The Art of the Masterpiece

In recent years, tech-driven printing breakthroughs combined with steep cost reductions have brought the world of fine art and photography printing within reach of the small- to mid-sized wide-format print service provider.

But just because a fine art or photographic masterpiece can be created on digital printing devices doesn’t mean everyone is proficient, either in handling the printing itself, or in dealing with a clientele of artists and photographers.

In the pages to follow, we scrutinize the technical and intangible sides of fine art and photographic masterpieces. We talk to experts about the secrets of creating masterpieces for artists and photographers. And we investigate how paper can make the difference between an adequate print and a perfect one.


Turning Out Masterpieces

What are some of the key considerations in using digital wide-format equipment and supplies to create the perfect fine art masterpiece?

According to Regan Dickinson, marketing communications specialist for Sarasota, FL-based LexJet, the first step is to set expectations for your customer, so they understand what inkjet printing can and cannot do.

“That’s important so they do not have unrealistic expectations,” Dickinson said. “You might run into an artist who thinks it will be an exact match. It will not be an exact match . . . Print out samples for them and work with them closely to make sure they’re happy with the print they’re getting. Part of this is your customer base. Different types of customers have different expectations.”

When working with photographers or artists for the first time, they are likely to be very particular about color reproduction and the quality of the work, noted Michael Prewitt, technical development manager for inkjet media with Elk Ridge, MD-based Seal, a company known for its wide-format laminators, and full range of inkjet media, laminates and adhesives. “As a print service provider (PSP), doing a logo for a company, you just have to match that logo,” he said. “If you’re printing a photograph, it has to be acceptable color. But an artist is going to say, ‘That’s not the right shade of blue. It’s got to be perfect.’”

As a result, the PSP has to control his print environment, Prewitt said. Whether printing on canvas or photo paper, it’s essential to have a profile that accurately allows the reproduction of color on the media chosen.

Fine art printing can range all the way from décor printing, which shares aspects in common with mass-produced commercial printing, to fine art limited editions, which are custom in nature, added Dickinson. “Most of our customers focusing on that particular market have a very defined color management workflow that goes from capturing the artwork to a color-profiled monitor that is in sync with their printer,” he said. “Most people will find they want to leverage the improvement in technology to gain the tightest color management possible. They want to make sure they’re using the correct color profiles for their inkjet media.”

Nate Goodman, product manager for Richmond, VA-based Drytac Corporation, an adhesive coating company, said a key early consideration is the quality of the image being reproduced. You must have an image with enough information and enough clarity to reproduce what the artist has captured.

The next issue to focus upon is the printer quality and the quality of the inks, Goodman said. Epson is by far the most common printer manufacturer represented in fine art reproduction. “The other consideration is what you use to match the artist’s idea of what he sees, color-wise,” he said.

“Some people use color-o-meters, some sort of reading device to make certain the colors they’re seeing on the original, the colors they’re seeing on the screen and the colors they’re printing are all the same.”

Another concern is the finishing of the print. Will it be a gallery-wrapped canvas print, or just a fine art paper in a frame?

In fine art printing, it’s essential that piece of artwork stands the test of time, and the decision to finish with liquid coating or a film can be very important.

Liquid coating is the less costly option, Goodman said. Film, on the other hand, is by far the more durable, he noted.

Speaking of Long Beach, CA-based Epson America, product marketing manager Jeff Smith reports the key to creating the perfect fine art masterpiece is making sure, he said, “you have a file good enough to capture what you want. For example, if you have a file that’s a gigabyte and want a 4-by-6-foot output, the quality is going to be sacrificed because the file not large enough.”

Resolution has to be high if an image is to be seen close up. But the farther away viewers are from the image, the more flexibility you enjoy, “because human vision is notoriously bad,” said Epson Americas marketing specialist and manager of LFP consumables Eddie Murphy. “You want a minimum of 360 pixels per inch at final print size. That is standard default. The farther away you are from the final image, the more games you can play. Those games can allow you to use 270 pixels per inch. The lowest I would ever go for a large-format print is 180 pixels per inch minimum . . . We‘ve talked with photographers, and when you keep it at a factor of 90 and up-sample or down-sample, the source resolution is easier for the print driver to process.”

Smith also emphasized the importance of inksets.

