Every piece of art that comes into BKNY Printing goes through the hands of Nacona Fierro. And when you’re in the craft of creating t-shirts, that’s a big deal.
As Art Department Color Separator (official title) at the Jamaica Avenue screen-printing shop, Fierro has her hands full – and she pretty much loves it.
“Every piece of art that comes in has to be checked because none of the artwork is ever camera ready to go straight to print,” Fierro said. “I basically output hundreds of pieces of film a week.”
When she’s not at BKNY Printing (who has printed t-shirts for the likes of JAY-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent and Busta Rhymes), Fierro is lassoing creative projects through her own company, Pixel Pop Creative, where she has designed posters for Creep, one of Lauren Flax’s bands and MEN. She’s also gearing up for a debut deejaying gig at Pearl’s Social and Billy Club in Bushwick this winter.
Here Fierro takes us through the t-shirt printing process (which she describes as a craft) and she shares the new trend she’s seeing among t-shirt designers.
In this process, what do you mean by film?
The film is the output process that we go to make the screens. So the art comes in digitally and I have to take it apart and bring it down into colors and each color is processed into each piece of film. So if it’s a six-color job we need six pieces of film.
I would imagine you would have to be really specific on colors. How do you make sure their red is your red?
Right. Everyone uses a universal color scheme – Pantone. So Chevy will have a red, that is the Chevy red, that is Chevy Red 285 or whatever. So the guys mix the color based on the Pantone color system that tells them what the exact values are of 285 so it will look the same across the board. Clients will come in and be like, Oh we want green. And we’ll sort of have to push them to pick a green because it’s like what green?
Can you take me through the process of when you actually get a new customer? What are the steps and how long does it take usually?
Someone will come in and say I want to put my logo on a t-shirt, what do I need to do? I advise them to make sure that all their stuff is high res and at size. You want to start off on the right foot – not using web graphics or anything that is 72 DPI because it will come out too pixilated.
Getting the art in the right way is half the battle.
People who are starting out with their brands or who have done this before will give us a tech pack. On the tech pack, it will say, my logo is a black truck and whatever else and they’ll have three colors and they’ll give us exact size and placement and the technique. There are different techniques that you can print with, like different types of inks. For example, say they want the wheels to be black suede or there to be a blue foil on the bumper. The tech pack will lift out every exact detail to the tee.
Is that something you give them?
Well, it’s funny. If a client knows what they are doing they will give us a tech pack and we are sort of speaking the same language already. We just confirm what that is, because a lot of things can go wrong and humans make mistakes. We regurgitate their information on our own spec sheet and we send that back to the customer to confirm Yes, I want this on blue shirts. I want this color wave to be white black and red on this shirt and make sure it’s the upper left chest, the back is printed and the sleeve prints and make sure you remove the label and insert the tag. They go, Great yes OK and then we get the order. Then I get the art in.
What percentage of your customers give you tech packets?
It’s funny we were just talking about this. Right now we feel the shift. We have a ton of street label brands that are start-ups, that are coming in and they are starting their own t-shirt line. Where before we’d have maybe 50/50, like the mechanic or plumber or the restaurant across the street or a magazine. Right now we are dealing with so many streetwear brands it’s almost like we’re in production mode constantly and transcribing information, which is great for us. It’s way more efficient and people are almost getting it in a certain way. A streetwear brand will start a line and will have 10 designs minimum, five or six colors a pop and that’s a big order for so and so’s label. Right now it’s probably about 75 percent streetwear. And they will give us the tech pack.
When the art hits your desk, then what happens?
There’s like two basic ways in Photoshop and Illustrator – one is a pixel base photo the other one is vector. Logos, for example, are vector. I just basically have to take it apart. What is predetermined is, okay, We are going to do these six colors, figure it out. So it’s like a puzzle -especially when something has a photographic realistic image in it, I have to make it work because that isn’t separated, so I have to combine colors to make other colors. If it’s a spot color then it’s pretty much straightforward. But I dissect it, deconstruct it and then output it to film and then it goes back to the screen room. My job ends there. I have to make sure everything is correct so it’s a lot of really meticulous, weird detail work. Like, I’ll spot a two-pixel line out of placement if a color is overlapping. For example, there were some triangles overlapping and some of the colors weren’t matching up so it just looked weird, and it was because their graphic designer had all this space in between triangles – some were touching some of them weren’t. I just cleaned everything up and it completely streamlined it. So it’s like weird stuff like that I have to catch. I have a newspaper background and I was making ads [for the Portland Phoenix in Maine] before and from that and doing Firework it just sort of becomes innate.
So the art is done. Then what?
The guys take it back into the screen room and they lay up the film on the screens. And they get burned with a light table, so the screen is coated with emulsion. What they are burning is the light through the screen so the positive image is getting burned into the screen. After it gets through with the light table they rinse away the positive image in water so that the ink will flow through. Then it goes to the printer, he registers it and starts making samples. Then the printing takes place.
Once printed does the customer check it? Do they want a spec or are you just done and print it?
Both ways. We definitely have some meticulous customers that know what they are doing and say I need to see a sample, don’t print anything before I see a sample.
