Choosing Between Archival Papers
The range of archival papers from manufacturers like Hahnemühle, Canson, Moab, Ilford, Epson and Awagami seems to expand on an almost weekly basis. Most professional printers and creatives will have their preferred stocks but many newcomers to the world of giclée printing can find the array of papers available to them overwhelming. This short guide is designed to make the initial decision-making process a little easier. I’ll detail the basic non-technical factors to take into consideration when choosing a paper, then describe the main papers I stock on regular basis.
First, we should establish what we mean when we say a paper is “archival”. For a paper to be considered archival, it must conform to the standards detailed in the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 11108 guidelines. These guidelines mandate that archival paper should be acid-free (PH 7.5 – 10.0) and made from non-wooden (ie. lignin-free) cellulose fibres, usually derived from either cotton or linen. ISO 11108 also requires papers to confirm to minimum standards of durability against folding and tearing.
Optical Brightening Agents
What is not covered by ISO 11108 is the use of optical brightening agents (OBAs), probably the most controversial subject in fine art printing. OBAs are dyes that increase the brightness and whiteness of the paper and are more or less the same as the whitening agents found in toothpaste. They have been used for decades in photographic papers but there is much debate as to whether a print can be truly considered archival if the stock contains these brightening agents. OBAs have a tendency to fade over time and many printers and artists feel this can contribute to the overall decay of the paper, reducing its longevity. Others feel that the risk is minimal (particularly with papers containing low levels of OBAs) and outweighed by aesthetic considerations.
In the past I have been somewhat agnostic when it comes to the use of OBAs. As a photographer, I preferred the look of my own work on bright paper but as a professional printer I have always felt more comfortable recommending OBA-free papers to my clients. In the end, what has decided the matter for me is the issue of framing. OBAs work by reflecting otherwise invisible UV light into (visible) blue spectrum, counteracting the natural warmth of the paper. This mean OBAs require UV light to strike the surface of the paper in order to have any effect. However, as a conservation framer I install UV resistant glass in all my frames as standard, effectively negating any positive influence the OBAs might have on the aesthetics of the print and thus I no longer see any benefit to using papers that contain OBAs. However, I still stock certain papers with low OBA levels (such as Canson Baryta, Hahnemühle German Etching and Daguerre canvas) due to their popularity with clients.
The first and probably the simplest decision to make is whether you want your prints on matte or gloss paper. Gloss papers are primarily used for printing photography, though I have seen some brightly coloured illustration work printed on semi-gloss which looked quite good (to my surprise). Matte papers are more suited to reproductions of paintings or illustrations, though many art photographers prefer to print on a smooth matte paper like Canson Rag Photographique.
The next thing to take into consideration is texture. Most gloss papers tend to be smooth (with notable exceptions like Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta) but matte papers are available in a variety of surfaces, from lightly textured papers like Canson Print Making Rag (formerly known as BFK Rives) to papers like Canson’s Aquarelle, which features a heavily textured surface similar to watercolour paper. If you’re thinking about printing on textured papers, it’s worth taking the size and level of detail within the image into consideration. Small pictures with fine detail end up looking messy and soft when printed on heavily textured papers. That said, larger images with blocks of solid colour or subtle gradients could benefit from a bit of texture. If you are reproducing an illustration or painting, it is also worth considering the paper stock upon which the original piece was created. Giclee printing is a photographic process and so some of the characteristics of the original paper or canvas will likely be present in the finished print. Printing a textured image on textured paper can yield messy results, so in such cases I generally suggest printing on a smooth or lightly textured stock.
After finish and texture, you might want to consider weight or thickness, which is expressed in gsm (grams per square metre). Ordinary copy paper weighs around 80gsm, whereas the papers I stock are usually over 300gsm. Heavier papers are, as you might expect, more durable but also more expensive. Printing on lighter paper can reduce costs, but as most buyers of fine art prints will expect them to come on heavy stock, printing on papers below 200gsm can appear cheap and might be regarded as an inferior quality product.
If you’re an artist looking to sell your own work, you might also consider the manufacturer’s reputation or name-recognition. Both Canson and Hahnemühle have each been producing paper for over 400 years and are well known to artists everywhere. Ilford is a brand that has been synonymous with photography almost since the medium’s inception. For many, these names come with a guarantee of quality. On the other hand, Epson is a well-known manufacturer of printers and their K3 Ultrachrome inks are the gold standard for giclée printing but their brand is not synonymous with fine art papers, despite producing many high-quality products in this field. It’s all a matter of how you choose to promote your prints to prospective buyers. To this end, the perceived ethics of one’s choices as a consumer can also play an important role and, as far as papers go, the primary ethical concern for many is environmental. If this is important to you or your clients, then Hahnemühle Bamboo might be your paper of choice.
