What paper should I use?

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A selection of matte inkjet papers, including adaptations of classic watercolour and printmaking papers. 1. Hahnemühle Bamboo 2. Canson Rag Photographique 3. Hahnemühle Albrecht Dürer 4. Canson BFK Rives 5. Hahnemühle German Etching 6. Hahnemühle Museum Etching


Of all the choices you make when committing your work to paper, the one that goes furthest to determining the final look and feel of the print is the paper itself. Unfortunately, the problem with ordering a print from an online printer such as The Siskin Press is that you don’t have the advantage of seeing or touching the paper beforehand. To make things easier we provide free paper samples on request. But even so, the question often remains, which paper should I use? What are the differences between papers, and how will they affect my work? In this post, I’ll try and address this question as simply as I can. Note, I use the weasel word ‘address’ rather than ‘answer’ – ultimately, paper decisions, like most things in life and art, are a matter of personal preference.

Paper types

At The Siskin Press, we offer a variety of matte and semi-gloss papers. We also stock a quality matte canvas for those who want it, but the finest, most high-fidelity prints are always on paper. The differences between papers come down to colour, texture and the ineffable quality that each brings to a particular image.

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Matte papers have a soft, dull surface, sometimes, but not always, with a textured finish. They are mostly made from cotton and/or linen, or wood (often from sustainable sources). Some papers contain pulp from sustainable crops such as bamboo or sugar cane. Cotton (‘rag’) and wood (‘alpha cellulose’) papers differ largely in their feel: wood-derived papers are often somewhat stiffer than rag papers. In most important respects, however, a quality wood-based paper is the equal of a rag paper, but without the cachet that cotton-rag papers carry.

Glossy papers, too, are made from cotton or wood, but with a shiny coating. At The Siskin Press, we offer only one such paper: Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. The term ‘baryta’ refers to the bright-white barium compound that is applied to the printing surface, giving it its colour and moderate sheen (and smell). There are other good semi-gloss papers available, but we don’t feel the need to carry them: in our opinion, Photo Rag Baryta does everything you could want a gloss paper to do.


Paper colour and texture

Each paper has its own characteristic colour and texture. Some papers have special dyes that make the paper appear brilliantly white, but which may fade over time. Other papers retain the off-white colour of the rags or bleached pulp. At The Siskin Press we tend to prefer the look and longevity of the latter sort. One or two of our papers, notably Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, do contain brightening agents, but not enough to jeopardize long-term stability.

Paper textures can range from smooth, rollered surfaces to rough watercolour finishes. Baryta papers tend to have a subtle and beautiful stipple effect. Over the years, we’ve found ourselves gravitating towards smoother papers for their soft hand-feel and unintrusive presence.


Weight

Paper weights are expressed in grams per square metre (g/m2). (Note: weight is not the same thing as thickness.) Compared to typical photocopy paper at 80 g/m2, most fine-art papers are heavyweights, weighing in at 250 g/m2 or more. However, heavier isn’t always better: a lighter paper, such as the 190 g/m2 version of Moab Entrada, may retain all the surface qualities of its heavier cousins, but be better suited to framing and hanging, especially at large sizes.


Detail and sharpness

When it comes to reproducing fine detail, there is not much to choose between paper types. With modern inkjet coatings, both matte and glossy papers do a superb job here; even ‘toothier’, or more textured varieties. Of course, different kinds of papers react with inks in different ways: matte papers, for example, may bleed a little more than glossy papers. It counteract this, at The Siskin Press, we adjust our print sharpening depending on the kind of paper being used.


Colour and dMax

Both matte and glossy papers are capable of printing rich colours and smooth tonal gradations. Glossy papers generally have a much higher dMax (ie, print deeper blacks) than matte papers, but that advantage may be cancelled out in some lights by the sheen of the paper. By contrast, matte prints look great from any angle. Also, the dMax advantage of glossy paper is only really apparent when glossy and matte prints are viewed side by side. In other words, our eyes are great at making allowances for the different media.

Glossy papers reproduce a wider range, or ‘gamut’, of colours than matte papers; especially strong, saturated colours. However, depending on the image, that advantage may be academic – many photographic scenes, such as portraits, don’t contain especially saturated colours. With the right image, matte prints have a magical feel, as if they have been created by pixies with the world’s largest box of coloured pencils.


Presentation

Glossy or semi-gloss media such as Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta present specific challenges in presentation. They need to be carefully mounted and displayed under controlled lighting conditions to minimise reflections. Matte prints, on the other hand, look terrific float-mounted or just pinned to the wall. And while a print on matte cotton-based paper is a luxury object in itself, a glossy print, no matter how fine, always feels like a photograph.

If I were a digital photographer making vibrantly coloured, large-scale prints, I’d give careful consideration to the baryta paper, no question. But if I were an artist, or a photographer creating an intimate portfolio to be passed from hand to hand, I’d choose a rag paper every time.


Longevity

All our papers are technically archival quality, in that they are acid- and lignin-free. But print permanence is a function of the combination of paper and ink. In independent accelerated ageing tests, the HP inks we use obtain the highest ratings over a range of papers. It’s safe to say that, whatever paper you choose, and all things being equal, your prints will outlast you by many decades.


We hope this helps, and don’t forget, you can call us anytime on 07775 038 039 or email us at peter@siskinpress.co.uk if you have any further questions.


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Why don't we say giclée?

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You hear it everywhere: mispronounced in galleries, misspelled in print shops, misused on the internet. Few people know what it really means or even how to say it, yet it's been unquestioningly adopted by an entire industry. So why, on our website, do we not use giclée (or is that 'giclee') to describe our pigment-ink prints?

The word giclée (said "zhee-clay") is not entirely without meaning: as the feminine noun form of the verb 'to spurt', it enjoys a richly suggestive sexual connotation in its native France. Its use in printing dates back to the early 1990s, when artists and printmakers needed a marketing term to lend cachet to works produced on industrial proofing machines.

At the Siskin Press, we believe inkjet (pigment-ink) printing stands proudly in a long and noble line of ink-on-paper technologies, alongside such revered processes as photogravure and collotype. Like them, it is capable of producing breathtaking images. Giclée is a marketing term that accurately describes neither the medium (ink on paper or canvas) nor the process. We think the use of such terminology, rather than elevating the medium in the minds of the art-buying public, ultimately undermines it.

And that's why, at the Siskin Press, we don't say giclée.


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