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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Large Format Printing: Printing Art and Photos on Canvas

I read an article yesterday by a company that prints clients’ photos on canvas. The article, entitled “The Rise of Canvas in Art: From Oil Paintings to Photo Prints,” written by Jessica Stewart and published on on 3/6/18, got me thinking not only about the history of canvas but also about the sense of importance and permanence it conveys.

On a related note, my fiancee and I do art therapy with the autistic, and many of our projects, such as collages of photos, fabric, and paint, could be prepared on paper. For the paintings we do, we could hand out canvas board (panels with canvas glued to chipboard). However, we have found that the autistic members with whom we work get more of a sense of pride and accomplishment when we give them stretched canvases stapled on wood stretcher strips. This three-dimensional substrate showcases their work. To quote from Stewart’s article, it gives the work “a sense of prestige.”

Jessica Stewart’s Article About Canvas

Stewart’s article provides a brief history of canvas, noting that it is “a rather recent development in art history.”

In Venice in the 16th century during the Italian Renaissance, painters started using canvas for two reasons. First, it was better than applying paint to wet plaster (in frescos), which had trouble drying in the humid Venetian environment. It was also better than applying paint to wood panels, which tended to warp and crack in the humidity. And canvas was plentiful in Venice since it was used to make sails for ships.

There was one other benefit, which had nothing to do with the humidity of Venice in the Italian Renaissance. Since canvas was thin and light, it could be attached to the wood stretcher strips in a very large format. It could also be removed from the stretcher strips and then rolled up.

The Spanish followed in Italy’s footsteps and started to paint on canvas, and by the 17th century this new substrate for painting was being used throughout Northern Europe and had become more prevalent than wood panels as a base for artwork.

Jumping forward to the present, if you attend a street art fair, you’ll now see large, stretched canvases with brilliantly colored photographs inkjetted onto their surface, as well as reproductions of paintings produced with large format printers on stretched and framed canvas.

What Is Canvas?

“The Rise of Canvas in Art: From Oil Paintings to Photo Prints” then goes on to explain exactly what canvas is. Stewart notes that the word “canvas” comes from the Latin “cannabis,” since it used to be made from tightly woven hemp, or in some cases linen. Both of these were more expensive than the material that came to be used for canvas in modern times: cotton. In addition to being less expensive than hemp and linen, cotton will stretch, which protects the artwork from cracking. Depending on its weave, it is also very strong. That said, many artists today still prefer to use linen for their canvases.

Once the canvas has been stretched onto wooden strips (and tacked or stapled in place), the artist primes the canvas with “gesso.” This base layer keeps the oil paints from actually touching the canvas and therefore prevents the decay of the canvas substrate.

While I was studying painting just after college, an art teacher of mine had us prepare our own gesso to apply to wood panels. This traditional ground included rabbit skin glue (an adhesive that also served as a sizing) and chalk or marble dust, (or in our case titanium white paint, due to its brightness and opacity). Since this gesso was not flexible, we had to apply it to wood panels. In contrast, the acrylic gesso you’ll find on prepared canvases in art and craft stores is based on an acrylic polymer medium, calcium carbonate (chalk), and titanium white paint. This kind of gesso is flexible, so it is ideal for priming stretched canvases.

Inkjet Printing on Canvas

Large format printing on canvas is an ideal way to showcase photos in a dramatic but flexible format. It is also ideal if you’re a fine art painter or print-maker and you want to produce multiple copies of your work in an easily frameable format. (Granted, they won’t be as valuable as the original painting from which they have been made, but depending on the materials and inkjet custom printing technology used, they will still be works of art.)

Specifically, a large-format inkjet printing device can be bought with an expanded inkset (more than just cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Some inksets include two shades of magenta and two shades of cyan; and/or different black inks; or even orange, violet, and green ink. Whichever colors are chosen, these additional inks greatly expand the color gamut. That is, you can print a wider range of far more intense, color-faithful, and fade-resistant hues than you can with the usual CMYK inks. Color gradients are also smoother, and the apparent image resolution is higher.

In addition, as Stewart’s article notes, you can choose special archival paper, canvas, or vinyl as a substrate for custom printing your artwork. Therefore, you can produce and sell prints that are more intense in their color and that have a much longer lifespan than those made with lower-quality materials. Because of this, in the 1990’s Jack Duganne (a printmaker) coined the term “giclée” (which comes from the French verb for spray, spout, or squirt) to distinguish prints made with pigment-based inks and archival papers from prints made with standard inks and papers.

The initial giclée prints were produced on an Iris printer, a large format, high resolution proofing device used by commercial printing vendors. This term later was used in reference to all high-end inkjet prints, including Canon, Epson, and HP proofs.

While not cheap, giclée-level, large format inkjet printers can be within the financial reach of many individual artists. Therefore, with a good scanner and skill in Photoshop, they can produce individual prints on canvas, watercolor paper, or another substrate that are color corrected and otherwise enhanced with fine attention to detail. Artists can also produce the prints on demand, so maintaining an inventory (and storing the work) becomes unnecessary. In addition, the art can be printed with latex inks, which are water-based, solvent free, and environmentally friendly.

From the perspective of the buyer, this process is ideal because it makes art affordable. Even though giclée prints are more expensive to produce than standard inkjet images (up to $50.00 per print, not including scanning and color correction, vs. $5.00 per print for an offset-printed image–as per Wikipedia), a customer can buy a work of art for $60.00 to $150.00, rather than upwards from multiple hundreds to multiple thousands of dollars.

What You Can Learn From This Discussion

First, keep in mind that there’s only a thin line between fine art and commercial art. Such fine artists as Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Piet Mondrian also produced commercial art and illustration.

Another take-away is that custom printing a work of art on canvas gives it a sense of prestige that sets it apart from works on paper.

Finally, take the time to find samples and study the effects of an expanded inkset on inkjet custom printing. Compare the enhanced color gamut to those colors available through 4-color inkjet and even 4-color offset printing. Then apply this to your own graphic design work to enhance the intensity, fidelity, and brilliance of the colors you use.

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