Fine art printing: a guide to stunning image reproduction

Fine art printing: a guide to stunning image reproduction

The ‘perfect’ printed image depends on good communication with your printer. Informed buyers will find it far easier to achieve their desired results.

There’s a ripe opportunity to print higher-quality images, with far less complexity, for publishers and artists who are better-informed about the factors that lead to outstanding print reproduction.

At Park, we’re often humbled by the experience of the many creative professionals we collaborate with. Many are frequent print buyers, who sometimes know what they’re buying – which can prove valuable.

Still, a knowledge gap often makes it more difficult to achieve the clients’ desired results.

So Park has put together this guide, showing the key areas where a client can ask the right questions, share the right information, and increase their chances of getting it right first time – not to mention cutting out hassle, time, and associated costs.

These are the key areas covered in this guide; you can click the links to skip down to each section.

  • Screens – why different types of screens are better for different kinds of artwork
  • Retouching – the importance of using the correct profiles
  • Paper – choosing the right material for your images and desired creative effects
  • Coatings – the options, and the effects on colour reproduction
  • Ink – the possibilities and limitations of CMYK, and specialist alternatives
  • Proofing – and why there’s no alternative to hard copy proofs for fine art productions
  • Press-passing – recommended for colour-critical pages and discerning customers

…but, before we get on to technical advice, there are a few things you can do set your project off on the right foot:

1. Start with good-quality photography.

Park receives a surprising number of poorly-lit images taken on smartphone cameras. No matter how good your printer, their output can only ever be as good as the raw materials.

2. Use a colour-calibrated screen for retouching.

An image shown on a backlit display will inevitably look different on the printed page – but it will at least ensure that the colours the retoucher sees are closer to the natural appearance of the object.

3. Communication is everything.

You could eliminate a lot of to-and-fro by using your printer’s in-house retouching team (click here to learn about retouching & repro at Park), but clients often prefer to retouch in house or use a third-party supplier. In these cases, certain crucial pieces of information must be exchanged between printer and retoucher in order to get best results.

Ultimately, it falls to the client coordinate the relationship between the printer and the retoucher, and ensure that they align on colour output before the production begins.

Talk to your printer about screens

Different kind of screening can produce variations in reproduction and the tone of colours, and are better suited to different kinds of image. Speak to your printer about screening so you can consider different effects on press.

Screens are the patterns of tiny dots in which ink is applied to the page. Variations on the pattern affects the depth and tone of colours – so different screens are better suited to different kinds of image.

You should, therefore, show the printer your images before you start retouching, and find out which screens they plan to use.

The two most-commonly used types of screen are…

‘Standard’ screena rosette pattern of ink dots

  • Pros: produces punchy images
  • Cons: distortion in the reproduction of fine details – i.e., close-ups of woven fabric.
standard or AM screening
Look closely at the metal bars. This detail, of an image printed using standard a standard screen, shows how the rosette pattern of ink dots can produce distortion in fine details.

Stochastic screen – a random patter of much finer dots

  • Pros: ideal for the reproduction of fine details, fine lines and smooth tints
  • Cons: can make less-detailed images look flat
stochastic screen used for very fine detail
The finely-detailed pattern of this front cover reproduces cleanly thanks to the use of a stochastic screen.

Traditionally, you would choose the best screening type for each page of print – which presents an obvious problem: what if the page in question has both fine details, and smooth tints?

Specialist screening techniques exist for cases such as this.

Sublima screening

…is a hybrid technology which uses a finer standard screen for most areas of the image, and a stochastic dot in the highlight and shadows.

sublima screening
This images shows an example of Sublima screening – where different different screens are used to better reproduce different areas of the same image. Standard screening (red) has been used for the mid-tones; note the rosette dot pattern. Stochastic (yellow) has been used for the highlights and low-lights.

Park also offers proprietary technology, Park XD ScreeningTM, in which stochastic and standard screens are used for different areas of the same page.

Park XD Screening
This page was printed used Park XD Screening, our proprietary screening technology, where standard screening (yellow) and stochastic screening (red) are used for different sections of the same page. Standard screening lends depth to the image, whilst stochastic screening provides a smooth grey tint for the text background.

