It Looks Good on Paper

Nothing is more disconcerting than to lay down a background layer of ink and watch your paper do an impression of the North Atlantic in storm season.

One of the first art prints I made hangs on the wall in my living room. It’s been around since 1982, and although the basic elements are still there, some of the colors, especially the reds and purples, have faded to the point that they can’t be distinguished from each other. If this print is like many from that time period, if popped out of the frame, it has probably yellowed as well.

Being young, stupid, uneducated, and naïve (pick any four) about the art-print game, I used a speckletone parchment paper that was all the rage in graphic design at the time. We bought this from our paper supplier, who sold tons of cover-weight paper, with all kinds of finishes. What they didn’t sell
was rag paper—paper made from cotton, which, along with other characteristics, is also acid-free and has neutral pH.

Once I started working with artists and talking to other printers, I quickly learned about the difference between cellulose (tree-based) papers, which make up most of the paper we see in our regular lives, and so-called rag paper, made from cotton and used almost exclusively for fine-art prints, watercolors, and archival documents. Its other major usage is for banknotes.

From its invention in 105 AD in China until 1840, when a Canadian and a German both independently discovered how to pulp tree fibers, most paper was made from cotton or rags and some plant fibers, including hemp, mulberry, rice, and bamboo. For you trivia buffs, the word paper is derived from papyrus, used since ancient times in Egypt, but not considered true paper because it was not pulped, only flattened, a technicality.

In the 8th century, paper-making moved from China into Arabia, and Bagdad, Cairo, and Marrakesh became papermaking centers, where the process was mechanized. The Moors brought it to Spain in the 1100s, and then it spread through Europe. In Italy, Fabriano started making it in1300 and continues to do so until today. By the 1400s, the technology had migrated into Germany and northern Europe, where its arrival coincided with the creation of woodblock art prints by various artists. The limited-edition art print was born.
With the worldwide demand for printing paper exploding in the late 1800s, pulped trees and their cellulose fiber became the source material for paper. Not only was it plentiful and cheap—hey, the country was covered with gigantic trees, and chips from sawmills fed the pulp mills—but newspaper, book, and magazine printing became increasingly automated. Pulp and paper mills sprang up all across North America and Europe, anywhere that had a plentiful supply of wood fiber and water—the prime ingredients in the process.

The biggest problem, which wasn’t really a problem because most newspapers were thrown away after a few days, was the tendency of tree-based paper to yellow and inks to fade over time, due to the acids from the lignin contained in the raw materials, and the bleaches used to whiten the paper.

About the only people who noticed were artists, book and art collectors, and museum workers. The importance of using archival materials became more significant as the effects of age and environment on artwork and books created from tree-based paper came under increased scrutiny. It became apparent that old fashioned rag paper had much better colorfastness and resisted yellowing when compared to regular paper. But it wasn’t until the later part of the 1900s that standards regulating pH levels were introduced, environmental concerns came to the forefront, and paper mills changed their ways.

So now we have acid-free rag paper, and we have regular paper. Many mills, responding to demand, have created hybrid papers that feature a percentage of cotton, and more importantly, a neutral pH balance, so they are considered acid free. Removing lignin, substituting other additives such as chalk, and adding alkaline value has also worked to neutralize the effects of the acids.

The reality of the art-print business is that volume producers running offset lithographs in editions that can go into the thousands use these blended papers, both for economy and because they will run problem-free on high-speed presses. Rag paper, especially with deckle (untrimmed) edges, becomes problematic when running through a Heidelberg.

Luther Davis, the director of Axelle Fine Arts print shop in Brooklyn, NY, lists other criteria when it comes to picking paper. “Coventry Rag 335 gsm is my favorite,” he says. “As we print almost exclusively with water-based inks, I like a paper that stays dimensionally stable through the run. Another paper that we like for printing is Somerset Satin Radiant White 500 gsm [also 100% cotton]. It is very white and smooth—the smoother the paper, the better as far as I’m concerned! Another great paper is Revere, which comes in many colors, weights, and textures.”

With the average release price of prints from Axelle nearing $2000, the cost of the paper is not a big factor, and Davis uses what he or the artist likes. In the rock-poster world, where the average price for a gigposter is closer to $30, paper cost is important. So even though the posters are signed and numbered, and the art, ink, and screen printing is virtually identical to the equivalent print in the fine-art world, your gigposter artist will go with cheaper paper. It’s not uncommon for rag paper to be two to five times more expensive than a sheet of regular cover weight.

Part of this is economy, another part is aesthetic. Companies like French Paper, a family-run mill in upstate Michigan for more than 100 years, cater to the postermakers and other creative printers and designers who are looking for texture, color, or both. The common bond between both camps, and Luther touched on it, is to find papers that stay flat when printed with water-based inks. Nothing is more disconcerting than to lay down a background layer of ink and watch your paper do an impression of the North Atlantic in storm season.

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