The Fine Art of Inks

Large format printers with special inks are producing top quality prints that sell in museums for tens of thousands of dollars. Find out what you need to know to take your cut by producing these fine art prints.

The market for fine art reproductions and black and white prints is growing so much that ink manufacturers are developing special products. Could this be a good opportunity for your sign business?

nkjet printing technology has improved so greatly that the industry has coined the term Digital Fine Art (DFA). Printers that earn the DFA distinction offer outstanding image quality, work with multiple media types and generate lifetime-lasting prints but not without the right ink.

The best printer in the world is at the mercy of inksets that offer superb tonal range, surface quality and permanence. These inks ensure images that reproduce the fine details and color ranges that their creators intended. Some vendors are promising 100-years of vibrancy.

It’s true that there is yet only a small segment of the market that needs to print high quality black and white photography or fine art replications. However this niche market is large enough for ink manufacturers to take notice ­ and take initiative to produce special inks for this creative need. Of course, ink jet printers can produce high resolution prints today, but new, specialized ink sets offer many more shades of grey and black for this customer base.

A true photographic process
Printer technology companies are making a way for the fine art market to print on a wide variety of materials, from watercolor papers to textiles. As the fine art market leverages digital imaging to translate its works, printer companies will pay more attention to this market, predicts Pat Ryan, general manager of Seiko-I Infotech Americas Business Unit.

“Ink jet printers with a special ink set can deliver something more close to a true photographic process,” Ryan explains. “If you use the right materials and the right color systems you can produce 95 percent of what you want. The 5 percent that’s lacking is the color gamuts. We can only do so much with the six-color ink sets. So you’ll see further development in that area.”

The right materials include the right paper. Ilford, Mitsubishi, and Kodak, among many others, make resin-coated paper for photographic and fine art printing. These papers offer exceptional tonal range, bright whites and bleed control. They are offered in matte or high-gloss finish and feature special coatings that stimulate the ink to dry instantly and resist water.

But the bottom line is the inks. Some paper manufacturers are also getting into the ink making business with a brand name that photographers and artists know and trust. “Ilford has had an eight-color black and white ink system which produces dramatic black and white image quality,” says Raster Printers CEO Rak Kumar.

A look at fine art inks
With UV curable inks it is possible to control the matt versus gloss finish based on how the ink is formulated and how the ink is cured, Kumar continued. But UV curable isn’t the only consideration in the DFA printing equation.

“Inks designed for fine art need to be concerned about archival properties,” says Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics. “Inks designed for black and white photography should include a light black ink in addition to light black and black. This would allow you to have excellent gray balance and smooth tonal gradations.”

Epson introduced a Light Black UltraChrome K3 Ink last year that has seen some pick up in the DFA printing market because it makes room for more shades of grey, which, of course, are critical to the black and white photography. Epson claims it can produce archival prints with color fidelity, gloss level and scratch resistance.

“Signs for high-end retail migrates more toward photographic capable signs. There may not be a great demand for it today, but as the costs come down this is going to be a reasonable opportunity for the signage market,” says Xerox digital imaging spokesperson Sandra Mauceli. “Epson has done a great job for fine art production and offers the best image quality.”

Understanding Giclee printing
DFA printing is often referred to as Giclee printing, a sophisticated form of inkjet printing that offers an affordable way to reproduce works of art from traditional media from high resolution digital scans. The output may be onto canvas or fine art papers.

But don’t confuse Giclee printing with Iris prints, which are four-color inkjet prints that emerged in the late 1970s by Iris Graphics. Sign makers need to use a professional eight-color to 12-color inkjet printer to produce Giclee prints.

What’s the advantage of Giclee printing? Giclee prints are attractive to artists who don’t have the funds to reproduce their work on a mass scale. Perhaps they have a client who wants a single copy. Giclee printing is the answer. Archiving the digital image of the original artwork also acts as a preservative for the artist. And you can reproduce the artwork at virtually any size so artists can offer a choice to clients.

A testament to their quality, Giclee prints are fine enough quality to be displayed in museums of art around the world, and these reproductions have earned upwards of $20,000 in auctions.

Dye versus pigment Giclee inks
There are two different types of Giclee inks: dye and pigment. Pigment prints, as their name suggests, are prints that use pigment inks. This process dates back to the 19th century.

The advantage of pigment inks is image stability. Pigment inks offer more stable images than even traditional silver-halide or metal-based methods because they are water insoluble. Humidity doesn’t affect the inks. Thanks to technology that has refined digital inkjet inksets, pigment inks are a viable option for Giclee prints.

There is something to be said for dye-based inks, though ­ an attractive color gamut. Pigment inks have a tendency toward metamerism, which is a tendency for color to shift in hue when it is viewed under different lighting conditions. Dye-based inks avoid this issue. Pigment inks are evolving, though, and this is becoming less of an issue.

It should also be noted that dye-based inks are water soluble. That means high humidity can cause problems. In essence, dye molecules are more prone to damage from environmental elements.

The bottom line is you can begin creating black and white productions and fine art prints today with the right inks, the right media and the right printer. If your shop is in a region known for the arts, this could become a lucrative division of your growing business.

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