Home > Printing Essentials > Paper 101 – Part 2: Fine Art Papers

Paper 101 – Part 2: Fine Art Papers

How important is paper selection in the printing process?  Does the image tell the whole story? Or is paper what takes the image from an ordinary photo to a piece of art?  There might not be a simple answer to this question but after nearly 20 years in this industry I’ve learned this: If you produce prints commercially, it doesn’t matter what you think about the print, it matters what the person purchasing the image thinks about it.  And with that said, the paper used can be the deciding factor that distinguishes a run of the mill photograph from a piece of art.

Put simply, paper is important, and knowing a bit about the media you put in your printer can make all the difference in matching the right media to the right image.  In the following few posts I am going to be looking at three main types of inkjet paper:

Art – Cotton Rag, Alpha Cellulose
RC – Resin Coated
Fiber – Baryta

While there are certainly other paper categories out there, these are arguably the most commonly encountered and will help to provide a good overview of the differences between inkjet medias.  To start it off, we’re going to focus on perhaps the first to be used as a true rival to traditional wet process printing—cotton rag and alpha cellulose fine art papers.

A little history…

When inkjet printing reached a level of quality comparable to that of traditional wet photgraphic processes  it didn’t take long for that segment of the industry to boom.  Just looking at one group of users –the advanced amateur black and white photographers whom either had a lab in the basement (or had moved away from printing in order to -not- have a lab in the basement) — we can see a veritable explosion of early adopters in 2003 with the release of the Epson 2200 printer and its ultrachrome inks.  With that printer and it’s bigger siblings, the 4000, 7600 and 9600, it was possible, even easy, to make perfectly neutral b&w prints on an inkjet printer with no compromise in quality.

If you had the right paper…

Photo papers – Not quite there yet

Although the release of affordable, advanced printers like the 2200 allowed people to dive back into the world’s number one hobby in droves, there were still some hurdles remaining on the way to achieving the perfect print. One was the ability to reproduce on an inkjet something always taken for granted in prints from a lab:  namely, traditional glossy or semi-gloss media.  Problem was, that ability  didn’t quite exist yet (at least not without coating, glass framing or laminating the print) due to the nagging issues of bronzing and gloss differential.  In fact, many people stayed away from printing on resin coated (ie glossy) papers altogehter until the bronzing/gloss differential problems were solved with the introduction of Ultrachrome K3 inks in 2005.  So, at least up until then, matte papers were the media of choice for most Ultrachome inkjet owning photographers.  And those Epson ultrachome inks were largely responsible.

Deep, rich blacks

Even before the new generation of ultrachrome printers, the photographic inkjet printing industry had been moving from dye based ink sets to pigment–mainly for the archivability of the inks.  Even with their relatively reduced color gamuts, that increased longevity made pigment-ink based prints more viable as an alternative to traditional wet processes than dye.  But, though more colorfast, the pigment inksets that came before Ultrachrome were flawed in many ways–and the most glaring was the lack of saturation on matte papers.

The new ultrachrome pigment inks from Epson solved that problem (for the most part) with the introduction of a matte black which could reach ample density on cotton rag papers.  With the rich, saturated black of ultrachrome inks, a good software RIP (know of any?) and a quality cotton rag paper, you could finally achieve gallery level prints on a device that fit on your kitchen table.

The only game in town

In my opinion, it wasn’t so much that those early adopters necessarily wanted to print on cotton papers so much as, at the time, there really wasn’t a better alternative paper.  The newly capable printers and matte inks created a sudden demand for inkjet capable matte media, and traditional fine art papers were the natural choice to fit the bill.  These papers had already dealt with the issue of permanency and were manufactured to have a neutral PH and were acid-free.  The word “Fine” carries a specific meaning by the way.  Fine Art papers are 100% rag and contain no wood pulp, distinguishing them from lesser quality drawing papers which are made either partially or fully with wood pulp.

Regarding those wood pulp papers–though usually considered inferior in quality (but not always), wood pulp containing “Alpha Cellulose” papers have gained in popularity over the years, most likely due to a price point that’s often less than half that of a true cotton rag paper.  Aside from the rather subjective fact that most users seem to prefer the “feel” of true cotton rag fine art papers to that of alpha cellulose, one major downside to the less expensive papers is that they are often are not 100% acid-free. (Acids in paper can react with the ink, fading or discoloring the print over time.)

The bright side

Acids aren’t the only thing potentially lurking in your paper.  This is a good time to bring up optical brightening agents, or OBAs.  OBAs increase the brightness of the paper by increasing the amount of blue light that is reflected and can be found in all types of papers, not just cotton rags.  You can usually tell whether or not a paper has OBAs by the description on the label:  Natural or Bright White.  Bright White indicates the use of some form of OBA.  Natural on the label usually means the paper is OBA free.  OBA-containing papers can be quite appealing since: the whiter the surface, the greater the density range will be.  And…unlike acids, OBAs will not degrade the inks of the print.  But they come with a price:  The OBAs themselves will fade over time, causing the paper to slowly return to its natural, less brightened, state.  So, the benefits of using OBA-containing papers are mixed.  Its always a good idea to have a range of papers that cover a multitude of printing needs.

Surface issues

Art papers are sold in both smooth and textured coatings.  With their wide variety of surfaces– smooth, deeply grained, chalky, linen– picking an art paper can be daunting, but it is one of the biggest factors affecting the “feel” of a print. Experimentation is key–it can be truly amazing to see how the ink flow on various papers will effect final look of your work.

If available, get sample paper packs before investing in a full box of fine art paper.  Testing will not only let you see how a given paper’s texture enhances your images, but allows you to test another aspect you need to consider: the weight of the paper.  Most fine art papers use grams per square meter or GSM.  In most cases higher GSM values translate to thicker, stiffer papers, but be careful! There are some papers that do not follow this general rule–one that comes to mind is canvas.  You can have a canvas that is 300gsm or more and it will be quite flexible.   Many cotton rag papers have a relative high GSM, which can present challenges to a printer’s paper feed mechanisms. leading to potential paper jams, head strikes or banding.  To avoid those kind of problems, test on a sample first–and if you are printing on a desktop printer that requires the paper to be bent when feeding into the printing path, it’s a good idea to stick with papers less than 250gsm.

The bottom line

Fine art cotton rag papers offer a unique, beautiful surface for your prints with superb longevity, resistance to fading and a look and feel factor that screams high quality.   Still, they tend to be quite expensive, and for at least some printing needs, Alpha Cellulose papers may be an acceptable alternative.  In fact, whenever permanence and/or tactile quality isn’t a necessity for your printing it may pay to shop around.  There may well be other papers out there that will deliver the same quality of output for less money than true fine art cotton rag.

Categories: Printing Essentials
  1. June 3, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Helpful information here. I added your site on my favorite, so visit again.

  2. June 3, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Thank you very much for your post! I am very interested in your points.

  3. John Madsen
    May 5, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I enjoyed your article.

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