I just wanted to write about a series of prints I had made. They’re basically the highest quality inkjet prints you could possibly create, printed as a limited edition, at a super-fine resolution of 600 dpi.
The reason I wrote this post is because I wanted to take the time to share what I learned about archival inkjet (giclée) printing. It's very nerdy, but if you're an artist/illustrator interested in the topic you might find it useful.
I’m a designer by trade. And as a result I take details like printing pretty seriously. I think if you’re going to sell prints or reproductions of your work, you owe it to your customer to understand what you’re selling and price it appropriately — especially if you’re marketing your work as ‘gallery quality’.
Hundreds of thousands of artists of varying skill levels upload their artwork to popular print-on-demand sites like Society 6, Deviant Art and INPRNT, which handle all the file preparation, printing, finishing and shipping of their work at no cost or risk to the artist. They're incredible services, with great potential — if the artist knows what they're doing. But the truth is most contributors to these sites are looking for an excuse to hand over the responsibility of making decent print to third parties in the hope of making easy money. Most of the artists that sell their art on these sites have never ordered their own products or seen them in real life. I know, because I’m one of them.
Now, making art is probably the least effective way to make a living, ever, so I would never begrudge an artist and their hustle. If you can make a living selling $2 laser prints for $40 a piece — and yes, that actually happens — hats off to you. Shine bright like a diamond. Making original art can be time-consuming, thankless and expensive. You have to figure out anything to justify the opportunity and material cost.
But when people started bugging me about the availability of signed prints of my work, I was just really interested in researching and creating the highest quality reproduction I could afford. And although I’m very happy with the result, it’s a rabbit hole I’d like to crawl out of now (please).
Initiate brain dump sequence.
Resolution: What goes in must come out.
I went to multiple printers for quotes. I looked at two online, print-on-demand vendors — Society 6 and INPRNT — and also local printing options in Vancouver. I even looked into buying my own printer.*
*You can buy a smaller Epson Stylus Pro 4900 for about $2,000. Replacing all ten of it’s goddamn ink cartridges also costs $2,000, but you know, details.
Most vendors that do large-scale inkjet printing are running the same printer — the Epson Stylus Pro 11880. It’s a top-of-the-line machine that prints in eight inks, three of which are black. In Vancouver, both the artist-friendly store Opus and professional color lab ABC Photo run the 11880. Even Society 6 runs the 11880.
The reason is simple: the 11880 is probably the best quality archival inkjet printer available that prints more than 4-feet wide — up to 64-inches. This gives vendors the option to gang up and print multiple jobs simultaneously and save more money per square foot. If you hear terms like Ultrachrome ink, or Ultrachrome 3K, they’re printing with an Epson. INPRNT, notably, is running the Epson Stylus Pro 9900, a smaller, but more advanced 10-ink printer, with additional orange and blue inks. Because I work in conté and graphite, the number of color ink channels is less relevant to me — but if you’re a photographer or painter it might matter to you.*
* I'm obligated to mention here how a print operator runs and sets up their machines, the paper they're printing on, and the ripping software and color profiles they use, all have an impact print quality. It's beyond my understanding to talk about it in any detail, but it matters.
Both the Epson 11880 and 9900 can print at a 2880 x 1440 dpi, the minimum standard for high-quality, giclée printing. A regular laser printer or very good inkjet prints at 600 dpi.
BUT — and this a big but — it doesn’t matter how high the output resolution of a printer is, if the input resolution of the source file stinks. Imagine dragging a 72 dpi GIF off of Reddit into a replicator from Star Trek — it’s still going to come out at 72 dpi GIF. That's a fault of the source material. The translation was perfect.
A site like Society 6, for instance only accepts files up to 75 mb in size. Now, that’s pretty good — enough to print most medium-sized artwork pieces at 240 to 300 dpi. But if you wanted to print at an even higher resolution, or at a larger size, you’re shit out of luck.
Most of the things you see everyday in print around you, magazines, posters etc — are scanned and printed in 300 dpi. This includes 4-color offset lithography. So Society 6 and INPRNT fall in line with industry standards. But because of file restrictions, printing at larger sizes becomes problematic. And it also begs the question — how bad a file can you upload to a site like Society 6 or INPRNT? If you’re wide-eyed and bushy-tailed and know nothing about printing, how shitty a product will they allow you sell?
As a test, I decided to see what would happen if I uploaded a low-res print file to Society 6. I sent Hana II, originally a 36”x36” drawing, as a 2592 x 2592 px jpeg, at 72 dpi. The total file size was a paltry 3.6 mb.
The site automatically resized the image, so that the maximum purchase size was 17” x 17”. This forces the image to print at 150 dpi.
