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Understanding Fine Art Papers

Canson Aquarelle

Choosing a fine art paper for digital prints can be confusing if you’re not already familiar with the papers, and vague marketing descriptions like sensual, velvety or prestigious don’t help very much.  So this page aims to provide an overview of the most important properties and why you may choose one paper over another.

I’ll often have customers ask me to choose a paper.  Ideally I would show samples and explain their properties, but that’s not always possible, so here’s a basic online version, which I’ll update when I figure out a better way to piece it together.

Choosing a fine art paper

Unlike images displayed on a screen, papers in the hand become real, the surfaces come alive and they take on weight.  Prints may be a two dimensional representation, but they are a multi dimensional experience.

So what is a fine art paper?

Quite honestly, ‘fine art paper’ is probably just another marketing term, but it’s a useful one.  It provides a way to distinguish ‘commercial’ papers which are built to a price, with ‘fine art’ papers which put quality, longevity and aesthetics at the forefront.  

Many of todays fine art printing papers are variations of art papers which have been used by artists for hundreds of years, and others were born in the darkroom era of the last century.

By contrast, ‘commercial’ papers are there to suit the masses.  Digital prints are commonly made on resin coated (RC) photo papers, they’re fairly durable and can look pretty good at times, but they’re chock full of plastic and aren’t going to squeeze every last ounce from your image, they may fade or change in appearance over weeks, months or years as opposed to a lifetime, and they just don’t have the aesthetics many artists want.

Some fine art papers are extremely versatile, and well suited to a range of images, while others are more appropriate for a specific type of image.  At times paper choice is simply a personal preference, and at others, the paper chooses the image.

Most of the examples below are made by Canson because I have them on hand, but the principles apply to other brands as well.  

Coated vs Matte

Coated papers have a glossy or satin like sheen, they produce deeper blacks and more vibrant colours than uncoated papers and provide some protection from stains and smudges if prints are intended to be handled.

The coatings are typically made from ceramic material, and even though they look impervious, they’re not, they’re scattered with tiny microporous holes which allow ink to pass through and become absorbed in the substrate below.  The substrate can be made from many different fibres, such as cotton, wood pulp, bamboo, hemp or synthetic materials, though cotton ‘rag’ or wood based materials are most common.

Commercial photo papers are typically coated, while fine art papers may or may not be.

Uncoated papers are often known as ‘Rags’ or ‘Matte’ papers.  The surface can be smooth or textured.  They have no obvious shine and present a softer, lower contrast appearance.  They can be similar in construction to their coated cousins, but without the shiny coating.

I find uncoated papers are often more suitable for portraits or natural subjects which don’t naturally reflect, for lower contrast subjects where colour subtlety is more important than tonal contrast & for more artistic works.  They’re also well suited to fitment behind glass by avoiding additional reflections.  

Canson Platine Fibre Rag (coated)

Bright and vibrant.  The coating provides deep blacks and specular surface reflections.

Canson Rag Photographique

Canson Rag Photographique (uncoated)

Similar in construction to Platine but without the coating, note the absence of visible surface reflection from the light positioned above the print.

Also notice the softer shadows.  Uncoated papers have a weaker black, which may or may not work for your image.

 

Paper Whites

A print can only be as bright as the paper it’s printed on.  A dull paper can’t make bright and vibrant prints, so a brighter white is generally better.

Paper white’s differ significantly in their ‘warmth’.  An Icelandic landscape is unlikely to present its best on a warm toned paper, while portraits won’t look their best on cool toned papers, though it’s something I often see.

Cotton ‘rags’ often have a warmish white, while commercial ‘photo’ papers are usually cooler, though this can vary significantly by paper brand.   Each manufacturer tends to have a ‘DNA’ or feel associated with their brand.

Canson Baryta Photographique texture

Canson Baryta Photographique

Baryta Photographique has a very neutral tone, it’s neither warm or cool.

 

Canson Photo Satin

Canson PhotoSatin RC

PhotoSatin uses optical brighteners (OBA’s) which produce a bluish white.

Canson BFK Rives PrintMaKing

Canson PrintMaKing Rag

PMK is a warm toned cotton rag. The warm tone becomes particularly obvious when compared with the cooler toned ‘photo’ papers.

OBA’s

OBA’s are sometimes used to brighten whites.  They absorb UV light which we can’t see and re-emit it visibly to brighten the paper with a slightly cooler tone.

One catch is that not all light contains UV, so prints can change appearance under different lighting conditions, making them quite unpredictable if you don’t know where the print will be displayed.  Personally I can’t stand papers with high OBA content, they’re like a bipolar personality and you don’t know what mood they’ll be in next.  OBA’s are also susceptible to fading over time as the OBA’s deteriorate, causing the paper to yellow.  This can happen quite rapidly in cheaper papers, with change occurring within days & weeks of being exposed to daylight.  I’ve personally tested this.  