Not every printer offers every kind of screening, so buyers should be aware of the possibilities. This will allow you to have an informed discussion about how to achieve your desired effect, and to select a printer with the right capabilities for your types of image. 

Retouch using the correct colour profiles

For accurate reproduction, ask your printer which profiles to use during retouching.

A ‘colour profile’ is a computer file which dictates how the print technology interprets colours in a digital image. They are also used during retouching, so that the artworker can see how the colours will appear when printed.

Printers use two profiles: one for coated stock, and one for uncoated stock. This is because the same print screen, applied to different paper surfaces, will produce slightly different colours – as explained below.

printing coated profile on uncoated stock
This image the effect of printing using the wrong profile for your paper type. A coated profile was used to print on both coated (left) and uncoated stock (right). The image on the right is duller. This is because the dots have increased in size much more on the uncoated paper (an effect known as ‘dot gain’), merging together, and they are also more absorbed into the sheet, producing a less reflective finish.

If colour is very important to you, and you want to control the results on press, then it is advisable to ask your printer which profile to use when you’re preparing your artwork, as it’s possible your software presets may be out of date.

Park is one of a small number of printers to use a colour server to process all files for printing. What this means, in practice, is that you will get very good results from your supplied files whatever profile they are supplied in, as the colour server will convert them to the correct profile for the stock they are being reproduced on.

If your printer hasn’t invested in a colour server, retouching using the right profiles is critical. Even with a colour server, it will still help to achieve optimal effects.

A common mistake is the use of ‘U.S. Web Coated’ profiles. Despite being the standard in Adobe applications, they are out of date, and not used by UK printers; they are in fact profiles developed for printing on US Web presses. This profile is therefore likely to lead to inaccurate reproduction.

printing profiles for coated and uncoated stock
In this image, the page on the left has been retouched using the wrong profile – US Web Coated – for the paper type. On the right, the correct profile was used for the uncoated stock. The use of the wrong profile on the left has caused the purple to have reproduced with more red, and a yellowing to have appeared in the model’s face.

In certain cases, bespoke curves can be used to adjust for differences between the appearance of colours during retouching, and the appearance of colour on press. This can be for a range of reasons: most often for papers with highly unusual surfaces, but also when a customer supplies their own proofs, or when retouching is undertaken by a third-party repro house.

A printer may also develop a bespoke curve for a customer who sets store by particular colour reproduction values – as Park did for The National Gallery.

bespoke curve for fine art printing
Park’s productions for the National Gallery use a bespoke curve to achieve the clients’ desired colour reproduction values on press.

 

Choose the best paper for your image types

Different papers reproduce imagery in different ways, so it’s very important to know how to handle each stock. Sometimes, you may have to trade off between colour accuracy and your choice of materials. Consider specialist creative stocks for extra-special effects.

Before choosing a stock, you should consider your priorities for the finished product. Some clients are interested in texture, weight, and how the page falls – factors on which your printer can make recommendations, but which may require some experimentation to achieve your desired effect.

Generally, however, colour reproduction and reflectivity are the client’s primary concerns, since they are the factors that most impact how images appear on the page.

Stocks such as Antalis’ Novatech’ ‘and ‘Claro’ ranges, and Arctic paper’s fine art collection, are a safe bet, and a popular choice with artists and galleries – but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to paper choices, and the range of creative possibilities they confer.

How different paper types reproduce images

Each paper has a different level of absorbency, and a different level of reflectivity. It is the combination of these factors which leads to an image looking more or less vibrant, depending on which stock it’s printed on.

There are three main types of paper:

  • Gloss: highly reflective, minimally absorbent
    • Gloss is optimal for accurate colour reproduction and detail, because the ink dries on the surface of the page. This allows for high-density ink coverage and a vibrant finish.
  • Matt and silk: quite reflective, somewhat absorbent
    • These stocks are slightly less reflective, and this does mean slightly less vibrancy of colour – but colour reproduction is still quite accurate.
  • Uncoated stocks: not reflective, highly absorbent
    • Trendy, with a tactile surface, and popular with independent magazine publishers. But the rougher surface absorbs more ink, and reflects less light, so colours are compromised.

Within these broad categories, there is variation from one stock to the next – and there are no hard-and-fast rules; uncoated stocks can be used for fine art productions if handled correctly.

