The Fine Art of Prints
Article based on a presentation I made at Dragon*Con.
2010-07-04
You might be wondering - why should I be worried about making prints? Why bother? And why fuss about the quality? I can just go to Kinko's and get some made, right? How complicated can this be?

There's actually lots to know about what kinds of prints are available, what features to look for, and how to choose the details for prints.

Types of Prints

Any article on the subject of 'prints' should begin with a disclaimer:

There is a class of artists who would consider me a big fat liar for everything I'm writing here. In their minds, a 'print' is a term that can be applied to one and only one thing, and that's a print made by hand, by the artist, either using a traditional lithograph, or by silk-screening, or block printing. Anything else, they would insist, is a digital reproduction. I'm not going to be so strict in my definition, because that's a mouthful, and I'd get tired of writing it over and over.

Lithographs

The method of print making most similar to the strict, traditional kind of print is a lithograph.

Lithographs are made on particular press equipment, by preparing a large stone or metal slab with an impression of the artwork in a greasy chemical spread. This is covered in water, and then inked. The ink only sticks where the greasy base was, and then the slab is pressed onto a piece of paper. Each color is done with a separate slab, if there is more than one in the final print.

Offset Printing

On large, automated presses, this process is called offset printing, because the image from the slab is 'offset' onto a rubber roller for actual application. Many people today still call the print that results a 'lithograph,' though if you wanted to nitpick, technically it isn't quite.

This method is extremely efficient for large quantities of prints. If you're Bev Doolittle and doing a print run of 1500 prints, that's the direction you'd go. The colors can be extremely accurate, and you can use a variety of different papers, from heavy-weight archival papers, to thin poster prints. The print quality can also vary - depending on the resolution they use. The big drawbacks? You have to do them all at once, because we're talking about a seriously hefty startup payment, and then a lower per-print cost. The slabs aren't stored - once they're used, they're wiped off with a chemical cleaner so they can be used for other jobs. The process of these prints is all electronic now, so the slab can be recreated basically identically if another run of prints is needed.

Photos

Photo prints are just that - they are created using negatives, photographic emulsions, a dark room, specialized paper and chemicals. You'll find a lot of people will call their glossy inkjet prints 'photo prints' because they look like photos, but you can also get actual photo prints as well. These tend to last well, and have excellent color quality, but it can be difficult to get excellent negatives of your artwork without having a good photograph setup. They can also be moderately expensive.

Lasers

Laser printers have dropped in price recently, making them an attractive option to artists looking to make their own prints. They work great for open edition prints where you don't really care about repeatability. However, they, like color copiers you'll find at Kinko's and such, use a dry toner applied with heat. Keeping that heat consistent is problematic, and you'll find that if you do a large run of laser prints - even all at the same time - the first print will not be identical to the last. They are relatively archival, depending on the paper you use - the inks themselves are very stable.

Giclee / Inkjet

You've probably heard the term 'giclee'. The word is French for 'to spray,' and it's one of those words like 'print,' where different people think it should mean different things. For some folks, all ink jet prints are giclee. Technically, this is true. But for most buyers, when you say 'giclee,' they expect the print to meet certain qualifications.

Ideally, a giclee should be printed with 7 or 8 color archival inks at high resolution, on buffered, waterproof paper.

Let's break some of these terms down!

Terms of the Trade

Colors

Most cheap inkjet desktop printers are 4 color - cyan, yellow, magenta, and black, or CMYK. With prints done on this style of printer, you can look at light areas, and tend to see dots, even if the resolution is really high. This is because it is trying to create a light color by spacing out the dark colors it has available to blend with the white of the paper behind it. Print manufacturers got smart, and introduced light black, light cyan, and light magenta so that colors could be reproduced more accurately without attempting to approximate them with darker values.

Pigment Versus Dye

Inkjets come in two styles - pigment inks and dye inks. Dye inks are largely used for transfers, particularly to ceramic surfaces, like mugs and tiles. Pigment inks are more common, and they are usually water-based. It used to be that pigment inks were not suitable for anything you wanted to last more than a few years - they would fade, and the slightest moisture would make them run. Epson has led a revolution in pigment inks, making them archival to last for more than 100 years, and water-resistant with the right papers. Canon and HP are following pretty closely - last I checked, they didn't have quite the right color quality that I personally look for, but I know that they've been making strides since then.

If you want a reliable source for information about printer inks and their longevity, I recommend checking out wilhelm-research.com. This is a non-profit site that does independent research using common printer inks and papers.

Resolution

What about resolution? This is how many dots of color the printer is putting down in each inch. This is not to be confused with the resolution of your print file, or the resolution of your monitor, even though they all use the term 'dpi.' My printer will print up to 1440 dpi. Your print file does not need to be anywhere near this resolution! You should be scanning or digitally painting at about 300 dpi.

What does this mean, exactly?