“We’ve had almost a decade of experience in producing inkjets, so one of the very most important things to remember is that Epson really listens to professionals, the press and public at large,” he said. “We’re on the seventh generation over a decade and a half of photographic inks. It hits 98 percent of all Pantone colors, including Coca-Cola red and Tweetie Bird yellow.

“It also hits Idiot’s Orange, the orange colors seen on the cover of the book series whose titles begin with the words ‘The Idiot’s Guide.’ It will hit spot colors right out of the printer. The size of the color gamut is absolutely monstrous. You‘ll get a real-life reproduction.”

Repeatability is a key to gaining satisfied fine art customers, Prewitt said. The first time out, the artist may be asking for one print. But if satisfied, he or she may want the print provider to handle a series. That means that over time, temperature and humidity must be controlled. If those factors vary greatly over time, it can affect how things print, and how they dry, he said.

In addition, “your color can drift over time,” he added. “When you buy ink, the batches can be slightly different from time to time. It’s a small difference, but there can be some slight shifts. To combat that, you have to re-linearize your color profiles to allow for environmental and ink density differences.”

Once a PSP is able to show fine artists and photographers their work can be reproduced accurately, they are far more likely to be repeat customers than to seek out someone new, Prewitt said. “You’re going to earn that loyalty through trial and error. But if you have your media profiled and your printer dialed in, you’re going to get there faster, with less trial and error . . . The more you can control your environment, the more you can control color, and control quality.”


Paper Makes the Difference

Often, paper can make the difference between an adequate print and a perfect print. As Dickinson noted, different finishes have different color gamuts. Typically, a wider color gamut will be achievable with a gloss-finish inkjet media.

Both a gloss-finish and a luster paper will have a wider gamut than a matte substrate. “Often times, artists will ask for a matte finish,” he said. “They have to understand that that matte finish will yield a narrower color gamut.

“That has to do with the physics of light. It has to do with the way light bounces off the print and back into the eyes of the viewer.”

In the final analysis, the customer is always right, he added. So if the customer wants matte paper, which is perfect for evoking a certain feeling, provide matte paper. “Ultimately, it’s very subjective,” Dickinson said.

“And you’re going to base a lot of your print material choices on what the customer is trying to achieve. Providing the customer with the right paper is about working closely with that customer. The most important things are to set their expectations and also understand what they want aesthetically.”

Epson’s Smith holds a similar philosophy, noting that the choice of paper really comes down to personal preference. Many a wedding photo has looked terrific on photo paper. But if the image to be reproduced is from one of the art world’s masters, canvas is the paper of choice. Fine art papers, on the other hand, are the best choices for landscapes and many other works of art.

“Some are textured, some smooth, some have OBA [Optical Brightener Additives] and some have different white points,” Smith said.

“Epson has 100 different papers for people to choose from. We also have papers that closely simulate the old darkroom days, and they are the F Series, a gelatin-based product. The classic F Series is air dried. Old-time photographers will tell you, ‘This reminds me of the old days in the darkroom.’”

Given the wide-open choice of photo paper, fine art paper or canvas for fine art and photographic prints, it makes sense to access Epson’s Print Sample Guide to see how the same image would turn out on each media, Smith said.

Goodman believes that for giclee or fine art prints, the choice of substrate is always fine art paper or canvas. “You want to be able to see the high-quality colors, the distinction between the colors when they go together on the print,” he remarked. “As a result, you need to choose the right media for that image.”

A huge issue with fine art paper is whether it has the aforementioned OBA, Goodman cautioned. “That increases the brightness or the white points on the paper,” he said. “It’s an additive that over time or with sun exposure goes away. It does not stand the test of time. So all the artists I know avoid any types of materials with the whitener additives.”

Speaking of a paper’s whiteness, Prewitt noted that whether the media chosen is slightly bluish or slightly yellowish, that will become the white point of an image. Say, for instance, an artist wants a “real high-tone image,” featuring snow. If you have gray paper, the snow is going to look gray. “If it’s a painting of a ski run, you don’t want grungy gray under it,” he asserted.

While paper is among the most crucial selections in fine art printing, it is only one of the factors that combine for a high-quality print. “It’s the quality of the printer, the inks and all else we’ve discussed,” Goodman said. “Each component can make or break the ’perfect’ image, paper being one of those things.”