A properly calibrated workflow system is vital for successful fine art printing.

Fine Art Printing: The Secret is Preparation

“When I work, I work very fast, but preparing to work can take any length of time.”
—Cy Twombly

A properly calibrated workflow system is vital for successful fine art printing. But that is technical work. In order to make the “art” become “fine,” it requires an artist behind the scenes. If everything is properly setup, the printing itself is generally very quick, but the preparation can be long and arduous.

Backlit art needs the most archival films available. (Artist, Ron Terada)

Digitizing

Getting an original piece of artwork into digital format usually involves photography. For photographing an art piece, a professional 4x5 camera with a high-quality Leaf, Sinar or Better Light digital back is a minimum requirement. The studio must have proper photo lights, like Bayer Filtered RGGB CCD continuous lighting. Copy stands for the artwork and tripods for the camera are often sold as “kits” for a one-stop solution. It’s a more important aspect of the work than one might think. In order to eliminate parallax and keep the focus razor sharp, everything must be perfectly straight and square to a much more accurate degree than can be achieved with homemade contraptions or bargain basement equipment. The computer that runs this setup has to have as much RAM as possible and lots of hard drive space. These files can get big.

Color Correcting

Whether using client supplied files or self-photographed items, color corrections will undoubtedly be needed in order to achieve the desired output. Color correction is an art, not a science. Don’t try to do this without the supervision of an expert. It is arguably the most important part of the project, and the hardest to control. Adobe Photoshop is the most commonly used tool to perform this task. Many tips and tricks for effective use of Photoshop can be found in back issues of this magazine.

Some art is only intended for short-term use like these banners. (Artist, Allyson Clay)

Proofing

The importance of proofing cannot be overstated. Full-size strips printed on the same media as the final product can be compared with the entire image printed at ¼ size. For problem files it is often advisable to run batches of strips using incremental color shifts. Run proofs until they match the original. And then get final sign-off from the client!

Printing

Commercial printing generally involves high volumes with relatively short lifetimes and medium quality requirements. Fine art printing is low volume with long lifetimes and extremely high quality. It is a completely different way of looking at digital printing and requires a completely different set of tools. All of the equipment must be chosen for their high quality and longevity. Digital fine art prints (also known as giclée prints) by top artists regularly sell in galleries and at auction in the six figure range so price should not be an object of discussion when outfitting the shop that prints these treasures. That caliber of work does not go to shops that economize and cut corners.

A good test file should include many elements such as human figures, landscape, water, shiny surfaces, a black and white image and some solid color areas. (Photo credit Vincent Oliver, Photo-i)

Printer Selection

Printer manufacturers loudly trumpet their resolution capabilities in terms of dpi ratings, but this only tells a small part of the image quality equation. Although the number of dots per square inch (dpi) is important, the size of the nozzles in the printheads is vitally important as well. 

In general, the smaller the drops of ink on the media, the better the image quality, but there’s more to the story than that. Employing variable drop sizes can make a big difference, especially when an image demands both fine detail and smooth color transitions. Many artists contend that simply streaming millions of identical dots into neat rows onto the page doesn’t look as natural as randomly placed dots of varying sizes. 

Fortunately, some printers are manufactured with giclée printing as their primary intent. It’s the best place to start looking. 

When checking out printers, use one specially prepared file to test all the printers you are interested. Don’t accept test prints using the manufacturers’ files as they are generally designed to highlight their printer’s strong points and hide their flaws. A good test file should include many elements, including color photographs with human figures for skin tones, landscape for grass, water and sky as well as shiny chrome to get those tricky reflections. A high contrast black and white image and some solid color areas that include RGBCMY and K will round it out. 

Ink

Aqueous inks allow for the widest color gamut and smallest dot sizes. Pigmented inks last the longest. Therefore pigmented aqueous inks are the best choice for most fine art printing.

 

Archival papers are often used for fine art printing, in this case Arches. (Artist, Denise Oleksijczuk)

The selection of ink colors is also vital. Aside from the typical CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), additional printer ink colors are often available such as light cyan and light magenta for smoother color gradients; or orange and green for more accurate spot colors. In addition, some printers offer white, specific shades of gray or black, or even fluorescent. Choosing a printer with extended color capabilities can greatly enhance your available color range.

Media  

Media for this type of printing can range from paper, canvas and more. Each selection has its own set of dos and don’ts.

Paper—There are two main categories of digital printing papers for fine art-watercolor and photo paper. Archival quality media is mandatory for both. This means that they are made from either wood pulp or cotton rags and that they are 100 percent cellulose and acid free. The better ones are made without optical brightening agents, which degrade over time. 

The successful fine art printer must be able to print onto a wide variety of materials. (Artist, Carol Sawyer).

Canvas—A variety of canvas materials are available for inkjet printing, each with their own unique texture. They are generally made of cotton or a poly-cotton blend. Canvas prints seldom get displayed behind glass, so a protective coat of clear spray paint is advised. This coating should be completely clear and without any color tint, it should dry to a hard finish, have adequate UV stabilizers and be archival and non-yellowing.

Translucent—Sometimes fine art is backlit. To this end there is a wide selec-
tion of backlight films and vellums on the market. Pigmented inks do not backlight as beautifully as dye-based inks, but they sure last a lot longer.

Non-traditional—Art is not just framed prints on a gallery wall. Often it involves printing onto unusual substrates, such as metal, stone, glass, tile or fabric. This breaks our rules about inks and printers. Tile and fabric can be imaged best with dye-sublimation printing and other substrates will probably need UV inks. Screen-printing is often a good choice as well, with specialty inks available for most materials.

Conclusion

When it comes to printing for fine art applications, the road to perfection is long and difficult. On the other hand, once you get there, a whole new world of opportunity awaits. Good luck!