The Future of Prints

I was in a meeting with some artists/photographers who were very interested in the topic of digital printing and we were discussing how producing prints from photography and artwork has changed over time. One of the questions brought up was what I expected the future to bring about. I had to think about that for a moment as I gauged how it had changed in the past decade when it came to the inks we use compared to when I started.

For starters I said some of the changes will be trend oriented while others will be the result in improvements in the technology. Trend-wise you will see things pop up like printing directly on metal plates, acrylic, wooden blocks and so on but you don’t see people ordering prints on those like you see on canvas which I think is here to stay. I said that artists such as those working in paints and other traditional methods will continue to move toward prints based on inkjet technology just as photographers have but the prints will get even better and hopefully more economical. We will see improvements in the media being printed to as well as the inks themselves. Paper is an easy example to describe. For instance the brightening agents which give paper and canvas their “whiteness” will become better. In the past decade we have seen great improvements which keep these agents from breaking down over time therefore giclee prints on fine art paper and canvas are better able to keep their original colors and contrast as they age. Unfortunately this is not talked about enough but the papers we use today are generally superior to anything used in the past. But what people want to talk about more are the inks.

I said the inks also undergone a major shift and improvement over time which will continue to happen. To give some background I told how when we first started, we felt we were on the cutting room floor because we were using "pigment" based inks with UV inhibitors versus dye based inks that others were using. The difference with our inks were they had a longer lifespan. I said if you happen to have an inkjet print you made over a decade ago, there was a good chance it was produced with dye based inks. There is also the likelihood it has had some substantial fading. This may partially be due to the paper the image was printed on but also because those dye based inks just did not last. I have several canvas prints still which I had first experimented on using an inkjet printer with dye based inks and because of both the dye based inks and the quality of the canvas at the time they don’t look like they are fresh off the printer anymore. The inks have faded, the canvas looks brittle and overall they are a mess. In contrast I have some canvas prints done with our very first large format printer using pigmented inks which were done about a year later on better quality canvas. There about a decade old but these prints still retain their vivid colors and where they hang in a room exposed to sunlight every day and any breakdown in the “whiteness” of the canvas is not noticeable.

To illustrate how things had progressed I told them while the overall longevity was impressive we still had some challenges. Our biggest problem at the time was these inks produced by HP and printed on HP printers did an "okay" job when it came to color accuracy. When producing art reproductions I felt like the printer was Scotty from Star Trek telling me "I'm givin' it all I can, Captain". With little tweaks here and there we always managed to get the most out of the prints so the vast majority of our customers were satisfied. Unfortunately I wasn't.

Around that time Epson came up with their Ultra Chrome inks. These too were pigment based so initially I was skeptical about the color accuracy until my main supplier of inks and canvas told me that these were truly revolutionary when it came to getting the most out of your colors. I had heard photographers were moving in droves toward these new inks as well so with some trepidation I ordered one of these printers. My first few tests turned out prints which were amazing! Needless to say they won me over right away.

I told my audience I have stayed away from the HP line even though there has been some remarkable improvements from that company. Instead we introduced Canon printers along side our Epson printers. I had heard one of our competitors had started using them and the same supplier of Epson printers indicated Canon’s had a 12 ink system versus the Epson 8 ink color system. Their inks of course were also pigment based and easily rival the Epson Ultra Chrome inks in archivability and tonal range. Wilhelm Imaging Research, who are considered the authority in determining how inks measure up in their archivability, also gave the Canon Lucia Inks favorable reviews which I perceived in their reports as being slightly better.

So getting back to the original premise, what should we expect in the future. There has not been any big changes in the pigment line of inks by Epson and Canon for some time now. I think it has gotten to the point where the changes are more with the machines which use those inks. Getting a higher dot per inch, faster printer speed and even more colors have all contributed to improvements in the overall prints but these tend to be very subtle and will likely not be obvious to the recipient of the print.

What we are starting to see in a new movement on the horizon toward something called "solvent" based inks. Solvent based inks are not new but have primarily been used for commercial printing. Up until now they did an “okay” job when it came to color range and accuracy when compared to our pigment inks by Canon and Epson but they have gotten better.

Unlike the pigment based, the solvent inks are not aqueous inks which mean they are not water based. For the canvas printing company this is promising because they should be more durable highly durable so not protective spray coating afterwards to prevent scratches. I am not really convinced of that (I want to talk more about that in our next newsletter topic) but they are starting to get some serious looks and even some use by giclee printing services.

Though I suspect it won't be much longer before the solvent inks are ready for prime time personally I don’t feel the current generation of Epson printers using the solvent inks are quite there yet. But I am keeping my fingers crossed the next generation will be where we need it to be. Once it is the pigment inks will likely go the way of the dye inks.

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