First off, good on Society 6 for enforcing some kind of baseline standard. But it's important to note that 150 dpi is the absolute bare, bare minimum for printing commercially. Noise, blurring, and artifacting starts to become visible to the naked eye. 150 dpi is only appropriate if you need to print something oversized, like a wall-sized graphic or billboard. Something designed to be seen from a distance.
In other words, 150 dpi is fine for a poster stapled to a telephone pole. But if you’re a purist — or more importantly, a collector — it isn’t close to being acceptable as an archival or gallery quality print. You could cut a picture out of a magazine, put it in a frame and you’d have a higher resolution image. You might as well be buying prints from Office Depot.
While my low-res version of Hana II was up, I also added Hana II at a much higher resolution, at 300 dpi, as a separate product. This version of the image could also be purchased at 17” x 17”. For a couple of hours, I had both a lo-res and hi-res version of the file online simultaneously. Even though the preview image and products appeared identical, one would have been printed at 150 dpi and the other at 300 dpi.
That’s what makes sites like Society 6 problematic — the possibility of a contributor uploading their file in a way that would result in a substandard print is actually pretty high. And there is no way currently for consumers to tell when the artist made a mistake.
The Big Picture(s)
So what if you’re an insane? What if you’re pathological and neurotic and obsessed with replicating the paper fibres of an original piece of art.
The biggest challenge with documenting my art is that I sometimes draw at a larger-than-average scale — often in hyperrealistic detail. If anything, it’s the detail that makes the work interesting.
That meant that in order for an reproduction to do my work justice, an extremely high quality, detailed source image was essential. For example, this drawing, Hana II, is 36˝ x 36˝. You could shoot it with the most expensive, commercially available DSLR available — a medium format Canon, Hasellblad or Phase One — and it still wouldn’t produce a big enough image to reprint it at an industry-standard 300 dpi.
So I tried all sorts of solutions, using Hana II as the testbed. I shot the artwork myself, hired a friend, shot it in daylight, controlled light, everything. And that doesn’t even factor in the distortion caused by the curvature of a lens, or white balancing, or not shooting perfectly level, etc. It was kind of a crash course in the limitations of digital photography.
I had pretty much given up on trying to reproduce my work altogether. But finally, with the help of a local printer, we figured out a solution. It was a lot simpler than you’d think, but also an insane amount of careful, meticulous work. He used a commercial flat-bed scanner, and scanned Hana II in 16-pieces, directly, and carefully stitched it together until we had a pixel-perfect, massive source file — 36” x 36” at 600 dpi.
Let’s compare this to commercially available DSLRs. A $4000 Canon 5DS shoots at 50 megapixels. Pretty big, right? The $50,000 Phase One IQ180 shoots at 80 megapixels. That’s a 10,000 x 8000 pixel image. A $45,000 Hasselblad Multishot can construct a 200 megapixel image by tiling multiple 50 megapixel shots together.
This scan of Hana II is 21600 x 21600 pixels. It’s a 1Gb file that is equivalent to whopping 466 megapixels.
That level of quality is even higher than a Cruse Scanner, an massive art scanner that retails for over $150,000. It is used to scan framed paintings and museum artifacts at 299 megapixels.
As a artist just starting out, you can’t do much better than that.
However, there are a couple solid, but expensive options. You can shoot your work on medium or large format film, than get the negatives drum scanned at 6600 to 8000 dpi. Or you can get the work photographed in multiple shots and stitched together. The latter option sounds a lot easier than it actually is. It would involve perfectly even lighting, and some kind of special rig to keep the camera and artwork level and parallel to each other at all times.
I asked Scott Teplin what he does — he hires a professional photo lab to shoot and stitch his oversized work, which can get as large as 7´0 x 5´0. At those dimensions, he pretty much doesn't have a choice. A museum like the Getty uses a combination of medium/large format photography and stitching software to document their collection as well. Both these options would put you in the appropriate 200 to 400 megapixel range. It’s a solution I wish I had thought of earlier but never had the chance to try.
What I've Learned so Far
Printing at 600 dpi is astonishing. Seriously. If you view one of my prints under a 8x loupe magnifier — the kind you use to review film negatives — you cannot see any printing dots. The image is tack-sharp. When I first saw the result, it gave me the ol' nerd-chills.
While it absolutely is overkill, it actually puts it my giclée prints on par with large format photography and gallery-quality photographic prints. I believe the highest possible resolution for printing on an OCE Lightjet — a $100,000-plus machine that can print 10’0 x 6’0 photographs — is 600 dpi. It’s kind of embarrassing selling prints of this high a quality — but I’m obviously quite proud, too.
Flatbed scanning original artwork is not for the faint of heart. It means allowing someone to handle your artwork, and letting the surface touch the glass of the scanner. Your putting your artwork at risk. It’s certainly ‘the wrong way’ to do it — but honestly the most cost-effective; capable of outperforming $50,000 cameras.
