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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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Archive for the ‘Fine Art Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Giclee Art Prints and Paper Choices

Sunday, August 13th, 2023

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

On our local free-goods website this past weekend, my fiancee and I found a print, on stretched canvas, of a Gustav Klimt painting. This is better than Craig’s List or even our two favorite thrift stores because, as I noted before, everything is free.

That said, free comes at a price, and in this case the painting, with which we were both familiar, had been cropped severely into the subject matter. Moreover, the gold coloration (Klimt used a lot of gold paint in his patterned images of women) registered as brown because of the porous substrate. It was canvas, but the holdout of the inkjet inks on the primed canvas was mediocre, which dulled down the overall look of what otherwise would have been a striking copy of this Symbolist painting.

Giclee Technology

I have written about giclee printing before. The word means “spurt.” It is high-end inkjet custom printing done with archival inks, archival paper (i.e., acid-free or alkaline paper), and the close attention of the artist (or in this case the close attention of fine arts professionals who had studied Klimt’s work as art rather than as home décor).

Giclee drives up art prices in two ways. The edition of a particular print is sometimes limited. That is, artists may elect to only print a certain number of copies of their original, and this scarcity will increase the monetary value of each copy. The opposite of a “limited edition” is an “open edition,” which can be added to (with more prints) at will by the artist, further diluting their value.

Keep in mind that value comes in two flavors. If you want to make money on art, the more copies that are in existence, the less each copy is worth. If, on the other hand, you love the painting and want to be able to afford a copy, this is a good way to start. In this case the monetary value doesn’t really matter.

In contrast, limited editions or original works of art sold at art galleries and art auctions, such as large paintings even by relatively unknown artists, can run upwards from several thousands of dollars (or much, much more for anything by anyone as famous as Gustav Klimt).

So inkjet commercial printing makes art affordable. This is actually what happened with Alfonse Mucha (and other fine artists, such as Toulouse Lautrec, who made money in the commercial arts as well as the fine arts), especially after the invention in the late 1870s (for printing on tin) or early 1900s (for printing on paper) of offset commercial printing. Regular people could not only see more art but also own it as prints.

With this in mind I thought about other prints I have bought at auction, and I also remembered an early version (from the ‘80s) of an inkjet printer used specifically for proofing custom printing jobs, the Iris. It was an inkjet printer, but due to the technology and the color set, it was not only continuous tone (like a photo print rather than a printed halftone) but also rich in ink coverage and accurate in color reproduction. So it made for an especially good contract commercial printing proof. I never bought one for a job, but I always paid attention to the technology.

Ironically, as noted above, the specific technology was intended to be an interim step in offset custom printing, an especially faithful proof. However, over the years the Iris print has actually became a final art piece to be coveted by collectors.

Old-time Etchings, Engravings, and Other Prints

If we step back in time a bit, artists used to use either sharp instruments to incise metal custom printing plates for fine art line work or establish tones on the printing plate using acids, and resist materials, to either burn away the metal or keep it from being burned away, all to vary the darkness of tones later printed with ink rolled onto the plate.

This meant that in most cases the plate was used to make not a single, original art piece but rather multiple copies. Once burned with acid or cut with an engraving tool, the plate could be printed any number of times on a custom printing press, and the value would rise or fall not only depending on the skill and renown of the artist but also on the scarcity of the limited edition.

In contrast, the kinds of prints that used to be produced via inkjet technology on the Iris proofing device or in modern times on large-format inkjet equipment were in my experience mostly reproductions of paintings and other colorful, flat art.

In my fiancee’s and my case with the Klimt print, we were looking at ways to reproduce colorful paintings, not monochromatic etchings, drypoints, engravings, or mezzotints.

Back to the Present

To come back to present times, our free Gustav Klimt image led us to a couple of solutions. The first involved my fiancee’s touching up areas of the print with metallic paint. (Like metallic printing ink, metallic paint contains small flecks of actual metal: aluminum–or copper and zinc–for silver and brass for gold). This provides a metallic lustre or sheen. My fiancee painted right on the canvas.