But what we’ve been actually doing a lot lately is sending pictures of samples. We’ll print one sample, take a picture of it, a couple of close-ups with the detail, send it to the client and they will be held on press until they say, ‘Yes print it.’
So it’s like a double confirmation and then it will actually go to print.
From the very beginning when you get the image to the very end, how long does it take usually?
Technically if you were to do the process all at once – depending on how many colors it could definitely take up to a couple of hours. I can spend an hour to two hours on simple art. Sometimes I’ll spend three hours on a color separation that has about five or six colors, up to eight colors. There is some complicated stuff that I’ll take about a half a day to do and then I’ll go back and refine it and take another look at it. Complicated separation could take me three to four hours. To make the screens from film to rinsing out process to when the screen is dry takes about an hour per screen. There has to be no water in the screen. It’s spot checked for pinholes and for it to register it takes another half an hour – and sometimes certain things are hard to register. In terms of printing, a good order is like three to six dozen shirts, we have a lot of six dozen orders because that’s where our price breaks are at …72 pieces … so that will take a couple of hours to get printed. We do a lot of really fast work because we have the automated machine. But sometimes we hit hiccups and speed bumps and we have to troubleshoot. Every job is completely different – no job is ever the same.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
I think mostly it’s that I am never doing the same thing. Checking out the art and figuring out how to go about working the design back into itself, in a sense. People send in art and they want it to look exactly the way they sent it in – it’s not always going to be that way but we try to get it as close as possible. There are different things you can do with halftones, bitmapping the size of the dots; there are certain things you can do that will bring out parts of the design that will look like it on paper versus it on cotton with ink, with these huge holes. So it’s a little bit of an illusion, too. From a distance, if you hold something back will it look like a photo but if you look at it up close it’s a bunch of tiny little dots.
My favorite part is that it’s like a puzzle, I go to the job and I just have to figure shit out all day. It’s always fresh and we’re always troubleshooting. It’s not monotonous in any way, which is rare in an office job.
Well, It’s a craft and you all have your own role in that. In general, what would you say makes a hot t-shirt?
The difference between a designer who can design a flyer or letterhead or a sign definitely stands out when you are wearing the design. Over the time that I’ve been doing this, you see hundreds of jobs, thousands of jobs, that come in and the ones that stand out is when you know the designer is designing for a t-shirt not just designing for himself or the logo or the company. It’s applicable as a piece of fashion. When I want to wear something – I don’t know if it’s composition or how the design sits on the shirt, it’s not just a flat square on top of your chest or something. It incorporates a little more of the garment. Those are the ones that are fun – that you know are going to sell and we’re going to get reorders. You know immediately. There are designs we’ve been printing here the entire time that we just keep reprinting because the client will just keep reordering it. They are like their signature design. Like Brian Wood has a few of those that people can’t just get enough of. Our clients are definitely more fun since I first started working here in 2008.
So the clients have shifted?
They are more creative and more clients I would want to work with – versus just being a screen printing shop that will do the local tire shop, the soccer team, whatever. I think that’s another fun part is being a part of the process and really aiding their designers.
I’ve taught designers how to use a halftone dot, which you would think that a guy designing a t-shirt would know, but almost 90 percent of designers don’t know what a halftone dot is or how to use a halftone dot – which is a technique used specifically for silk screen.
It’s been fun to see people take it to the next level and incorporate halftones into their design. Halftone is based on the line frequency that make up a picture. There are different angles you can set it at and different frequencies that the lines will repeat themselves so the dots will become bigger or larger. If you teach someone how to use that or what that means, they can design for it and it will completely change the aesthetic of the design. It’s funny. I’m seeing way more designers incorporate those in their designs as a trend, which is fun. It’s sort of like influencing the curve a little.
It’s really exciting to see the t-shirt become the new canvas in a way for artists. It can be really expensive to produce large-scale art and get it in a gallery and go through that process. T-shirts are a really affordable way to experiment and to get your art out there.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m working on Pixel Pop – which is just me. It’s a design, creative project business, which has been mostly a promotional tool for bands. What I’m doing right now is working on branding. During Christmas we are going to release a limited edition run of about five or six designs online and I am incorporating wheat pasting posters around town that have a QR code at the bottom of them to add a live element to the story. That code will take you straight to the online store and you can buy the poster on a t-shirt.
THE NAC RUNDOWN:
Who’s your dream collaborator? Weird question for me cause I am all about the present. Would be fun to collaborate something large scale with Marina Abramovic.
Third Man Records because they think outside the normal avenues of record distribution. Mostly because being that its a challenge for most musicians to get their music out and record company’s are changing the landscape of how we get our music now, I’m interested in alternative distribution and creating catalyst’s that bridge the gaps.
What are you reading? I just read about Artist Clément Briend. He takes the textures of trees and light projects images of gargoyles to give the effect that the trees are indeed alive.
What are you listening to right now? CREEP, The new Cat Power album is fresh, Anything by Disclosure, The Black Ghosts, Holy Other and Matthew Dear.
What’s your most secret guilty pleasure blog? Slutever.com
@nacona on Twitter & Instagram