Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Digital fine art printing in New Zealand - An Industry Snapshot in 2011

Introduction
The printing of fine art prints in New Zealand has changed dramatically over the last decade.  The rapid change from off-set photo-lithography to high end inkjet printing (also known as giclee or digital printing) is now markedly increasing the size, quality and range of prints being supplied to the New Zealand market. In this article NZ Art Print News talks to an expert panel of New Zealand's leading fine art printers to find out about the history of fine art digital printing in this country and we ask our experts where they think the New Zealand digital fine art printing market is headed.  Along the way our experts explain to people buying prints from specialist art print galleries like New Zealand Fine Prints the technical side of digital printing and lastly we explore the kinds of questions NZ artists should be considering when contemplating publishing editions of fine art prints using the giclee or digital printing process.

Defining what is a "Digital Fine Art Print"
This article focuses on the New Zealand market for high quality digital prints using very high resolution files printing onto superior quality substrates (such as 100% cotton rag paper) where the printers are aiming for the very best colour reproduction and print longevity.  This end of the market provides both the greatest long term value for customers buying purely for home or office decoration and also the best opportunities for early collectors of the work of contemporary New Zealand printmakers using digital printing. 

NZ Art Print News asked Hamish Bayly of art publisher Image Vault about the differences between prints advertised as a "giclee" or "digital" or "inkjet". He told us that "these terms really amount to the same thing, though the word giclee assumes a higher level of technical ability has been employed to achieve the final result. There is much conjecture as to how the term giclee came about - but as I understand it, it was really coined to differentiate between standard printing, and the high end product resulting from following delicate procedures to faithfully replicate an artwork. I think it is as well to be a little wary as giclee has probably been used a little...optimistically shall we say by some! In general, price is an indicator...as with everything, good things take time!"

Giclee Print's Honey, Honey by Rachael Foster
Mike Thornton's digital printing business is actually called "Giclee Print" - he started Giclee Print "after seeing a canvas print in a shop and being intrigued as to how it was done.  The opportunity to buy a business producing photos on canvas presented itself but eventually fell through [and] we decided to start from scratch".  According to Mike "the term 'giclee' is in itself a contentious subject - there are whole Internet forums and websites dedicated to arguing the origins of the term, how and why it was coined, and so on." He thinks that "not all digital prints are inkjet - and not all inkjet prints are "giclee".  'Giclee' does not have anything at all to do with art reproduction, per se - the large canvas prints we provide for wedding photographers can also be classified as giclee prints.  Anyone having prints made, or buying prints, should satisfy themselves that the paper / canvas and inks used are of "archival" quality.  "Archival" is yet another example of a term that can spark arguments about the qualifying criteria, but basically it means that they've been tested by an independent authority to pass certain tests for lightfastness."  Rachael Foster's new pinup series (see her edition of 50 giclee prints on archival paper "Honey, Honey" above left) are printed by Mike at Giclee Print.

There are low quality digital prints on the NZ market but these are clearly differentiated by 1. Non-New Zealand content,  2. Low price,  3. The use of inks that fade rapidly and 4. Poor colour reproduction). The vast majority of these prints are imported rather than being New Zealand prints created by NZ artists.  In our view these imports are extremely poor value even being used purely as decoration due to the unusually swift UV fading in the harsh NZ light conditions they are not designed for.  A NZ artist trying to compete at the cheap prints end of the spectrum by producing ultra cheap low quality digital prints simply wouldn't be able to sell the volume of prints required to make this economically viable in a market as small as NZ's.

Early days of digital fine art printing in New Zealand
Megan Rogers of Microfilm Digital Print remembers being asked to join the Christchurch based company when "giclee printing was quite new" in 2003.  Giclee (from the French "to squirt) was the original term used by commercial fine art printers to describe digital printing using high end inkjet printers.  Megan says one of the key drivers for the explosive growth in digital printing has always been that "short-run printing is less money up front than long-run offset prints".

John Schroeder of Auckland's The Digital Darkroom bought the first HPZ3100 Photo Printers in New Zealand six years ago, he says "We had recently bought CopyCatz, a copy centre on Dominion Road.  We were already thinking that it was too sweet a space to clutter up with copiers, laminators, etc. and then I started reading early reviews of the HPZ3100 Photo Printer and it was obvious from the specs and the reviews that this was the real deal.  I have worked with various ink jet printers as proofing devices but the Z3100 sounded like something special" Once the HPZ3100 was installed the Digital Darkroom "sold or scrapped all of the copy centre kit, and refitted the retail space as a gallery and digital print studio."

