Why Uncoated Papers? for print nerds

I’ve been interested in the viability, and potential benifits of printing on uncoated fine art papers even before inkjet when I saw some early Iris photography prints, and even earlier, when I first saw a platinum print at George Eastman House long ago, eventually dipping my toe into historical processes. I’ve written about this before, so some of this will be repetitive.

An initial discussion of these issues and some examples are in this earlier post, Inkjet printing on uncoated papers

For specificity, papers I am discussing are papers without an ink receptive coating, coatings developed for inkjet printers in the early 2000s if I recall. They receive the ink, keeping it from absorbing into the paper, resisting dot spread, wicking, mottle, resulting in much higher sharpness, dmax, color gamut, etc..  As these coatings were adapted throughout the inkjet community, they became the norm for matte papers. By comparison, prints made with uncoated fine art papers (watercolor, printmaking, letterpress etc.) and pigment inks that had evolved, were muted and less sharp by comparison, particularly considering historical photography print dramatic standards. Ink control techniques could be used to minimize mottle, bleed, dot gain, etc.. so prints were possible on some of the beautiful Japanese and European papers perfected over the years for fine art, but with unique softer characteristics requiring the appropriate imagery.

There are gorgeous photographic print methods, historical and continuing to evolve, that have similar softer densities, emulsions that are often hand coated on fine art papers. So the look of inkjet on uncoated papers is not completely out of the norm considering these methods.

I’ve used many wonderful inkjet coated papers for my own work and custom printing for others, since their inception. This hands on experience has illuminated some concerns that come to the forefront when print longevity is a priority for given groups of work, for example museum sets.

First is simply physical delicacy- The coatings flake and scuff easily, this may sound relatively insignificant, but the image area of these prints can’t even be touched by fingers, the prints certainly not stacked with anything, other than smooth slick materials. Some papers are worse than others, I had one print order with large areas of black that had at least a 75% failure rate just getting the prints from the printer to a spray area to apply a protective coating. A printer friend finally advised me to never even accept a print job for coated matte paper with large areas of black. That’s a pretty significant limitation. Repeated handling of any kind places them at risk, immediately framing and leaving them framed seems the only safe bet. I can’t help but wonder if, over the course of many decades, the coating remains adhered to the paper. Years ago I tested an “infused” paper, materials that inhibited inkjet dot spread and absorbsion were manufactured into the substance of the paper itself so it didn’t flake off. Seemed like a great idea, and obviously printing was equal on both sides, but that was the last I’ve heard of the idea. Prints on uncoated fine art papers are far less delicate, as is any artwork like watercolor, lithography, etc..

Phenolic yellowing- the coatings are highly hydroscopic that attract, and react to, chemicals from the environment. One of our biggest early problems was severe yellowing from outgassing adhesives in proximity to the prints. Something as benign as a print storage or portfolio box manufactured with certain common adhesives and tapes may cause brilliant yellow stains in a short time. Outgassing can occur right through packaging into the coating. This is not paper yellowing we are used to, this is a chemical reaction in the coating that can occur within days. There’s far too little published info about this, or acknowledged by the manufacturers. My understanding is that the clay coating ingredients include a benign and invisible form of sulphur, that when exposed to certain chemicals, converts to the visible bright yellow from of sulphur. It can convert back when exposed to UV light, a dubious idea with any fine art. The additional concern, given how purposely and effectively hydroscopic these coatings are, is that they are attracting and absorbing any number of environmental gasses in our world that may eventually affect the image quality or paper life. Obviously uncoated papers don’t have this problem, and we have healthy art made even centuries ago around the world. 

Why get into all of this now? I no longer do custom printing for others which required a variety of contemporary options available, but now working on a very focused approach encompassing my own concerns, for my own work. Coincidentally, the future availability of the inks I have been using came into question, and to be honest, my custom setup using them involved hand mixing which had become tiresome over the years and overly OCDish. I was looking to switch to inksets with a future, also with an eye to longevity to coincide with my paper concerns. The determining factor though, was the introduction of Cone’s HDMK black ink. Suddenly with proper setups, on uncoated papers I can get into the 1.6 to 1.7+ range for dmax, well into the range we had previously achieved with standard coated inkjet papers. Needless to say, dmax on coated papers also took a leap forward. The previous more muted “compromise” on beautiful watercolor and printmaking papers was no longer a given, depending on the paper. Coincidentally, Cone Editions sent me a custom 100% K7 carbon inkset for testing, opening a new ink possibility as well.

By the way, the inkjet papers designated “photo” papers, surfaces bearing resemblance to traditional silver and color papers, aren’t part of this discussion. I’m not drawn to them, so they’re not part of my way forward, and there are far more longevity concerns with those papers generally. Feel free to look over the amazing work at Aardenburg Imaging & Archives  for more on that.

Well this got long. I’ll follow this up with test results of various papers, then more specific methods and results I’ve arrived at after a lot of tweaking, hopefully culminating in how I print my work going forward.

3 responses to “Why Uncoated Papers? for print nerds”

  1. Colin Dixon says:

    Thanks Tyler. I’m just about to start printing with Piezography Pro inks here in the UK. Your article has given me much information and food for thought.

  2. Jon Cone says:

    Tyler, you continue to pioneer in fine B&W printing. Over the decades I’ve known you you never cease to amaze. As the medium has matured and too many take for granted, your insights and reminders remain as important today as they were way back.

    • tyler says:

      This from the master who printed Ashes and Snow!!!
      Wow Jon, thanks so much for reading and for your humbling comments. If anyone is the pioneer in these areas it is you by miles! Without your innovation and and dedication from the beginning none of this would even be on the table.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *