Keeping the "Fine" in Fine Art Photography (and what that means to you)

"The Soul of Vietnam" exhibit at the Crossman Gallery at the University of Wisconsin

Perhaps knowing how the art you are collecting was made, or because you also like to make artistic photos, this information may be of interest to you.

As a mid-career artist of decades of experience, I can offer insights as to the choices that we fine art photographers make in creating our artworks. First, let’s address questions regarding the finesse very experienced artists must obtain to make stunning prints. We can address color photography for that purpose, since black and white is simpler, and doesn’t require some of the technical and aesthetic challenges color represents.

For years, fine art color photography was unable to achieve the beauty of color that painters enjoyed. The processes of that time used chemicals with dye inks that inevitably would fade. In the first five years of this century the inkjet printers leapt forward to use pigment inks, and in the past few years this has been perfected to the point that the color capability equals that of acrylic and oil colors for painters. The key is the use of pigments, which are made from metals and fade little, if at all. This is why paintings from a thousand years ago have retained enough color to look great or allow some restoration of any color that has become weak.

Today’s inkjet fine art prints have longevity comparable to painting, with scientific tests showing no color changes after one hundred or more years, depending on the paper and inks used and the environmental exposure and length of storage. Some artists still prefer other color processes, and that is their aesthetic choice, but for the best artwork capability the highest quality inkjet printing offers the best results available to the artist today.

As a lifelong career artist, I have had the advantage of watching the changes in the photographic techniques since that first started decades ago. The first master teacher for learning the most rigorous techniques for photography and printing was my teacher Ansel Adams, who trained many of us through the five books of his Basic Photo Series. His methods were so involved and explicit that it was like getting a masters degree in that subject.

I went on to teach his methods to hundreds of students and develop into a master of these black and white techniques. Years ago, when I switched to color for most of my artwork, the advent of digital darkroom meant that increasingly diverse and unlimited processing of images became possible, which you can see in any of my abstract portfolios. I mastered that, and have taught these methods as well. The experienced photo-based artists use their experience advantage by incorporating much greater subtlety and nuance into their edited images, and through their further nurturing of the printing processes. You the collector may not be able to see this readily, but in time can feel the differences between highly developed fine artwork and lightly edited, less informed work.

For example, most of those sunsets images you see on social media are from a bunch of quickly made snapshots with little or no editing and then immediately posted. On your cell phone, the image is so small you can’t tell how that image might be different from the fine art ones I mentioned. Make a large print of that low effort image and compare it to one of the qualities I am discussing, and you will see that difference in many ways.

To begin with, you can look for the smooth transitions of color and illumination, and more importantly, how the artist guided your eye to what they felt was the key point. And how did they edit to shape the rest of the image, to move your eye to the other places they wanted you to notice and comprehend in your feelings? How did they use color, contrast, luminosity, texture, line, forms, edges and more to help you experience the artwork that way?

Construct the artwork first in the camera. What are you trying to get across?

“I don’t take a photograph. I make a photograph.” Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams made notes on how he prepared (edited, that is) an image to get a great print. There were many operations involved to make each of his images sing their beauty. The best fine art photographers today do that a lot more, because our means to make these changes are so extensive that the possibilities are infinite!

Of course, like a painter, the true fine art photographer cannot tell you how long a particular artwork took to make it perfect. It varies greatly, but for me it is not less than three days of work per image, and yet others (like the abstracts) may absorb many hours more than that.

First, I use an extremely complex application to extract the most from the camera image that is possible, and to get the best results, I must modify the technical changes separately for every image. No mass production will get me there. Then, I start working on the image in Photoshop and use the myriad of that application‘s features to get me to my intended result. If it is a multilayered image and/or abstract, it could involve many more hours, because I use artificial intelligence to suggest other ideas, experimenting more to transform the artwork further. This way to work is much closer to painting because many painters “overpaint” their previous brush strokes, prodigiously, bringing more life to the expression.

The commission Midsummer Day Dream took over four hundred hours to construct.

Once the artwork is ready for its first try at printing, the techniques for that are also very involved. We artists have to make sure our monitor’s colors are exactly that of what our printer makes. Reams of information on how to do this are on the internet, and a quick survey of that data will convince you that this is an arduous path to follow then maintain.

After the tests, we have to decide what size to print and on what material. Artists like me constantly try different paper and canvases to see what works best for an image, then use the material with the highest success rate. That fact alone means that we must print these images ourselves, because it is very difficult, even for printing experts, to interpret what our intended perfect image should look like.

The finished prints may need to be titled, signed and numbered if they are part of a limited edition. That should be the easy part, right? But no, because the printed material is sensitive to the writing methods used. A glossy paper can not use a pencil. You can use ink, but most ink is made with dyes with fading issues. So you must use a pigment pen. Softer surfaced papers always use pencils, because pencil lead (graphite) does not fade.

How much paper border should be left around the image? The effort to get to perfection continues.

