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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Reproducing Fine Art Prints

Purely by chance today, while waiting while my fiancee had her teeth cleaned and scaled, I found two new potential commercial printing clients.

Both are fine artists. I had commented on a painting on the dentist’s wall, which depicted the very block on which I had lived as a child, and I was told the artist was in the waiting room. I couldn’t help myself. I gushed. The conversation turned from art to custom printing, and to her need for multiple copies of her work. It turns out that she is well known around the world, and that she had received multiple commissions to do murals and paintings over the years.

What this meant in terms of commercial printing, as she and I discussed, was that she needed copies of her art in vibrant color on archival art paper. Based on the press run, she would probably need offset printing rather than digital printing.

So we exchanged contact information and agreed to meet at her studio to discuss the job further after the holidays.

Interestingly enough, not two minutes later I learned that the dentist’s office manager also needed commercial printing and potentially photographic reproductions of her art. She was a close friend of the first woman. She showed me her business card, which she had bought online. She was not happy with the results.

How I Plan to Proceed with Both Clients

In short, I am overjoyed with the serendipity of the moment, and even more so with the opportunity, given my background in the fine arts as well as commercial printing.

Here are my initial thoughts, starting with the second prospective client’s work:

  1. The business card my prospective client showed me will never look as good as the image on her phone. A back-lit cellphone screen will make the colors look much brighter (as a transmissive technology) than will a printed piece that depends on reflected light to be seen (as a reflective technology). That said, there are ways to improve the printed card.
  2. Her current business card from an online vendor has probably been gang-printed with a large number of other cards. In such a case, overall ink density will be chosen to benefit the overall multiple print run, not the individual business cards. I explained this to my potential client, and she understood. For her business card to receive superior treatment, it would need to be printed on a small press by itself. Then the ink density could be tailored to her specific image, her painting as reproduced on the back of her card.
  3. Although we did not discuss this, she could choose a brilliant, blue-white press sheet, and she could add fluorescent inks to the traditional CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) inkset to make the colors “pop.”
  4. Along these lines, when this particuler client is ready to reproduce her artwork as full-size art prints rather than as the back of her business card, my assumption is that she will produce a shorter run than the first potential client. This is because she is a relative newcomer to fine arts compared to her friend. After my fiancee and I had left the dentist’s office, I called one of the commercial printers to which I broker custom printing work and discussed their capabilities. This particular printer has an HP Indigo digital press with a B2 format (20” x 29”). This would be large enough for art prints. It would accept textured, archival paper and even canvas substrates (although these would need to be certified for this particular press, so there would be a limited number of available papers). Finally, the HP Indigo has an extended inkset. In addition to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, you can add orange, violet, and green (among other colors) to significantly expand the available color range (and produce jaw-dropping color images).

So I’m keeping all of this information for my fiancee’s next teeth cleaning in six months. This will give the dental office manager time to develop her artwork and decide what to print (without putting pressure on her). Since she has my card, she can contact me if she needs to print business cards. After all, she now has an idea of the cost (relative to the online printer).

Back to the First Client

The first client has an immediate need. We will meet in her studio in about a month. I will look closely at the reproductions she has produced to date (with a particular eye to color reproduction and paper), and we can decide how to proceed. Today I also discussed this client with the printer who has the HP Indigo. These were the issues that arose:

  1. Apparently, this printer can produce up to 5,000 copies on the HP Indigo and still be cost-effective. To be sure, I’ll have them price out the job once I know the client’s requested quantity.
  2. The HP Indigo has an extended color set, as noted above. However, it will depend on the specific colors in my client’s painting as to whether this extra capacity (expanded color gamut) will be visible (i.e., necessary). It will depend on the colors in the original art.
  3. If my client’s press run will be longer than the cost-effective digital press run on the HP Indigo, this same printer can do the same job on a six-color offset press. With the two extra press units, the printer could add two of the following: an orange, a green, and a violet. This would also expand the color gamut, but only if the artwork would benefit from the extra colors.
  4. Both the offset press and the digital press can accept textured, archival papers. These papers would have two benefits: they would last a very long time due to their alkaline (as opposed to acidic) nature; and they would have a “tooth,” a texture that usually sets art papers above the comparatively smooth offset and digital press sheets.
  5. If my client wanted a number of different formats (some smaller than the approximately 20” x 29” image I saw in the dentist’s office), these could actually be printed on a canvas substrate (on the digital press but not the offset press). According to the printer, the ideal size for such a canvas print would be about 10” x 13” (largest), which could then be matted and framed to produce a larger piece.
  6. Scanning (or, rather, digitizing) the image would be an important issue to consider. If the canvas will fit the format of the flatbed scanner, this would produce the best digitized image (the sharpest and most color faithful). If not, the painted canvas would need to be shot with a digital camera. This would require specialized camera equipment, specialized lighting, and skill. The goal would be to add nothing to the art, while capturing all the colors.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

A skilled printer can create a beautiful photographic rendition of an art print (as opposed to an individual painting or a short-run, hand-made lithographic run of an art print). While it does not have the same value as an original, it has beauty, and it is affordable by most people.

What enhances the beauty of an art print is the extent of the color gamut (how many colors can be reproduced and with what intensity and brilliance). In addition, the brightness, whiteness, and longevity of the paper (its light-fastness, for instance) enhances its beauty. It should be archival to last a long time. It can also have texture (referred to by artists as a paper’s “tooth”).

A good starting point for such a reproduction is the run-length and trim size of the final press run. This will determine if the press run is short enough for digital or long enough for offset lithography.

Of all possible jobs, if you’re printing copies of fine art, this is the time to pay for good proofs and to do a press check to make sure you get exactly what you want and expect.

After all, printing is an art as well as a craft, and the marriage of fine art prints with the art and craft of custom printing can yield remarkable results.

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