids sizes which means micro-details like one pixel halftones will be lost forever. Keep that in mind when applying your halftones.

Tip: Avoid 90 degree angles as they can produce a moiré pattern (weird grid patterns). Use an angle like 105 or 45. If the angle you try doesn’t work, try a few more until you get the desired results.

Halftone Dots and Lines in Photoshop – The Cool and Flexible Way (shared with us via the great patrickspens)

1. Draw your design on a new layer using gradients and soft edges as shown in fig2.1. Make sure you’re only doing one color per layer.


2. Select all of the art on the layer using the marquee tool. CTRL-C to copy to the clipboard.

3. Create a new file. The dimensions should automatically be set to the dimensions of the art you copied. Set the color mode to grayscale and press OK as shown in fig2.2 and press OK.


4. CTRL-V to post your layer into the new file as shown in fig2.3.

     4b. from patrickspens: You need to make your layer black before proceeding to step 5! The halftone conversion uses value (light to dark) to determine the thickness of the halftones. If you have a solid (fully opaque) light gray circle, and a solid black circle next to each other you will see when converted that the halftones are thin on the gray circle and thick on the black. In a nutshell if you have a very light color, the halftones will be nearly invisible, regardless of how opaque the original paint was. Making the paint black will ensure that the transparency is converted correctly. (thanks Patrickspens! I suggest using a black color overlay on your layer and then collapsing it down.)


5. Go to Image>Mode>Bitmap to covert the grayscale image to a bitmap. Click yes when prompted to flatten your file. If your original work is at 300dpi it should automatically be at that setting. Select Halftone Screen as shown in fig2.4 if it isn’t already and press OK.


6. Enter your desired lines per inch (30 is recommended officially by Woot), the style of the halftones (lines, dots, etc), and the desired angle as shown in fig2.5.


7. You’ve now created your halftones. Use the Magic Wand tool with contiguous unselected to select all of the black halftones. Ctrl-C to copy and Ctrl-V to paste into your original art file as shown in fig2.6.


8. Position your new halftones over the original gradients and hide the original. With your new halftone layer selected go to the layer’s blending options and add a Color Overlay with the color of your choice as shown in fig2.7


Tip: As stated in the previous method, when you set the LPI you’re only setting the maximum, not the minimum. Even with a high LPI setting you could have a design that it mostly one pixel thick lines or dots. Your main goal should be to ensure that as little of the design as possible will disappear when scaled down.

Tip: Using Color Overlay on a layer is a great way to make sure each layer has its own unique color. Even if you accidentally have a different color selected before drawing, it will automatically make it the color you wanted for that layer. Once you’re satisfied your layer is done, create a new layer above it, select both, and Ctrl-E to collapse them together.

There you have it, two easy ways to make all of your halftone nightmares dreams come true. Next time we’ll cover Illustrator and some of the available halftone plug-ins.