Are the prints we produce archival and what makes them archival? This is another one of those set of questions we get quite often. The first thing I tell them is yes. Because of the papers and inks we utilize the type of giclee prints we produce are some of the most archival prints you can get today. I also remind them they are also the most delicate since the inks lay of the surface of the paper. Improper handling or even jostling around can damage a print so it is important to always display it in such a fashion where careless handling or damage via shipping can be minimized. So what makes these delicate prints which are now so favored by both collectors, galleries and even museums so archival?
If you really want to know, the international standard for "archival" paper, is ISO 11108. You can google this if you want to view all the technical stuff behind this, but I would not be surprised if some off brand paper manufacturers don’t adhere to these is standards while still labeling their paper as archival. Rather than risk that, we prefer to stick with name brands such as Moab, Hahnemuhle and Lexjet. Since they are all reputable companies in the fine art and photo printing industry we have have know the papers provided to us by them are archival in nature. I have seen some varied definitions on describing archival papers but any truly archival paper are going to fall under the camp of archival grade or conservation grade.
Archival grade is distinguished by being made of cotton pulp. Sometimes it may also be referred to as museum grade. If you see in the description terms like “cotton rag” that is going to be a good indicator of this type of paper. Not all will look alike. Some might be smooth, some might be textured and they can yield different results when printed to when it comes to color gamut and tonal range capabilities. For instance, the Somerset Velvet which we recently had a special on is a 100% cotton paper. And you can tell because of the feel and the way it tears if you try to give a print a deckled or torn edge. Another all cotton papers but look and behave very differently is our Ultrasmooth Fine Art Paper. Not only does it have a different feel but it is far less absorbant so yields a printed image with more contrast due to the inks not being absorbed as much by the paper. When torn it appears less fibrous so having a cotton base may be less obvious.
Conservation grade is considered to be alpha-cellulose in nature which means it is a wood pulp base and has been chemically treated to be acid free. It too can be molded into various textures and brightness levels. My personal favorite paper at the moment is the Hahnemuhle Torchon which is a classic example of this type of paper. It has a parchment like feel. Another example of this paper but very different in its appearance is the resin coated Satin Luster Paper (Moab’s lasal EXHIBITION LUSTER 300) which seems to be a favorite among many of our photographers due to it's satin or luster gloss surface. With that paper you would not have a clue as to what it is made of since it tears very differently.
I guess I can mention a third category should be in order which is a hybrid of the two. When the paper is milled it will combine elements of both cotton as well as alpha-cellulose. A good example of this is our Cotton Etching which is actually only 25% cotton and 75% alpha-cellulose. Why the brand that we get this from calls it Cotton Etching and not alpha-cellulose etching other than maybe it sounds better. We chose to stick with the name it has since there is specific demand for this paper by name by interior designers and gallery curators we have served in the past.
When it comes to a paper being archival, that does not mean archival prints lasts forever. All paper deteriorates over time since by nature it us usually a plant based product. The difference is these fine art papers for giclee printing break down at a much slower rate than other papers. How fast is does varies based on environmental conditions as well as the overall makeup of the paper. Just understand also that there is no set time frame which decides when a paper is archival or not archival but under ideal conditions a giclee print on one of these papers we use should last at least a hundred years.
What used to impact the ability of an image to withstand the test of time more so was not if it was archival or not. Instead the brightening agents (called optical brighteners agents or OBAs) which would give the paper it’s white point. Papers like our Ultrasmooth Fine Art Paper and even the Fredrix canvas we use are OBA free but these tend to be exceptions with most giclee or fine art paper containing OBAs at some level. While OBAs have had controversy surrounding them in the past the truth is they have been a major part of the photo paper makeup since the 1950s. The concern was that they would break down or “evaporate” over time therefore causing the image to “yellow” which simply means the image begins to acquire the natural paper color. Some of these concerns we well founded in past decades but not today. Today the OBAs tend to be infused into the paper base and not applied as a mere top coating. Because they are now so widely relied on by even the big name papers, international institutions such as ISO, DIN, and the Library of Congress have made allowances for these brightening agents.
It should be noted In many instances the term archival gets thrown around quite loosely by the brands selling the paper. One organization actually tests a paper’s ability to be archival in relation to printing. That organization is Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR) based in Grinnell, Iowa. They are considered the foremost authority on archival and preservation for the photographic, digital, and printing industries. Name brands such as Canon and Epson rely extensively on them to conduct tests to determine how well their inks will withstand the test of time on certain media types. Granted when it comes to time, these are accelerated tests which only simulate a print’s lifespan but if you are very technical minded and venture through their website you will know that they know what they are doing.
The final determining factor will be the inks themselves. The good news is the inks we have used have always been name brand formulas which have been extensively tested by WIR. Many of the testing you see on the fine art media will be done with either Canon Lucia or Epson Ultrachrome inks which were engineered with longevity in mind. When giclee prints were first being introduced to the market in the 80s and 90s they were using sub-par inks. While I can’t say for sure, it does seem to be that once the new archival grade inks appeared giclee prints became an acceptable format by museums and galleries. Off brand inks may be cheaper, for us sticking with the brand intended for the printer insures they are not going to be evaporating or images will discolor.
So if someone ever asks you if the giclee prints produced at FinerWorks are archival, you can definitively say yes. Adhering to the standards set forth above as well as sticking with the name brand papers have guaranteed this when printed with the inks we use today.