Dialogue with your printer about images and reproduction values, and hard copy proofing, are both recommended to find the perfect formula.

Dominick Sheldon’s photography portfolio was printed on ‘Munken Lynx Rough’, a specialist art stock by Arctic Paper. Park’s colour manager experimented with the paper and images to reproduce the imagery in fine detail.

fine art printing on uncoated stock

Alternative stocks

Beyond the three main types of paper, there are also recycled materials and creative stocks.

Recycled paper is a popular request, and there are fully-recycled and part-recycled variants on both coated and uncoated stocks. They are, however, typically more difficult to work with. Higher recycled content often means more paper dust which can create blemishes in the image, and greater visibility of dark specs from contaminants picked up during the recycling process.

Textured boards may be used for covers for creative effect such as Colorplan Forest gravure embossed used by Martin Beisly Fine Art for their William Powell Frith catalogue.

colorplan forest textured board
This fine art brochure is made from a textured board, Colorplan Forest 350gsm.

Whilst these boards may bear printed images, they are more often chosen for their colour and tactility – factors that demand special expertise to manage colour reproduction when images are used.

Creative stocks include metallicized and pearlescent papers, such as Arjowiggins’ ‘Curious Metallic’ and Fedrigoni’s ‘Sirio Pearl’ ranges. These papers have a unique colour and sheen, compared to printing with a metallic or fluorescent Pantone ink on conventional stock.

metallic ink printed in a metallicized surface
For this fine art production, metallic ink was printed on a metallic surface, capturing the play of light of different areas of the image – particularly noticeable here on the model’s shoes.

The varied surfaces of creative stocks will impact the colour of your imagery in different ways. They are also trickier to handle, and not every printer can print on them effectively.

But even with conventional stocks, you need to be aware of the impact your choice of material will have on the reproduction of your images, and to choose a printer who can demonstrate their ability to manage those effects.

Apply coatings to increase your range of textures and styles

Consider the use of coatings to further extend the possibilities with your chosen paper stocks, add tactility, and highlight areas of the page.

There are three main categories of coatings, all of which have an effect on colour reproduction.

UV varnish may be used to highlight specific areas of an image, a heading, or an entire page.

Laminates are thin plastic layers, usually applied to the covers of publications to protect the surface from damage during binding, transportation and use by the reader, and to add tactility.

They are available in gloss, matt, soft touch and silk textures, and each type of laminate will impact the colour of the printed image it covers in a different way. Gloss tends to enhance reds, whilst matt laminates and soft-touch laminates – used for their highly tactile finish – will reduce the vibrancy of the colour.

Matt laminates are also available in a biodegradable option.

Seals and coats do more or less the same thing – helping the ink dry hard on the paper, and protecting the print from damage during the binding process, but they can also be used to visual or tactile effect. Seals, like ink, take time to dry, whereas coats dry instantly.

As with laminates, they are available in neutral, gloss, matt or soft touch, and the matt and soft-touch options will reduce the vibrancy of colour.

One of the purposes of a seal or coating may be to offset or enhance certain properties of your chosen paper stock. For ACT, an independent art magazine, Park added a matt coat to silk stock. The silk stock provided the clients’ desired vibrancy of colour, whilst the matt coat reduced reflectivity.

matt coat applied to silk stock for fine art printing
Look at the floor in front of her feet. On the right, you can see some glare off the page, since the silk stock is somewhat reflective. On the left, a matt coat has been applied to reduce reflectivity. This is at a slight compromise to the depth of colour (the carpet appears less orange under the coat), however, the coat has also brought out the textured grain of the wooden furniture in the background.

 

Employ alternative inks to extend your colour gamut

You can achieve a lot with standard, four-colour process inks. For certain shades and tones, specialised inks will be needed for an accurate reproduction, but they come at a cost, and are trickier to manage. Ask your printer to show their experience with similar colours to find the right inks for your production.

A standard colour process uses four ink shades – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) to achieve a very broad colour gamut. Results with CMYK can be superb, and Park sometimes advises clients against the use of more expensive Pantone inks, when CMYK will do.