She was satisfied with the result but wanted an uncropped image of Klimt’s painting, so we went online to find an art printer.

In my opinion, what makes an art printer more appropriate for this work is that he or she will have the proper inkjet equipment (using pigment-based inks rather than water-based dyes) and archival inks and papers (or canvas). And she or he will have control (as the artist himself or herself would have had) of the overall look of the final giclee (again, not offset custom printing but high-end inkjet, with no halftone dots but instead only minuscule inkjet dots giving a continuous-tone appearance).

The Art Supplier’s Paper Choices

This particular online printer, Fine Art America, offered different sized prints on a number of substrates. I was surprised that canvas was not one of them, although I’m sure their roll-fed printers could accommodate rolls of canvas that might later be stretched over wood stretcher strips. Perhaps for some aesthetic reason Fine Art America offered only paper of various kinds.

When my fiancee and I thought about which paper substrate to use, we looked online but were somewhat confused. We knew that, as with any inkjet or even offset print produced on paper, the substrate (color and texture) would affect the overall look of the print.

In my experience uncoated papers dull back the coloration of inks (of any kind), and gloss-, matte-, or dull-coated papers provide more crisp hues because the ink sits on the surface of the paper rather than seeping into the paper fibers. (I assumed fine art printing and commercial printing would be comparable in these assumptions.)

Fine Art America offered different sizes on different papers. I asked for more detailed descriptions of the paper options and was pleased to receive a list noting specific details of the surface formation and potential appearance of each printed paper stock.

(Remember that the Klimt painting reproductions would have metallics in the inkset. Although we haven’t gotten that far yet with negotiations, it is my understanding that the expanded inksets of professional-grade inkjet printers can include metallic inks–also made, presumably, with flecks of metal in their ink mix.)

In the list of paper options, we looked for such words as “neutral white,” since we didn’t want the hue of the paper to shift the color of the inkjet printed image. Fine Art America included archival matte paper in their offerings, but I was a bit concerned that this would dull down the metallic sheen.

The next three offerings were photo paper (gloss, luster, and photo matte), but my fiancee and I were concerned that this might not give a warm enough feel to the colors and might give somewhat of a metallic sheen to the print (which would not necessarily be bad given the gold in the original).

The next option was a picture “rag” (cotton-, rather than wood-based paper), but we were again concerned that the uncoated nature of the paper would dull down the look of the metallic ink.

The three other options were a watercolor stock, a metallic paper, and a velvet (paper with a bit of texture and yet some smoothness). This cotton rag paper softens the look of the final art, which might make the Klimt image look sensuous and inviting but might also dull down the gold. Watercolor paper we liked for the texture and thickness, but for the metallics we had the same concern about potentially dull ink coloration.

One item noted, however, in Fine Art America’s description of their paper options did catch my interest. Their metallic paper intrigued me. This is how they describe it: “provides an exceptionally vibrant print with the shine and shimmer of metal. This highly durable paper is mostly white with a signature metallic finish, making it ideal for a wide range of images including white and flesh tones” (Fine Art America).

To me, one of the most important characteristics of this paper stock is that it is “mostly white.” So it will not add an unwanted color cast to the final print. This was one concern I had. But it will provide “the shine and shimmer of metal” (Fine Art America). Hence, it might very well provide a realistic appearance of gold in Gustav Klimt’s nudes.

Granted, the best way to make the decision would be to buy one copy (the smallest available copy) of several of the paper options, perhaps including the metallic and the archival matte stock, and make a decision with our own eyes rather than visualizing the results in our mind’s eye.

The Takeaway

This shows just how much of an art form giclee prints have become. The attention to detail, color fidelity, and longevity place this method of reproduction alongside traditional etchings, engraving, screen prints, and art lithographs, as worthy of serious consideration.

And if this interests you, you will see that your own understanding of the principles of traditional offset lithography along with your understanding of various inkjet commercial printing technologies and paper options will be most helpful in your decisions.

But remember to get samples and trust your own eyes rather than just descriptions of paper characteristics. And be mindful of just how the color and texture of the paper substrate will alter the appearance of the final art.