Finally, a few words on the materials and the ultimate presentation in your home (or wherever you intend to hang the artwork). If your desire to own an artwork is to use it for a short term, and if resold the value is not too important, your options are more open. If the way the artwork is presented involves special considerations, the options may be more limited. But if you hope to keep the work for a longer period (such as more than five years), or the value remains important to you, the options narrow.

For the artwork’s longevity, traditionally, good fine art photography requires 100% cotton papers devoid of any sulfur presence that yellows the paper with age. Also, the papers should not have any added chemicals to brighten the whiteness. They should not have a base made from plastic. More recently completely competitive paper made from wood pulp has become available, and they are as reliable as the cotton papers.

Then there is the ‘hand’ of the paper that refers to its weight, thickness and stiffness (the more the better for most artworks). For larger prints, look for a weight that is more than 180 GSM (grams per square meter of paper, which is a little larger than 6 oz. per square yard). Many fine art photographers working with inkjet printers are using papers of 280 GSM or more. Fine art photographers prefer using papers of 250 GSM or more. I typically aim for at least 300 GSM.

Highest grade canvas is judged similarly to the papers, and the best ones are fully competitive with the finest papers. Canvas has the advantage of being more flexible, so it is harder to incur creases in them and they are easily rolled for shipping in tubes. For example, my printing is currently on the papers Lyve canvas of Breathing Color Company in the U.S. Lyve is superb for my style of art making, and the canvas especially exceeds all other canvases. The colors are so satisfying, a result of this refined canvas printed on my matchless large format Canon IPF8400 printer.

A great printer, like this Canon, is a boon to any artist photographer

Plastic and Metal Substrates

There is one last perplexing piece for we artists. These challenges to our credibility are somewhat recent, but the popularity of the materials involved have stretched those of us who have an understanding of the underlying issues. Indulge me for a moment to learn that anything plastic has a limited life, and the same with most metals. Collecting an artwork that is laminated to acrylic or any other plastic limits its lifespan, because plastics are made with chemical plasticizers in their mix. Those chemicals migrate out of the plastic over time and the remaining plastic becomes increasingly brittle, and yellows, too. With luck and careful maintenance, acrylic can be useful for as much as fifty years. Perhaps it has remained clear and unblemished, but it is definitely brittle after that much time, and cracking is inevitable.

Who cares, if you have no intention to keep the artwork for long, or to resell it, but if you do ……..

Any form of laminating is made possible by adhesives. Some fine artwork being sold has a layer of extremely clear mylar laminate bonded to its face. It’s better than an acrylic sheet, because cracking is not an issue. But like acrylic, it is a soft material, and scratching is likely over the long term. Worse is the clear adhesive that holds the acrylic or mylar to the print’s face. Any adhesive has nasty properties, and you can be sure that it will cause problems, since applying harsh chemicals directly to the artwork is never a great idea.

Ah, but what about metal prints? People forget that metals and plastics consist of bonds between crystals that are made from molecules that stick to each other through atomic means. And that equation does not hold up well from changes such as temperature, stresses, flexing, atmospheric components and many more threats. Plastic may crack or become more opaque, but metal? Yikes.

So why am I freaking out, and why should you?

I can remember in the 1950’s the news reported that one of the first jet propelled airplanes blew up in flight, a British one and the first model to be produced. The sleek Brit airplane had suffered metal fatigue, causing cracks in the skin of its fuselage. Due to cabin pressurization, a large hole opened, dooming its passengers and crew. By the time the Boeing 707 procedures were in place, this type of metal failure accident was never heard from again, thanks to advanced inspection methods that were developed.

As a pilot flying small personal airplanes, I have listened to why aviation mechanics carefully inspect older aircrafts’ aluminum structures and skins. Metal fatigue. Rust is what you see on the metal surface, but it is in its core where stresses over time have reduced the strength between the bonds of the crystals that make up the metal. It is called intergranular corrosion. So again, print directly on metal? It's cool and flashy, yes, but should a dependable, experienced artist print that way?

Galvanic and granular corrosion on aluminum

With that, you can see why I do not offer metal prints, acrylic laminating, or other methods of presenting artworks that I feel are inappropriate to art created for the long term.

The exceptions are the backing board behind the artwork installed in a frame. Two common ones are DiBond and Gatorboard, both which use my ‘forbidden’ materials (like plastic and aluminum) but made in a way that offers no long term threat to the artwork at all, as long as the artwork is not permanently adhered to these materials.

So how is an artwork on paper kept in place in the frame if the frame is larger than its own size? Simple: the way it has been done for many centuries. The artwork is held to the backing with a cotton tape that uses a vegetable-based glue. There is no threat, and the print can be removed from the tape holding it to the backing by slightly dampening the tape. When you buy a valuable print from a renowned artist, make sure this archival tape hinging method is the ONLY one that is used.

So there you have it. When you collect art online or otherwise, you will feel better if there is trust in the transaction. A lot of art today is sold at excruciatingly high prices with doubtful processes and poor access to authenticity. Find artists or points of art sales that seem focused on these challenges and can reassure you.

Photo of Larry by Pamela Foard

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