The bright pink used throughout Extreme is On! by painter Chris Guest, an art portfolio book, comes from heavy use of magenta in a standard, four-colour process. The client had requested a Pantone, but Park produced the same effect in CMYK, which also helped to reduce costs.

comparing printing in pantone inks to cmyk
This image compares a page printed in CMYK, with the equivalent magenta Pantone. There is only a small discernible difference in colour – showing that you can swap out branded inks for standard inks, for certain shades.

CMYK does, however, have limitations. It cannot reproduce fluorescence or metallic effects, and some colours such as violets, lime greens and oranges can look dirty if you try to print them in CMYK. This is where Pantones come into their own.

branded inks are needed to print in flourescent colours
This image shows a page printed in fluorescent pink Pantone, alongside the equivalent, non-fluorescent shade. Fluorescent colours can’t be reproduced in CMYK.

Pantones are bought as solid colours – so, rather than blending CMYK shades in dotted patterns, as with four colour process – an individual Pantone can be used a tint or solid colour.

The 1,867 available Pantone colours include metallic and fluorescent options, and they are popular with artists for their accuracy in producing colours difficult to reproduce in CMYK. They are also popular with brands because of their reliability in producing corporate colours.

Complexity arises with metallic and high-pigment inks, which are chemically and materially different to standard inks, and so need to be expertly managed on press.

Metallic inks are opaque, whereas CMYK inks are translucent. This presents different difficulties, depending on how the metallic shade is used.

The simplest use of a metallic ink is where it’s applied as a single area of colour. In almost all cases, this metallic area will butt up against CMYK ink on the same page. Where two colours appear alongside each other, there is a tiny area of overlap known as ‘trapping’. When this occurs between metallic and CMYK inks, it needs to be carefully managed to prevent the metallic showing through the CMYK ink.

printing in metallic ink
This image shows areas of metallic ink and CMYK ink on the same page. Normally, there is a tiny area of overlap between areas of different colours, known as ‘trapping’. Since metallic inks are opaque, whereas CMYK inks are translucent, the overlap must be carefully managed to prevent the CMYK image showing through the metallic ink.

Greater complexity arises when you wish to integrate specialised and CMYK inks in the same process to achieve certain effects – if, for instance, you wish to recreate art printed on a metallic surface, or you wish to integrate deeper, more intense shades alongside standard CMYK colours.

In a heptachrome process, three high-intensity, high-pigmentation inks are integrated in to an image alongside the usual four CMYK colours. Dots of all seven colours are applied to the paper to extend the colour gamut achievable on press.

A heptachrome process was used for Immortal, a fine art production. Three highly-pigmented TOYO inks were used alongside the CMYK colours to capture the full vibrancy of the photographers’ signature oranges, violets and greens.

printing in heptachome inks vs a four-colour process
For Immortal, a fine art production, a smaller postcard set was printed alongside the full size prints. The full-size prints were printed in a heptachrome process; the splash of red light on the subject’s chest, and in particular, the lustre of the green mask, shows the dramatic effects you can achieve by incorporating high-intensity inks.

Specialist inks are exciting, and they greatly extend the range of creative possibilities, but not every printer can handle them. They require specialist reprographics and carefully calibrated printing technology, including bespoke calibration curves and careful retouching to get the best out of each image.


Hard-copy proofing is vital for fine art printing

On-screen proofing has its uses, but also its limitations. Different kinds of hard copy  proof are better used for different kinds of image.

Hard copy proofs are the most colour-accurate way of proofing your production.

On screen proofing is sometimes sufficient for productions where colour values are less important. A colour-calibrated screen should be used, because colours vary from one standard digital display to another.

But even with a calibrated screen, the colours will appear differently on a printed page to how they appear on a backlit display.

There are two kinds of hard-copy proofs.

Epson proofs are printed on purpose-made proofing stocks. Available in both coated and uncoated options, proofing stocks can be used to achieve a pretty good match in colour to your finished production.

Epson proofs have limitations. The base material is only available in one or two shades, whereas supposedly ‘white’ stocks actually vary significantly in colour. And uncoated Epson papers are more prone to inaccuracy, since they are smoother and less absorbent than most uncoated art stocks. That means that that they will absorb less ink, reflect more light, and produce more intense colours than in your finished production.

colour reproduction on epson proofs
Look at the model’s face. This image shows the same artwork reproduced on an Epson proof (right) and on the production-quality paper (left). The colours are a fairly close match, but the model’s face appears greyer in the Epson proof, and the wall behind her is also slightly duller.

