I’ve always loved paper. The feel of it between my fingers, the weight in my hands, sensation, and look of the texture, the reflectivity of its surface, color tone, the material it’s made of, thickness, and even the smell are all qualities that make my heart skip a beat.
I can talk about the technical specifications of paper all day long but that misses the point entirely. The first time I saw my own image printed perfectly on a beautiful piece of fine art paper the experience didn’t leave me saying “the 310 gsm of this 100% cotton milled, microporous coated paper sure is more than satisfactory.” No! The experience brought me to tears.
That’s the kind of reaction that a beautiful print can evoke. The last step of creating your artwork, your final print, should be exciting and evoke an emotional response. Your paper choice is about falling in love!
Paper choice is the most critical decision when it comes to directly affect how your printed image will look. Nothing changes the look and feel of an image more than the paper it’s printed on.
Choosing a paper is about expressing your unique artistic signature which is the combination of your paper choice along with your image to make your artwork unique to you. The best part of this process is that there is no wrong answer.
You get to pick the paper you like. You get to create the art you want to and you get to decide which paper you love.
We don’t have to see eye to eye on this. You don't need to follow anyone’s advice or choose a paper just because it’s what a lab uses or even what your friend likes. This decision is as personal as any decision an artist can make.
With well over 200 inkjet papers on the market, making a choice is absolutely overwhelming. How do you choose? My focus is on papers of the best quality and character that allows us to express our unique artistic signature, gives us our best chance at longevity and the excellent print results that our work deserves.
For this article I’m going to narrow in on the papers of Canson Infinity. As one of their Ambassadors I am intimately familiar with their paper and very long history and legacy in the industry. Canson owns its own paper mills and makes their own papers. This offers the advantage of having the most control over their special, unique products, and exceptional consistent quality.
In the simplest terms, most inkjet paper bases can be broken down into three materials: resin coated, or RC papers, are layers of plastic over inexpensive paper. Alpha cellulose papers are made of wood pulp. And rag fine art papers are made of 100% cotton.
Over this base there is a thin barrier layer so that the ink never even touches the paper. Then a layer of microporous emulsion to hold the ink. Matte papers have a thinner microporous layer than glossy or luster papers. The thinner coating allows the natural texture and finish of the paper base to show through.
What do the words glossy, bright, textured, smooth, semi-glossy, and satin on a box of paper really mean? I’m sorry to say it but there is no standard definition. The words “bright white” usually mean the paper has optical brighteners, or OBAs, and needs UV light to look it’s brightest.
The description of a glossy paper doesn’t necessarily mean it’s very shiny. Sometimes it just means it has more of a shine than a paper that is completely matte. Semi-gloss, satin, luster, and pearl can mean the same thing or vary greatly between companies. Smooth versus texture is often a matter of comparison. It can be very confusing.
Let me share with you some very popular papers and my personal favorites. My goal here is to give you information to make your choices a little easier, not just based on the technical specs but on the unique qualities of the papers.
My absolute favorite paper is Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag. The name Platine comes from the name Arches Platine which is an actual fine art paper that continues to be used in the famous historical handmade photo process Platinum/Palladium printing.
This is one of the most popular papers on the market for good reason. Absolutely everything looks good on it. It holds a wide range of colors, the deepest blacks, and it’s as archival a paper as one can get.
While the box says it’s “ultra-smooth, glossy, pure white” I would not describe it as any of those things. It is 100% cotton and I love the feel of that on the back of the paper when it’s in my hands.
With no optical brighteners, Platine is our best choice for longevity. It may be on the whiter side but it has a bit of a warm tone, which one should expect from a cotton paper.
I love the warm base for portraits. It’s not smooth like a glossy paper as it has a slight luster finish. That little hint of texture gives Platine a luxurious feel and character that differentiates it from smooth papers.
It’s thick and heavy enough to feel substantial in the hand but not difficult to feed into a printer. I would classify it as a photo realistic paper. I could easily print everything on it but the world would be a boring place if we only printed on one paper.
The most versatile matte paper is Canson Infinity Edition Etching Rag. It’s described on the box as “smooth, bright white” but it's actually closer to a watercolor paper. For a 100% cotton paper it is quite white but not bright white like cheap matte white papers.
The texture is light enough that it doesn't interfere with the fine details and faces in my photographs. It has the widest color gamut and deepest black point of any of the matte papers. And it is heavyweight without being too stiff and feels luxurious in the hand. Images on it can look anywhere from photo realistic to illustrative.
Sometimes an image calls for a velvety finish. Canson Infinity PrintMaKing Rag paper is one of my favorites for this different look and feel. The box describes it as “smooth, bright white,” but once again that’s not how I would classify this paper.
I would describe the surface as “velvety.” The texture is soft, light, and looks almost dappled. This is a mold-made paper that uses a felt blanket for its texture. It’s a tad warmer than Edition Etching.
I recently printed a very bright and colorful image on both this and Platine expecting PrintMaKing Rag to be more subdued. I was surprised at how strong the colors were. The velvety surface made the image look a lot more luxurious than a smooth paper would have. I use this paper when I want an image to look more painterly.
Canson Infinity Baryta Prestige. Finally a paper that lives up to its description. It's a smooth, white Baryta paper. Baryta (pronounced: bəˈrīdə) stands for Barium Sulfate which has natural brightening qualities. It is commonly used in fiber-based darkroom papers and has a traditional darkroom, photo-realistic look.
Some Baryta papers have a very strong odor but Canson Infinity’s do not. This paper is interesting in that it is made with a combination of cotton and alpha-cellulose making for a very substantial base.
This paper feels strong and substantial. It has a very wide dynamic range and can make images look very dimensional. I use Baryta Prestige when I don't want the characteristics of the paper to be part of my composition.
Try a Canson Infinity Discovery sample box of paper and choose the paper manufacturer’s generic ICC paper profile. Need some help? I’m currently working on a website, PerfectPrintClub.com, that will house everything you need to know about inkjet printing.
Go on over, sign up and we will let you know when it’s ready. It covers everything from the technical details of an individual operating systems integration with specific print drivers to hands-on individual help to choose a fine art paper you can fall in love with. Let’s make printing fun again!
This article was authored by our good friend Cheryl Walsh.
Cheryl is an underwater fine art portrait photographer and inkjet fine art printing expert and educator based in Orange County, CA. Website: CherylWalsh.art
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