Image Vault's NZ Tiki Tour by Jason Kelly
In 2005 Hamish Bayly started New Zealand's first specialist production company exclusively focused on producing high end archival quality prints for artists and photographers around New Zealand, Artforum.  Now the wholly owned digital printing division of NZ art publisher Image Vault Artforum brought a new level of specialisation and professionalism to the digital art print industry in New Zealand. Hamish's design background and production skills honed in the competitive "street" fashion clothing industry combined with Image Vault's wholesale distribution showed the retail art print market how digital printing could offer a fresh and dynamic seasonal collection based alternative to the occasionally updated catalogue model of art print wholesale.  Hamish has printed many of New Zealand's top selling reproduction images over the last few years, prints by artists such as landscape painters Diana Adams, Grahame Sydney and Image Vault's latest success, kiwiana artist Jason Kelly whose "Tiki Tour" print is one of NZ's top 3 selling prints in 2011.

How are digital prints being printed in NZ today?
The Digital Darkroom's John Shroeder sums up the role of the printer in contemporary NZ fine art, we are technicians he says "Our objective is to be the final step in artists and photographers creating the work they strive for".

Hamish Bayly learned early on that "It is extremely important for the [artist or photographer] to have a clear understanding of how the entire process works, and the importance of each of the steps involved. If any of these stages are compromised upon, it is likely to affect the end result. Sometimes it can be a balance between price and expectation."  Mike Thornton of Auckland's Giclee Print says the steps from the artists' perspective are really simple "All we need from the artist is (a) the original artwork or a digital file captured from it, (b) instructions as to the physical print size(s) and media desired, and (c) "sign-off" on the colour-proofs that we produce before going in to production. "

Bayly emphasizes the importance of the digital capture because if "this this is done correctly, the rest of the process is much easier to implement". Hamish says "the next step in the process is to colour balance the digital file to closely match that of the original artwork. The file is then sized, set up for printing and processed through the 'rip' to apply the desired media profile. Rip software is designed to ensure that the assigned 'profiles' allow the image to be replicated faithfully on a variety of media (eg canvas, paper etc), allowing for their different textures and ability to absorb the ink. This is a very time-consuming and complex system to use, but when applied correctly, assures consistent results."
One of the challenges that The Digital Darkroom has successfully met is being able to produce consistent colour from print to print in fluctuating environmental conditions due to, for example, Auckland's humidity.

Christchurch's Digital Print's Epsom printers can vary the size of the ink droplet put onto the paper down to a droplet size of one third the thickness of a human hair which enables Megan to print what she calls with a just a little understatement "very finely detailed images".

Substrates
The Digital Darkroom's Aotearoa by Weston Frizzell
The choice of substrates (eg paper, canvas, stock) is enormous and in depth knowledge and experience of the media is a key part of a digital printer's expertise, for a taste of the depth of understanding our experts have here is John Shroeder talking about Hahnemuhle Fine Art Matt 308gsm (the paper favoured by Auckland pop artists Weston Frizzell for their giclee prints such as their letter series print "Aotearoa" shown above right). John says "this paper is, basically, weird.  It seems to impose no sense of texture allowing the textures portrayed in the printed image to stand for themselves.  Stunning blacks, rich colours and subtle tones. The available colour space allows us to print beautiful, stepless gradients and continuous tones."   In general John selects substrates "that will allow us to lay down plenty of ink, doesn't allow ink to flake off, is easy to handle (doesn't crease or scuff readily) and provides the finish required by the artist/photographer."

Mike Thornton relies on certification by the UK's Fine Art Guild to ensure "quality, consistency, and archival ratings" so "our artists and art-buyers can be sure the prints we produce will stand the test of time", he cautions that "some cheap papers will look great initially but break-down or yellow over time".  Thornton says that "giclee print manufacturers should be prepared to advise the artist exactly the materials they use.  If they're not prepared to do so, some caution should be exercised.  Some cheap papers will look great initially but break-down or yellow over time".