Nonetheless, Epson proofs are far more accurate than on screen proofing, and they are relatively low-cost, so they are commonly used to proof every page of a production.

A press proof, also known as a wet proof, is printed on the selected material for the finished product, making it the only way to achieve a truly colour-accurate production. A scatter proof is a wet proof showing multiple images, or multiple pages of your production on a single large sheet. If you have the budget, you can consider the effect and trial different combinations of paper, coat and ink until you’re happy.

scatter proof
A scatter proof, showing several pages of a single production on the chosen stock. This provides a fully-accurate representation of the colours as they will appear in the finished production.

Some customers may choose not to print an Epson proof of all pages, and instead only a scatter proof of their most important images.

Every client should budget for the best-possible proofing method they can afford, in order to ensure they get the printed results they want.

Consider press-passing your most colour-critical pages

Ultimately, only the human eye can determine what ‘right’ looks like. Attend a press pass to sign off your production in person and guarantee your desired result.

The most common need for ‘press passing’ – where the client attends when their project is on press so they can share in this decision-making – is when uncoated stocks are used. Epson proofs are never a 100% match for these highly variable surfaces, so clients often choose to be on-hand to tweak the results.

There are also certain variables which can only be controlled by the human eye – such as ‘tracking’.

Tracking occurs when there are multiple ‘pages to view’ – where a single large sheet is used to print multiple pages of a production; at Park, the typical number  is eight pages to view – and the colours of those pages are very different.

If the page at the front of the sheet has a high proportion of one colour –  magenta, for instance – there will be less magenta available for the page that sits behind it. As a result, those other pages are likely to look less red than is required to match the proof.

Experienced minders work to offset this effect by using their judgement to meet the customer’s expectations. However, this is the area where the customer can give helpful guidance whilst attending on press.

Many of Park’s clients choose to press pass to ensure colours appear exactly as they wish. Press-passing is, however, a billable services with many printers. Some clients therefore choose to press-pass on the front cover and colour-critical pages only, and entrust their printer to press-pass the rest of the production.

press passing a magazine
The publishers of Limbo magazine attending a press pass at Park.

 

The printed image: both a science, and an art

Every print production is subject to certain quality control variables. Some of these – such as the condition of the chemistry and the conductivity of the water used on press – can and should be meticulously controlled by your printer.

But we hope this article shows that you can do everything right on print production – applying the optimum screens, retouching using correct profiles and plate curves, and using the most accurate press proofing – and still encounter further variables that impact colour arise when printing the final sheets.

This underlines the true nature of printing, as both a science, and an art in its own right: an accumulation of dozens of human decisions, often by multiple stakeholders at different companies, supported by an arsenal of different technologies – but ultimately, orchestrated by the human eye.

This orchestration should be a shared responsibility between client and printer. From the outset, you must arrive at a shared vision of the desired outcome, and an understanding of what is and isn’t possible within the budget. From there, you can set out an agreed process, and understand which pieces of information to share so that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Given the subjectivity of what constitutes a ‘perfect’ image, it falls on the printer to be flexible and adaptable: recommending adjustments and implementing fixes in order to bring the finished product in-line with the client’s expectations.

But the value of an informed buyer cannot be underestimated, when it comes to ensuring a fast, trouble-free production, and the best-possible reproduction of your images on the page.

We hope this guide proves a valuable step towards this goal – but if you have questions, or wish to find out more, you can always give Park a call.

Fine art & gallery brochure printing at Park

Artists, photographers, and art dealers, such as Halcyon Gallery and Portland Gallery, rely on Park’s class-leading quality to support and sales and promotional work.

With attentive project management, 24-hour operation and an unparalleled range of services conducted under one roof at our London facility, we are optimally placed to execute a rapid turnaround for your next exhibition or sale.

Visit our fine art printing hub to view our case studies and learn more.

press passing a print production
Alison & Heath, Park’s directorial team, passing on press on behalf of a client.

RELATED CASE STUDIES

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