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Printmaker's Paper Quandry



I’m quite new here and I’m learning a lot (thanks!), but 
I’ve come across pretty consistent ideas about 
paper/printer issues that I have questions about.  

First, a disclaimer: My background is in printmaking 
rather than computer graphics or photography.  I have 
used photos and computers in my work for many years, but 
always experimenting with the technology as a user -- 
rather than trying to become an expert.  (I was computer 
graphics T.A. in school, but it was a Mac w/2mb ram and 
a 20mb HD – now you know how very old I am!!)  So I’m 
just going to lay out what I’ve learned about paper and 
ink in school and in 15 years of making art and invite 
your feedback.

Part of being a printmaker (for me anyway) is 
experimenting with methods and media.  To do this, it’s 
better to understand how color sits (and stays) on 
paper, than to understand one paper and one ink.  Then 
you can apply what you know to help you use a new 
technology (or an old one) to make the image you 
envision.  With color applied to paper any mark-making 
stuff has to have two elements: Color and Binder:

Color can be carbon (charcoal/black inks/toner & one of 
the few truly permanent color-materials), pigment (oil 
paint, most trad. color inks, watercolor and now inkjet 
inks) or dye (fabric dyes, some types of paint and now 
inkjet inks).  

Binder keeps it on the paper.  Some media has very 
little (they have to store Degas’ pastel drawings flat - 
every time they are held up, pigment flutters off), but 
most media are stronger (A Rembrandt etching you see 
today is probably still as he printed it).  It’s what 
the oil in oil paint is for, or the gum arabic in 
watercolor, or the solvents in other printing methods.  
I don’t know what the binder is in inkjet ink, but I 
would assume it’s a quick-evaporating chemical solvent.  
The binder will also affect how far color can “sink” 
into the paper (if it sinks in, it will be a stronger 
bond.)

So, in my little world there are 2 dangers to the 
longevity of work on paper: fading and flaking.  The 
fading of inkjet ink I understand.  (I use MIS and keep 
my fingers crossed).  But there doesn’t seem to be any 
danger of flaking with these inks -- they‘re quite well 
adhered.

There is no evidence in art conservation that a coated 
paper surface would reduce fading of an image.  It will 
certainly affect how the color sits on the paper, but it 
can’t affect the fade because that it caused by the sun 
and air and coatings are underneath the ink (the over-
sprays do help).  I don’t know what the inkjet paper 
coatings are (closely guarded secret apparently), but if 
they seal the paper completely, the could actually cause 
the image to flake because they would prevent proper 
binding.  (So IMO mfg. statements about “longevity 
depends on ink and paper combination” are misleading.)

I see my “printmaker approach” as fundamentally 
different from the “photographer approach” in that I use 
the shifts and quirks and limitations of a technology 
rather than trying to get it to imitate something else 
(either wet printed photos or the info on the 
negative).  Some of my favorite images are photos 
xeroxed on Japanese rice paper in 1993: 
Technically “bad” quality repros, but the degraded 
images look like dreamy trees in snow. (PS: no fading 
and no flaking.)

I run all kinds of paper through my 1160 (it’s such a 
trooper!).  When looking at a new paper I check to make 
sure it doesn’t have too “soft” a surface (that it 
doesn’t have a lot of loose fibers) so they won’t come 
off in the printer.  I look at the thickness – the 1160 
is pretty flexible, but I try to be nice to it.  
Otherwise, I just cut it to size, run it through and see 
what happens.  Obviously, super realism is not my aim, 
but the images have a presence that is still quite 
wonderful.  And HP and Epson and Kodak are rank amateurs 
when compared to the presence of paper made by the 
masters at a 500 year old Italian mill (IMO).

All printed images (ALL) should be protected from direct 
sun and should be stored or presented so as to prevent 
rubbing the surface.  That’s just the nature of work on 
paper and no ink or coating will change the fact that 
paper is more vulnerable than oil on canvas or metal 
sculpture or...

I guess this is a bit of a rant, and I do realize that 
photographers have different objectives and issues, but 
I also hear smart and sincere people on this list kind 
of being yanked by commercial paper makers – very 
worried about printing on this or that, what it will do 
to the printer, and so on. Instead of being tethered to 
ideas of hyper-realist photography and trying to impose 
that on this technology, why not open yourself up to the 
what this stuff can do when you let it.  (IMHumbleO).

Sincerely,

Miranda Maher
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