Both my printer and I are very experienced with retouching in Photoshop and preparing files for print. It’s the only reason I trusted him to be able to stitch the files together.
Medium or large-format cameras might be the only solution for large acrylic and oil paintings. Work with highly sensitive surfaces simply can’t come in contact with anything else. It’s also important to note the surfaces of acrylic and oil paint can be very reflective, which may make a clean scan on a flatbed scanner impossible.
I was only able to get away with this process because I work in conté and graphite. Pen and ink is a scanner's wet dream — par for course in comics. I wonder how well watercolour and ink washes would perform.
One of the benefits of scanning at 600 dpi is you have image you can do almost anything with. I can quadruple the size of the print and still get a reasonably spiffy 300 dpi print.
If I were an artist selling products on Society 6 or INPRNT, I would consider noting the dpi and resolution of the source file I uploaded to my product description. This would let customers know the optimal size to order your print, if they wanted the best resolution available (300 dpi).
If I were a consumer looking to buy products on those sites, I would probably avoid sellers that didn’t include this information. Or, at the very least, avoid ordering the largest possible print made available by the site. There is a chance the site automatically resized it so it can be printed at a larger size, but at an inferior 150 dpi.
Just remember it doesn’t matter how pretty a preview image is. If the artist uploaded a low quality image you’re going to get a substandard product.
The cheapest way to save time and money on prints? Do all your work digitally. Of course, it makes me cringe to think of all the files that have been uploaded to Society 6; with the wrong dpi, a bad overall resolution, or RBG colors that fair exceed the gamut of printable colors. So for the millionth time: The industry standard is 300 dpi. If you want your artwork to be printed at 11 x 17, you need to work digitally with a file that is 5100 x 3300 px.
If you own a mid-range DSLR that shoots 16 megapixels, that should be good enough to shoot and reproduce art that’s little under 11" x 17”, at an industry standard 300 dpi. That’s equivalent to 4,928 × 3,264 px. Close enough, right?
However, if you are an artist that makes art traditionally at a larger size, and are serious about selling prints or reproductions of your work, you should consider having your work either scanned or photographed on medium/large format film. There might be stitching software or plug-ins worth experimenting with.
If you paint in vivid colors, either digitally or traditionally, I would recommend trying to sell prints with INPRNT. They are running the EPSON *900 series, that has 10 inks instead of 8, allowing it to print a wider gamut of color. I'm thinking of uploading some color work and just buying it myself. I'm really curious what it could do.
If you draw or do black and white photography, I would recommend trying to sell prints with Society 6. According to their site, they print work they receive in greyscale with greyscale profiles. This needs to be verified in real life, but this is absolutely critical for work that needs a neutral tone. Using color profiles to print a greyscale image will result in a printer mixing multiple color channels to 'simulate' grey, and no amount of fiddling or calibration from the printer will prevent your work from printing with a slight tone (usually on the warm side). Frankly, it makes black and white work look cheap and amatuerish — like your work got squeezed through an old-timey photo filter.
While Society 6 has a lower ceiling on files you can upload (75 mb), INPRNT has a cap on the resolution (10,200 x 6600, 100 mb). So, oddly enough, I can upload and sell higher resolution prints on Society 6 than INPRNT, even though INPRNT has a higher file size cap. D’oh!
After doing the research, your local, specialty print shops should be terrified of Society 6 and INPRNT. Both sites are running the same state-of-the-art printers as most local shops, while offering prints at a much lower cost per square foot. They also provide packaging, shipping, framing and mounting. The amount of options they offer customers, at no risk to the contributing artist, is hard to ignore, regardless of the printing quality— which is still pretty solid value for the price.
Trust me — my prints are highest quality prints I can make. That means the personal risk to me is high and the margins are terrible. While you can never compare a reproduction that is batch-printed by a website, to one that have been inspected, signed and reviewed by the actual artist, it doesn't change the fact that Society 6 and INPRNT are offering a great deal.
Local printers are going to have re-evaluate their pricing and services for archival inkjet printing. All these online vendors need to do is a) come up with a solution for proofing and b) increase their file upload sizes by a gigabit (or two). Then it would be game over.
Archival inkjet printing is there to be taken over. In two to five years I expect one of the big online print communities will. My only hope is that illustrators do their due diligence, and respect themselves and their customers by staying educated about the products they’re selling.
If you can’t afford prints, but would still like to support my work, you can follow me on facebook.com/talentismyrealname, instagram and twitter @talentpun. I know it’s silly, but honestly, drawing isn’t easy for me. Every little bit of encouragement counts.
Thanks for reading. Peace.
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