Picture your print file as a grid. In every inch, there are 300 boxes up and 300 boxes across. Each of these boxes has a color associated with it. For example, a light teal blue. And the box next to it is a slightly lighter teal blue. And the box next to that is a slightly greener, darker teal. Naturally, your printer doesn't actually have cartridges with that color, it has to make them! It doesn't physically mix colors, it only implies them, by putting dots of the colors it does have very close together. The higher the printer's output resolution, the better that your printer is going to be able to mix those colors and fool your eye. At a resolution of 1440, you cannot actually see the little dots the printer is putting down, all you see is the resulting blend.

Don't save as JPGs

While we're talking about print files, I need to make a very important public service announcement. Do not, please, for the love of god, save your print files as JPGs!! JPG is a compressive file format, and every time you open and save your file, you are re-compressing the information in it, and losing valuable data. You might be all right the first time you save a JPG, if you're lucky, but I can see a difference in color richness and detail when printing from JPGs. They are only suitable for viewing things on the web! The same is true with GIF formats. If you want to preserve your file quality, use TIF files, or Photoshop or Painter files.

Paper

Now, your ink is only half the equation for any prints. Prints have progressed to the point of being much more than just ink on a piece of flat wood pulp. If you put just plain cardstock or typing paper in one of my high-end Epsons, you're going to wonder why I spent the money on that paperweight - it will look bad. You need paper that is specially coated to accept as much ink as the printer is putting down! This will ensure that you get the quality of color that your printer is capable of.

Archival

You absolutely should use archival papers. If you print with fancy archival inks on non-archival papers, you've just wasted good money on good ink. The print may look fine at first, but it will fade and discolor. What does it mean to be archival paper? This is paper that is PH-neutral, acid-free, or even buffered. Acids in tree pulps are what cause the yellowing, like you see in old newspapers and such. You can get tree-based papers that are 'lignin-free.' (Lignin is the part of wood pulp that have the acids.) The best and nicest papers, however, are 'rag' papers, made from cotton.

Weight

The weight of the paper is how heavy it is. It should feel nice to the touch - not too floppy or thin. The heavier a paper, the more expensive and quality it will feel to your customer. This is particularly important if you are selling a print un-matted, but is also critical in how sturdy a paper is after you've matted it. Probably everyone has seen a cheap print warp underneath a mat, and that just looks bad. They heavier the paper, the less likely this will happen.

Water and Drying

Two other features to look for in a paper are water resistance and drying time. These are particularly important when you are making your own prints. Given the choice between something that will run and smear when you accidentally splash a drop of water onto it, go with the safer choice! Many inks will claim to be water resistant - but generally that is only in combination with a water resistant paper. Drying time can be very important when printing more than one print at a time, because a slow-drying paper can actually cause smears in the output tray of your printer as a print that isn't dry is covered up by the new print coming out! I've used slow-drying papers before, and it isn't worth the effort of finding places for a bunch of prints to dry flat!

Finish

Perhaps the most obvious, and most personal, decision to make in papers are the finish: glossy, matte, semi-gloss, velvet, satin, canvas, textured, and more... Glossy prints will look like photographs. Some people claim that traditional art tends to look a little fake and glazed when printed on this kind of paper, or complain about the glare you can get, and other people really prefer it; this is really a matter that comes down to personal preference. Matte paper is non-glossy, usually with a fine texture to it that you don't notice unless you really look closely. There are several in-between types, often called velvet, satin or semi-gloss. There are also textures to choose from, like watercolor paper, canvas or parchments. You should try a few of these before settling on just one, and many paper companies have sample packs available if you'd like to test them for printing yourself.

Brands

Note that you don't have to worry about putting only Epson paper in an Epson printer. Naturally, they want you to buy the Epson paper, but you don't have to, and no, it won't nullify your warranty to use non-brand paper!

I use a brand called Hahnemuhle, which is a German-made paper. I use their 188 gm photo rag, which is a lovely, velvety-soft, matte-finish, heavy-weight paper. It's won several awards and is rated 'museum-quality.' The nicer what you choose is, the more it will cost. I pay about $1.00 for a letter-sized sheet of that Hahnemuhle. Before shipping.

Care

Once you've got your paper, take care of it! Be sure to store it away from light and sealed from moisture in plastic. Make sure you never store it with something acidic. Once I received wonderful, archival paper, but the company sent it in an acidic cardboard box, and when I pulled it out a few years later, the top and bottom sheets, plus all the edges, were yellow and nasty. I strongly recommend investing in a rubbermaid container, or at least some plastic bags. Watch out for cardboard that your paper company may send as stiffener that's in with your paper, too!

Tools of the Trade

Hopefully this will help you make informed choices about the prints you make, whether you decide to make your own prints, or job them out somewhere. A reputable printer will be able to tell you exactly what equipment they're using, what inks, and what paper, and you now know know more than many of them do!


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