Inks
Giclee Print's Mike Thornton says their choice of inks was straightforward "brand loyalty to Canon was a simple choice for us - we use their technology across the board." Thornton says "the Lucia inkset is beautiful, with graduated greys and red green and blue inks on top of the normal CMYK (and the "photo" variants)."  He warns that "non-original or fully dye-based inksets can appear really bright and saturated, but within weeks or months not look the same at all".  (Unlike pigment, dyes dissolve when mixed into a liquid. Dyes are well suited for textiles where the liquid dye penetrates and chemically bonds to the fibre. Because of the deep penetration, more layers of material must lose their colour before the fading is apparent. Dyes, however, are not suitable for the relatively thin layers of ink laid out on the surface of a print.  Pigment is a finely ground, particulate substance which, when mixed or ground into a liquid to make ink or paint, does not dissolve, but remains dispersed or suspended in the liquid.  According to Wikipedia pigments are categorized as either inorganic (mineral) or organic (synthetic) and the online encyclopedia gives the example of "a pigment such as red iron oxide (rust) which is simply an oxidized form of iron. One could leave iron, lead, or gold in the sun for a million years and they would never change color or change into another substance. In contrast, man-made synthetic and vegetable water-soluble dyes can fade rapidly, often within one to six months."

The Epson printer employed by Digital Print uses K3 pigment inks. Megan says they are "more like a paint than an ink, are water resistant (but not waterproof) and have been tested to be colourfast for 100 years or more. The printer we use has 8 different colour inks for a wide gamut of colour."

Factors to consider when buying digital prints - or if you are an artist looking at digital fine art printing.
We asked our experts what questions print buyers should ask artists or photographers selling digital prints of their work. Hamish Bayly told us "With open edition prints on canvas and paper it pays to look at the quality of the print itself where you want to have sharp detail and rich colours. Along with the quality of the image it pays to look at how well made the frame and finishing is as this all plays at part in the overall quality of the product itself. If you are purchasing a limited edition print it is very important to obtain all the details about the artist, the edition number, the media that it is printed on, the ink system used and to ensure it comes with a certificate of authenticity."

Digital Print's Wharekauri Tahuna by C.F. Goldie
Megan Rogers of Digital Print says simply to "ask if it has been printed on a fine detailed inkjet printer with pigment inks onto archival paper."  She warns that "there are some very poor quality canvases being used out there which don’t last. Look to see if the edges are cracking badly and ask if the print has been sealed. Moisture will affect the inks over time (which is why our framer uses a special sealant which totally protects our canvas prints). Copyright is an important factor too. If it is not obvious (ie the artist is selling it), ask if they have permission to reproduce this image. It is illegal to copy artworks without permission. I would look at the quality of canvas stretching as there is a lot of poor workmanship out there. Look at the tightness of the canvas, if it is baggy don't buy it, it will only get worse.  If there are lumps of folded canvas at the corners or the stapling is messy then this also indicates poor quality workmanship. Once bought, treat your Giclee print as you would an original artwork - don’t hang it in direct sunlight."  This modern print of one of C.F. Goldie's Maori portrait paintings shown here was printed by Megan at Digital Print. With its stunning dense blacks and exquisite detailing bringing this giclee print is a real step up in quality when compared to prints of Goldie's paintings produced using conventional photo-lithography in past decades.

…and the most common question asked of their printer by artists and photographers according to John Shroeder at The Digital Darkroom is "Can I get a discount?"!!

Future Trends for NZ Digital Printing
Hamish Bayly says "The main trend I see at the moment is towards artprints with a strong, clearly identifiable New Zealand focus. [Image Vault] follow and are influenced by international trends - but always with a nod to Kiwi culture. New Zealanders are as trend conscious as the rest of the world, but seem to gravitate towards artwork which reflects our culture, our lifestyle or our unique landscape in a contemporary way. We are always refining what we do and the business has been growing well over the last 18 months which has been very rewarding given the economy has been a little slower during this period."

According to The Digital Darkroom's John Shroeder "This is a time of incredible freedom for creators and consumers of art.  Artists can price art so that it is accessible knowing that contemporary buyers will buy based on the merits of the work.  Buyers can take risks because they can buy knowing that if they outgrow a piece they can sell it on TradeMe or simply wait for the next inorganic day."

We look forward to adding more prints by NZ artists, print-makers and photographers that are printed by these fine companies over the remainder of 2011. Special thanks to our panel of printing experts, Hamish Bayly of Image Vault, Megan Rogers of Digital Print, John Schroeder of The Digital Darkroom and Mike Thornton of Giclee Print for their help in compiling this article for NZ Art Print News.

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