Detail Image "When George Met Harry" by Randy Wright

Detail Image “When George Met Harry” by Randolph S. Wright on Canson Arches Aquarelle Rag 310gsm.

With the overwhelming choice of fine art digital print papers out there, it’s hard to know which to pick. Terms like “buffered,” “baryta,” and “bagasse” are great if you know what they mean, but what if you don’t? As each paper has its own unique qualities, let’s discuss how print papers are made, what features they offer, and how to choose the right one for your image. For more information on particular terms, please see our Glossary of Terms.

How fine art digital print paper is born

All paper production begins the same way, regardless of its final use: with the pulping of the base material, be it cotton, wood, sugarcane, or a number of other organic  materials. Following the pulping process, when fibers are beaten to a, well, pulp, the material is chemically treated to separate the lignin from its fibers. Lignin is the material that causes paper to turn yellow when exposed to light. If you think of how newspapers yellow with age, you’ll understand how lignin can effect the quality of a printing paper years down the road and why you really, really don’t want to use it for your artwork.

To create an actual sheet of paper, the fibrous pulp we’ve just made is mixed with water to create a slurry that is poured over a screen. The screen catches the fibers randomly and interweaves them to become a solid whole. Excess water is either allowed to evaporate naturally or is pressed out (as is the case with most industrially produced paper), resulting in a finished sheet of paper.

As an aside – this is where those terms “hot-press” and “cold-press” come into play. In the hot-press process, the finished sheet is fed through heated cylinders, while the cylinders remain cool during the cold-press process. The end result is quite different: hot-press papers are smooth and capture detail well, while cold-press papers offer a slight texture which can help to evoke a subtle mood in the finished product.

Our finished sheet of paper, now having a pH of 6 or higher,  is now referred to as “acid-free” and is guaranteed to deteriorate more slowly than untreated papers. The best grades of print paper out there are said to last for over 1,000 years (although I won’t be around to call their bluff). Papers can then be further protected by “buffering” them – calcium chloride, or chalk, is added to the paper pulp to neutralize environmental acids that could cause the paper to deteriorate over time. Most of your fine art digital printing papers will be both acid-free and buffered.

What does it all mean?

The beautiful thing about inkjet print papers today is their comparability to traditional fine art watercolor and photo papers. This is why the giclee business is so exciting! At Image & Frame, you’ll find over 80 ways to see your art differently. Choose Hahnemuhle’s German Etching paper and your child’s 1st grade painting will look like it should be hung next to Matisse; go with Moab’s Slickrock Metallic Pearl for your wedding photo and watch your girlfriends go pale with envy over the honey glow in your cheeks. To make the choice a little easier, though, let me run down a few of the biggest features you’ll find so you have a place to start.

Rag – Perhaps the most common of the fine art print papers is “rag,” called so because it’s often made from used cloths. Although rag papers can technically can be made from any fabric fiber, cotton is usually used. Because of their low acidity and tensile strength, rag papers are especially suited for important documents like yours. All of the major paper makers carry a rag, with some branching out into other fabric fibers like silk and linen. Rag papers are available in matte and lustre/semi-gloss finishes and can be composed of as little as 25% cotton to as much as 100%, so it’s good to check with us if you wish your work to be of archival-quality.

Baryta – Rooted in traditional photography, baryta papers achieve the blackest blacks and most saturated colors by the addition of a thin coating of barium sulfite to the print surface prior to the emulsion layer. Doing so creates a highly reflective surface, greater detail, and an extended tonal range. Not surprisingly, baryta papers are often used in portrait photography and black and white imagery.

Metallic – Relatively new to the market, metallic print papers can greatly enhance the right image displayed in the right light. Made by encasing a sheet of Mylar between the paper and the emulsion, metallic papers can add a greater depth and dimension to your work because of their ability to capture deep blacks and ultra-bright highlights. Landscapes and wedding portraits especially benefit from the unique sheen of metallic papers, but don’t feel limited – bring your image in and we can discuss if a metallic paper will help rock your image.

Alpha-cellulose – These papers are derived from a plant source, like trees, rice, bamboo and sugarcane, rather than a fabric source like rag papers. They are guaranteed to last as long as rag papers as long as they are lignin-free, but can often be less expensive. It is important to note that alpha-cellulose papers are not always buffered, thereby diminishing their ability to resist future environmental damage. It’s best to discuss your needs with your print professional prior to selecting a paper so we can be sure to match your work with the right paper.

Oh the choices you have!

With the variety of inkjet papers available today it’s easy to achieve exactly the look you want. This is done through a considered choice of paper, and includes surface texture, tone and finish.

One of the first choices you must make is what type of surface texture you’d like to print on. Papers can be super slick and smooth, thick and rough, or somewhere in between. Each surface lends a different quality to the end product. As I mentioned above, those papers that have been cold-pressed will have more of a “tooth,” or rough surface to them. The roughness of this surface can lend a sense of expressiveness to your subject. Hot-pressed papers, which are smoother, capture detail a good deal better.

The finish on the paper can also effect the final product. Papers with matte finishes will not reflect light like glossier papers will and are ideal if the image is to be displayed “naked,” that is, not behind glass/plexi. Matte papers generally have less contrast than their glossy counterparts and colors can appear duller as more ink is soaked up by the paper during the printing process. All these factors help to lend an impressionistic feel to the final print. But if it’s high detail and contrast you’re looking for, you’ll want to go with a glossy paper. Glossy papers generally offer a wider color range and the best resolution but are highly reflective so lighting must always be considered. Additionally, glossy papers will pick up fingerprints easily so you’ll need to keep them out of reach of little Dick and Jane. Lustre or satin papers offer a compromise between matte and glossy papers with their less reflective surfaces,  a color range nearly as wide as glossy papers, and ability to capture detail.

I hope that this blog has given you enough information to make a more informed decision about your choice of printer papers. If you still have questions, go ahead and give us a call – we’re here to help you create the most beautiful prints you can.

It’s your world – get creative with it!