Archival Grade Prints – No Big Deal

I am not sure why but recently we have had a number of questions from artists looking to order at FinerWorks wanting to know if we use archival grade inks, canvas and papers. It used to be saying you printed archival grade prints was a big selling point by fine art printers and a way to imply high quality but to be honest; today it is pretty much of a non-issue.

I understand the questions because it was only a few years ago in which giclee prints did have a tendency to fade quickly due to inferior inks and whitening properties on the paper and canvas. As a matter of fact I have one of the first canvas prints I made with an old HP desktop inkjet printer in the late 90s. Within a few years the colors had faded and it had started to yellow. All due to both the dye based inks it used as well as the low quality canvas I found.

Today things have changed dramatically. Printers now use pigmented inks which last much longer and the canvas or paper manufacturers know artists or photographers are wanting something that will last. When we first started to produce canvas prints as a business we were using an HP 5500PS, possibly one of the early printers which produced photo quality images using pigmented based inks. Because they were not dye based inks the prints would not smuged easily or seem to evaporate off the surface like previous prints would. While the inks were great HP was just slow to jump on the bandwagon when it came to marketing their inks as archival even though they seem to have been one of the first to produce them to the degree where you could get fairly decent color matching. While the printer did have some to be desired when it came to color accuracy compared to today’s much better printers, the inks were very robust and would last. Even the WilhelmImaging Research did a study to indicate when printed on certain HP media the prints had a 200 year lifetime.

It was not long before Epson jumped on the archival grade bandwagon. While they were a little short of 200 year life span which HP could boast of, the inks produced more accurate prints with archival ratings somewhere in the 100-150 year range, depending on what you are printing on. What really set them apart is while using pigmented inks they could get incredible color accuracy. Soon Canon followed and now the two seem to be neck and neck when it comes to being the best in both color accuracy and archivability. HP too has improved but I am not as familair with them anymore.

So why do I say is it a non-issue. I think because any company worth it’s name is going to be using one of the big name brands such as HP, Epson or Canon. At this time we use Epson and Canon with Epson and Canon inks but any of them are essentially going to use archival inks as long as they are not using some sort of generic refilled cartridges. The real factor which influences longevity of the print today is the media and the optical brighteners.

All papers or canvas have optical brighteners (OB) of one sort or another. An OB is simply a bleaching process which gives a paper or canvas substrates their white point level. Basically the stronger the OBs the whiter the substrate. As this breakdown over time the underlying natural colors starts to become more obvious which is why you get that yellowing look. I am sure there are other chemical reactions going on but that is basically what is going on. Fortunately today OBs are much more advanced in their chemical makeup and less likely to break down quickly compared to the past therefore the chances of your print having any noticeable changes throughout the years becomes less. One of the reasons the canvas and papers we use are so popular in the professional photography and art reproduction industry is because the company that makes them has done considerable research and development to make sure the prints will last.

Some printing companies will probably still promote how archival their prints but the reality is unless a company is using very old printers and media which is not engineered for the fine art and photo printing industry the chances of today’s prints not being archival grade is slim.

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