Commercial Printing: A Gorgeous–and Free–Degas Print

Sunday, July 2nd, 2023

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My fiancee and I keep a printer’s loupe (a 12-power magnifier) in the car glove box so that wherever we go (mainly thrift stores) we can check out the artwork. Are the prints authentic, traditional lithographs, or are they offset lithography prints? That is always the question. (Granted, it is highly unlikely that an art print–rather than a reproduction–will show up at a thrift store or estate sale, but it has happened to us a number of times, so it pays to be prepared.)

In this light my fiancee and I recently found an Edgar Degas print online for free. Someone just didn’t want it any more. Since we loved the rendering we saw online, we drove about twelve miles and brought the framed print home. Of course, I immediately found my 12-power printer’s loupe and checked out the art. As we expected, it was (essentially) a very beautiful large format print poster. It was framed by a skilled framer. And it was free. So it was still a good acquisition, most importantly because we like the image (subject matter, rendering) a lot.

The Degas Reclining Nude Print

The print is of a reclining nude. It is quite large, and the print is “floated.” That is, it seems to float above the background mat rather than being covered by it. The drawing by Degas is sensitive and beautiful, and the tones are rich, deep, and velvety. So it actually looks like either a charcoal drawing or a real lithograph. There is nothing cheap about it (except for its being free).

Moreover, the edge of the floated paper on which the poster is printed is deckled. That is, the edge is feathered rather than flush cut in order to mimic hand-made paper. And the paper is a cream-white, laid commercial printing stock with the traditional texture of horizontal and vertical ribbed lines.

All of this plus the signature looks entirely authentic. But it’s not.

Upon close examination with a loupe, I see the halftone dots (black only and somewhat ragged, which lends to the authentic look). And the deckled edge of the paper is actually an illusion as well. The printer has created a slight shadow on the paper, which also comprises numerous halftone dots, as does the signature. Only the red museum stamp has the traditional commercial printing rosette pattern of magenta, yellow, and black halftone dots set at slight angles to one another.

So if you like the image (and don’t have multiple thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars or more), this is still a nice acquisition. It also shows that a skilled offset lithographer is an artist as well as a craftsman to be able to create a large format print like this.

The Lithography Process

Traditional fine art lithography and commercial printing (i.e., offset lithography) both work on the same principle, that water and oil do not mix. This chemical property allows both the image area and the non-image area of both a traditional litho plate and an offset printing plate to be on the same flat or planar surface (hence the custom printing term “planographic”). And since both image and non-image areas are on the same plane or level, it is possible to print very long runs of an art print when compared to other commercial printing techniques (intaglio, for instance, in which the image is recessed–or sunken–into the custom printing plate, or relief, in which the image area on the printing plate rises above the non-image area).

A fine artist preparing the plate for printing (historically, the plate was limestone, because of its absorbency, but it is now often metal) draws on the limestone plate surface with a greasy crayon (oil, fat, or wax), sometimes tinted to be more visible. These image areas, which can be very detailed, and either very rich and velvety or very subtle, will attract the oily lithography inks.

The rest of the limestone (or metal) printing plate is treated with a solution of gum arabic and weak nitric acid. This will attract water and repel ink.

The artist wipes down the image with lithographic turpentine, removing excess oil or wax from the image but at the same time sealing the image areas so they will better accept the lithographic ink. During the custom printing process, the artist also keeps the limestone plate wet. Due to the porosity of the limestone, the printing plate absorbs water and helps maintain the separation of ink (on image areas) and water (on non-image areas).

When everything is ready, the artist inks up the plate, positions the printing paper on the plate, and rolls it through the hand-operated printing press. Then he repeats the process (with more hands-on attention than in offset lithography and with a much shorter press run to increase the value—due to scarcity—of each individual print). Then he signs and numbers the individual prints in the limited press run.

If the artist wants to introduce color into the printed images, she or he has to use a different limestone plate for each color and then print them in alignment (called “in register,” the same custom printing term as used in offset lithography).

How Does This Differ from Offset Lithography?