These are just a few of the factors you might take into consideration if you are choosing paper for the first time. The most important thing though is how well the paper works with your artwork and often the only way know for sure is to run off a test print. I offer test prints for discounted rates to my clients and for larger orders I deduct the price from the final invoice.
Now that we’ve considered some of the issues involved in choosing papers, I’ll talk a little more about some of the common papers I stock.
Canson Rag Photographique 310gsm
This 100% cotton rag paper is by far my most popular stock. It is very similar to Hahnemühle's Photo Rag, which is apparently the most popular giclée paper in the world, but unlike the Hahnemühle, Canson’s version has no OBAs. It also has a wider gamut, which means it can produce a broader range of colours and tones. This is important to me as I have a number of regular clients who produce brightly coloured illustrations and this is the only paper I’ve found so far which can accurately reproduce them. The surface of this paper is also completely smooth, which makes it a popular choice with photographers.
Print on Canson Rag Photographique 310gsm. Original art by Leigh Garipidis.
Hahnemühle German Etching 310gsm
This is a medium-textured 100% alpha cellulose paper, great for reproducing illustrations and paintings. It is mould-made, which generally refers to a mechanical process more in line with traditional paper-making methods (though Awagami still produce certain papers by hand) which results in a more durable paper with a pleasing surface texture. This paper does contain OBAs, though Hahnemühle's data sheet specifies that the OBA content is “very low”.
Detail of print on Hahnemühle German Etching 310gsm. Original painting by Amy Duncan.
Prints available from Lepus Luna.
Canson Arches Aquarelle Rag 310gsm
A more heavily textured paper, mould-made from 100% cotton, and free of OBAs. As the name implies, this is the digital version of Arches Aquarelle watercolour paper, beloved by artists everywhere (Canson acquired Arches in 1976).
Detail of print on Canson Arches Aquarelle Rag 310gsm. Artwork by Paulus Knogh.
Prints available from Lepus Luna.
Hahnemühle Bamboo 290gsm
A blend of 90% bamboo and 10% cotton, this paper is the most environmentally friendly stock available and is completely free of OBAs. Although listed as a “smooth” paper, its surface is more lightly textured than Canson Rag Photographique (comparable perhaps to BFK Rives) and has a distinctly warmer tone. This paper is a great choice for photographers who prefer matte stocks and is one of my favourite papers overall.
Print on Hahnemühle Bamboo 290gsm. Photography by Julie Abreu.
Canson Baryta Photographique 310gsm & Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk 310gsm
Both these papers feature an alpha cellulose fibre base coated with a barium sulphate layer (from which the name “baryta” is derived) as found in traditional silver halide photo papers. Both are capable of reproducing exceptional levels of detail and tonality, the only real difference being that the Ilford stock is slightly warmer and the Canson is closer to a pure white. For this reason, the Canson is generally my go-to stock for photographic clients, but I usually carry the Ilford (in cut sheets) as this is the paper I have printed my own photographs on since I was a student. Canson Baryta contains low levels of OBAs according to their data sheet, whilst Ilford say they use “essentially no” OBAs.
Prints on Canson Baryta Photographique 310gsm. Photography by Ian Bickerstaff.
Hahnemühle Daguerre Canvas 400gsm
This is a finely textured, bright white canvas, which makes it good for photography and general art reproduction. It does contain OBAs, but as canvas is generally not framed behind glass I feel they provide some benefit in this case. This canvas has great colour, contrast and it also stretches nicely - something which is important to me as a framer.
Print on Hahnemühle Daguerre Canvas 400gsm. Original painting by John Singer Sargent.
Prints available from Lepus Luna.
I hope this brief guide has been of some help in framing the basic factors to take into consideration when choosing papers for the first time. It should be noted however that this guide is by no means exhaustive and, of course, there are many other technical points I might explore in future posts (experienced printers might note the word “Dmax” does not appear anywhere in the above). I should also note that my customers are not necessarily bound to choose from the papers I keep in ready supply. Some of my clients have their own favourites and I also have many samples available for perusal in my Tecoma store.
Please email me if you would like to see a copy of pricelist.