OBA’s are often used in cheaper papers in an effort to brighten their naturally dull appearance, which contributes to their cooler whites.  Some fine art papers also use OBA’s, but I generally avoid using them and haven’t yet compared their longevity.

Textured papers

Just like coated papers can be ‘glossy’ or ‘lustre’, matte papers are available with different textures. Textures can add a tactile and genuine feel to a print, but they don’t suit every image.

It’s difficult to make a general recommendation on when textures should be used, they’re an artistic choice, and it’s probably easier to point out some drawbacks.  On busy images I’ve found textures can become lost or interfere with image detail and become a distraction, and darker colours can hide them all together.  Heavy textures on a portrait may not be a great idea either, but don’t take my word for it, all ideas are on the table.  Perhaps they’re best left in the back pocket, consider them when you’re after tactile quality.

If you’re getting really fussy, you might also consider the lighting, textures disappear in flat lighting, and show under steeper lighting.

Canson Aquarelle

Canson Aquarelle Rag

Aquarelle is a heavily textured paper, made from cotton fibres, it has a slightly warm tone.

 

Hahnemuhle German Etching Rag

Hahnemuhle German Etching Rag

German Etching Rag is moderately textured, and made from wood based fibres, it has an organic feel and uses some OBA’s to help achieve it’s bright white appearance.

Canson BFK Rives PrintMaKing

Canson PrintMaKing Rag

PMK Rag has a light to moderate texture, it’s cotton based and has a warm tone.

Canson Edition Etch

Canson Edition Etching Rag

Edition Etch is a lightly textured cotton rag with a near neutral white point, the texture is subtle and almost smooth. I often prefer to use a paper like Edition Etch over a perfectly smooth paper.

Canson Rag Photographique

Canson Rag Photographique

A smooth cotton rag, without texture, otherwise very similar to Edition etch.

Comparison of coated papers

Coated papers could be categorised into three groups (and possibly more):

  • Resin Coated (commercial photo papers)
  • Baryta 
  • Fibre based ‘darkroom’ papers

Resin coated

Resin coated papers are usually available with a satin or glossy finish and are commonly used by photographers for their price and availability.   They have a plasticy feel and are not fine art papers.  They’re incapable of producing the colour, brightness, longevity and aesthetics of fine art papers although they can often look quite good.  They usually contain OBA’s to help produce a brighter white, and this contributes to their cooler white point.

Ilford Smooth Pearl

Ilford Smooth Pearl

ISP is a resin coated photo paper with a satin finish. Other ‘RC’ papers include Canson HighGloss or Canson PhotoSatin.

Baryta

Baryta papers use a barium sulphate layer to produce quite pleasing and highly archival prints, typically with a satin like finish.  The Baryta papers can produce deep blacks, bright whites, and have excellent colour reproduction.  I find there’s something about the way colours sit on these papers that just isn’t present in others.

Canson Baryta Photographique

Canson Baryta Photographique

Baryta Photographique is extremely neutral, and similar to Ilford’s Gold Fibre Silk.

Fibre based ‘darkroom’ papers

Coated fibre based papers originate from traditional darkroom papers, and are often compared in appearance to the Baryta’s.  They’re often made with a cotton or alpha-cellulose fibre substrate with a microporous coating.  The surface textures are usually satin like in appearance, and can have a light textural presence.

Platine Fibre Rag

Canson Platine Fibre Rag

Platine is one of my ‘go to’ papers, and always produces great looking prints.  It’s built on a cotton rag, is fairly neutral, and the satin surface texture looks natural.

Ilford’s Gold Fibre gloss is a similar option.

Epson’s Traditional Photo paper could be considered similar as well, it uses wood based fibres instead of cotton fibres but contains OBA’s giving a bright but cooler appearance. 

Ilford Gold Mono Silk

Ilford Gold Mono Silk

Gold Mono silk is now out of production. It’s a coated, fibre based paper with a semi gloss surface.

It’s included here to demonstrate the surface reflection from a glossy paper.

Wrap up

Fine art papers can’t be described solely with specifications or waffly words. They have an aesthetic about them, a feel and a presence that becomes part of the print, and they really need to be experienced in person, so I can only hope this article helps.

 

Making choices

Tips for matching prints to papers:

  • Match the image with a paper white.  Don’t use cool toned papers for warm toned images and vice-versa, portraits can look dead when printed on cooler toned papers.
  • Papers with near neutral white points, or smoother surfaces tend to suit a wider range of images.
  • Coated papers are more vibrant and contrasty, and can suit images which need the extra punch.  They may also be chosen for their surface sheen, for example a glossy surface may be chosen for an image about water, or hard steel.
  • Matte papers have a softer look and blacks aren’t as deep.  I find this can make them suitable for natural scenes, portraits, or more artistic images where high contrast isn’t needed.
  • Textured papers should be selected carefully to complement the print and bring about a tactile feel, they won’t suit every print and can get in the way of image details.

Only so much can be conveyed in words and images, I hope you enjoy an exploration into the world of fine art prints.