First of all, both traditional lithography and offset lithography, as noted above, are planographic printing processes based on the “immiscibility” of oil and water. (Oil and water don’t mix.)

That said, offset lithography plates print first to a rubber and fabric blanket, and then this printed image is transferred from the blanket to the paper substrate. In contrast, in traditional lithography the image is transferred directly from the printing plate to the paper.

In addition, with offset lithography photos and gradated tones (tones that are intermediate rather than fully black or white) have to be rendered using halftone technology, which breaks an image or photo down into a grid of dots, larger or smaller depending on the amount of ink to be printed. Dark areas contain larger dots. Lighter areas contain smaller dots. (This is called AM or amplitude-modulated halftone screening and is different from FM or frequency-modulated screening, which comprises the dithered, random pattern of minuscule dots produced on an inkjet printer.)

In traditional lithography, there are no halftone dots. According to Silvie Turner in Print Collecting: Selecting, Evaluating, and Caring for Fine Prints, “One of the qualities most valued in lithography is its ability to record the finest nuances of shade, tone, and wash with the greatest fidelity, allowing a wide and subtle range of tone—from a very deep black to the tenderest of greys.” (Turner, page 18).

How Can You Tell the Difference?

As noted above, I always start with the loupe. If I see halftone dots, I know the print is an offset lithograph.

Art dealers suggest that you buy traditional lithographs from a reputable fine art dealer. (These will, of course, hold more financial value than prints from a much longer, and presumably less personally curated, offset lithographic print run.)

Look for a signature (and make sure it’s not made up of halftone dots). I also just learned that there may be a signature on the back of the press sheet. Look for this, too. Also look for the print number and the total print run, expressed as a fraction (5/300 means the fifth print pulled in an edition of 300). Both of these should be hand-noted under the image, usually in pencil.

Ink on a traditional lithograph is also usually thicker than on an offset lithographic large format print.(Wear cloth gloves when you check the ink so the oils on your hands do not damage the print.)

The Takeaway

Sometimes you can find real lithographic prints at estate sales and thrift stores. It has happened. It’s worth knowing what you’re looking for, and it’s worth keeping a printer’s loupe with you.

That said, there’s still a huge amount of artistry (as well as craftsmanship) in offset lithography. If you like a large format print, even if it’s not an original litho, I think it’s best to not be a purist, especially when you get it for free or at a discount at a thrift store.

Custom Printing: Incorporating Fine Art into Print Design

Sunday, January 2nd, 2022

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A colleague of mine designs print books for governmental and non-governmental organizations. At present, she is working on a 7” x 10” perfect-bound book. She has subcontracted a painting she plans to use for the book cover. To make sure the artwork reproduces well, she asked me to discuss the project with the fine artist. (more…)

Custom Printing: Art Print Lithography vs. Offset Lithography

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

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What is the difference? How can you make sure that the old print you found at a thrift store is not from a huge print run of offset lithographic posters? (more…)

Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

I’m always excited when the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with our autistic students overlaps with my work in the commercial printing industry. Recently, at my fiancee’s behest, we bought rubber fish to ink and then print, just as the Japanese fishermen did in the 1800s to record the fish they caught. What’s old is new again, so to speak. (more…)

Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students. (more…)

Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

Monday, September 16th, 2019

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing. (more…)

Custom Printing: Reproducing Fine Art Prints

Friday, September 29th, 2017

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. (more…)

Custom Printing: Using Commercial Printing Technology in the Fine Arts

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

When I’m not brokering commercial printing or writing about printing, I’m usually preparing for the art therapy classes my fiancee and I offer to autistic students. My fiancee is an art therapist, and I have a background in fine arts as well as graphic design and custom printing. (more…)

Custom Printing: Where the Art Meets the Craft

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I love it when my work as a commercial printing broker and designer overlaps with the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with the autistic. Granted there’s always room in our class to discuss principles of design, which I am increasingly aware pertain to both the fine arts and the graphic arts. But most recently my fiancee came up with an art project that involved incising and then printing styrofoam plates made from the packages used to wrap food in the grocery store. (more…)


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