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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 them, 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 of the papers and why you may choose one paper over another.

Choosing a fine art paper

The screen you’re viewing now can only provide a rough imitation, papers in the hand become real, the textures come alive and they take on weight.  Prints are a multi dimensional experience, unlike images displayed on a screen.

By nature, fine art papers are of high quality, they have a high archival life and strong visual properties.  Many of todays fine art printing papers are variations of the art papers which have been used by artists for hundreds of years, and others were born in the darkroom era of the last century.

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.

Below are some examples to demonstrate the key differences.  Most are made by Canson because I have them on hand, but the principles apply to other brands as well.  

Photo vs Art Papers

It’s important to make a distinction between ‘Fine Art’ papers, and ‘Photo’ papers. All the papers to be discussed are suitable for printing photographs, but only the higher end papers are considered ‘Fine Art’ papers.  The Resin Coated (RC) photo papers are excluded from that category, and will be called ‘Photo Papers’

Coated vs Matte papers

Coated papers have a glossy or satin like sheen, and produce deeper blacks and more vibrant colours than uncoated papers.  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.  

Coated papers provide some protection from stains and smudges if prints are intended to be handled.

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’re often more suitable for portraits or natural subjects which don’t naturally reflect, or for more artistic works.

Uncoated papers are well suited to fitment behind glass by avoiding additional reflections.  

Canson Platine Fibre Rag (coated)

Platine is vibrant paper, with a natural looking satin finish, and is based on a cotton fibre substrate.

Note the specular surface refections from a light positioned above the print.

Canson Rag Photographique

Canson Rag Photographique (uncoated)

Rag Photographique is a smooth cotton fibre rag.  It’s basically the same as Canson Platine without the coating.

Note the absence of any surface reflection from the light positioned above the print.

Paper Whites

A print can only be as bright as the paper it’s printed on, a dull paper has no chance at making 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 commonly see.

Cotton ‘rags’ are generally warmish, ‘photo’ papers bluish, and baryta’s neutral. The appearance of whites can vary significantly by manufacturer and paper type, and manufacturers tend to have a range of papers that have follow a similar ‘DNA’ or feel associated with the 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 in some papers to brighten whites.  They work by absorbing UV light which humans can’t see and re-emitting it in the visible spectrum, apparently making ‘something out of nothing’.  This re-emitted light is blueish in colour, and cools the paper tone.

One catch is that not all light contains UV, direct daylight contains UV but LED’s don’t and they’re becoming the norm in housing and even gallery lighting.  Papers with OBA’s are less predictable, and change more significantly in appearance under different light sources or with time of day as the light source changes

OBA’s are also susceptible to fading over time as the OBA’s deteriorate, causing the paper to yellow.  

OBA’s are more common in cheaper photo papers, and contribute to their cooler whites.  Some beautiful fine art papers also use OBA’s, but I personally don’t like the idea and avoid using them.

Textured papers

Texture is usually associated with fine art paper, even though many are smooth.  The uncoated papers lead the way, and are available with a range of surface textures from light to heavy.  Some coated papers also have a light surface texture, but by comparison they could be considered smooth.

Textures add a tactile and genuine feel to a print, but they don’t suit every image.   Over used textures can interfere with image details and become a distraction.

The angle of light on a print changes the appearance of the texture, so you might consider the lighting environment when choosing a paper.  Textures can almost disappear in flat lighting, while angled lighting brings them out.

Textures become an integral part of an artwork and should be chosen to complement the image.

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 is 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. Smooth enough that it shouldn’t get in the way of the print, yet visible enough to be noticeable up close or in the right light, and that’s why I personally like Edition Etch. It still says ‘fine art’ while remaining subtle.

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 (photo papers)
  • Baryta 
  • Fibre based ‘darkroom’ papers

Resin coated

Resin coated papers are best considered ‘Photo’ papers and not ‘Fine Art’ papers, they have a plasticy feel, and aren’t as bright or vibrant as art papers.  They’re usually available with a satin or glossy finish and are commonly used among photographers for their availability and price.

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 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 made from 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 and 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 of brightness, black values or paper construction.  They have an aesthetic about them, a feel and a presence that becomes part of the print.

Some generalisations can still be made:

  • Match the image with a paper tone that suits it.  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 or uncoated Rags, have a softer look, free of specular reflections.  Reflections are diffused over the surface which has the effect of lowering contrast and raising the black level.  This can make them suitable for natural scenes or more artistic images where high contrast isn’t needed.  I prefer them for portraits.
  • Textured papers should be selected carefully to complement the print.

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