Surfaces That Support Our Art - Are They Important?

Ultimately, if we want people to see our work, we must have a way to show it. Of course, at this time in history, the most common means are representation and some form of digitally based computer-driven context such as your phone or in some kind of physical reproduction, such as a print. And that brings us around to the issue of presentation.

The question for the artist is: how will we present our work to other humans? Some of us, some of the time, want to do that through a physical object, such as a print.

In photography, printing is done on more materials than in the earlier centuries of the medium. Besides the classic millennium-old idea of specialty papers, we have been using canvas for some years, since the advent of digital printers at the beginning of this century.

More recently photographers and companies who make prints have found it advantageous to use materials that provide much greater markup of price, not due to quality, but due to advertising campaigns for these materials that in the past had been more traditionally used for advertising. I am referring to prints made on metal, those made on acrylic plastic, and even more recently on glass.

The attraction of these materials is some kind of current idea of photography as something that should be very glitzy and glossy. It's very strange, because printmaking (which photography is part of) has a millennium-long history across the world that was just the opposite. The last thing I would do was to try to be glossy, because the reflections from anything glossy take away from the depth of the details, subtlety of the colors and so on.

We've had glossy photographs for years, since back when prints were made with chemicals. They were always more difficult to hang properly in any space because of the problem of reflections. We got around that by drowning the image with very bright light that exceeded the brightness of the things that would have been reflected from an opposing wall.

Some artists chose to print on papers whose surfaces had more of a luster, and others on surfaces that are completely matte. For the most part, these papers are much better for exposition in a museum or your home. It is true that if you use acrylic or glass over it to protect it, you kind of repeat the glossy photo problem, and you're back to having to use a lot of light on the artwork. You can imagine how much of a problem this becomes if it is a really big print, such as the ones that are the largest that I sell with areas of 20 ft² or more.

Circling back, an earlier blog post points out all the dangers of photographic artwork being laminated or printed on either acrylics or metals.

Some people who like either photography laminated to acrylic, or images printed on metal prefer that very slick look. And why not, it's a viable way to show art and enjoy it, if that type of look is your thing. My only proviso is that if you buy work like that, it must be with the understanding that these are not processes that have much longevity, regardless of what the producers of these forms of laminated work will tell you.

Finally, there are things that I find a little bit irritating about the marketing around these new surfaces.

In this case, to make the extra profits that come from printing on metal or laminating to acrylic, printing services in some cases try to make the sale by claiming that the best papers, and especially canvas, can't compete for the beauty of the slick surfaces of plastic or metal.

I think it's dangerous whenever we advertise by trying to find something wrong with the competitive product, rather than emphasize the strengths of your own. Frankly, I don't agree with them.

Remember, we started out talking about tones.

The amazing subtlety the photography medium is capable of is going to be limited by the material that you use to make the print. The canvas argument is easy for me to make. The canvas I use, made by Breathing Color in Austin, Texas, is a very modern product and quite different from when canvases were first being used in photography printing. The richness and subtlety of the colored ink on this surface beats just about anything there is in photography. And you only notice the very fine weave of fabric if you were looking at the artwork very close. If you have a canvas print 3 feet x 4 feet, the closest you are likely to get to it and still be able to absorb it is probably from 3 feet away, and from that distance you are going to barely notice the weave, which is very fine in size. I'm not a fan of seeing too much of the weave myself, so I would not use canvas to print anything less than 24 inches on its shortest side. But when you see the big prints on canvas, they are stunning in so many ways that I don't think there's anything in any other medium that can really fully compete with it.

So the irritating part is that either the people who promote metal and acrylic types of printing either have not kept up with the current state-of-the-art canvas and papers, or they don't know enough about what to look for to understand the subtleties that are in the print. Because frankly, many of these outfits have developed out of the sign industry, and not the fine art photography market.

And with papers, the same thing is at work. Yes, you can be startled by the glossy impact of a print laminated to acrylic and appreciate it for the shorter duration that it will stay in good condition. However, if you were the type of person who really likes to stare at an image and absorb it a little more, eventually you will likely find that slickness wears thin.

Knowing that, many of we fine art photographers really count on paper as our main medium, and we have a great number of paper producers and types of paper to choose from. There are usually several dozen absolutely exquisite papers to choose from. Most of us try them all, and sometimes decide on one or two and sometimes more from one to another.

You would think, okay, there's only so much you can do to a piece of paper to make it receptive to the pigments that the printing machines spread out. As in my case, you could be using one or two papers you have loved and thought were fabulous for fifteen years. And then suddenly, without any real cause other than you decide to experiment, you try a new paper somebody has come out with. Perhaps the engineers of that new paper have ramped up the possibility for beautiful imaging a step further.

That happened to me the week that I am writing this blog. Because of my experience with the incredible canvas I have used the past few years, I decided to try a new paper just developed by that same company. If their canvas was better than what I had considered to be good canvas, then maybe that would be true for paper too?

And it was. The paper that I had sworn by was produced by a paper mill that began business in the very early 16th century, and is still one of the biggest in the world. I had every reason to trust them, and I found that working with their paper was rewarding and made me feel I was getting the best image onto the paper that was available any place in the world.

Then this new paper from my canvas manufacturer came along and I tried it out. This was a new shock for me. I compared this new paper with the one I had been using, and there was a very substantial difference. It was almost as if the image could come off the page and be alive. By comparison, the paper I had been using, as great as it is, now seemed flat.

So I made the decision to go in this latest, greatest direction, continually surprised by what this new paper did for me. And I can promise that just the bare print, without anything to help, will get your attention at least equal to, or perhaps better than, any print on any material limited to acrylic or printed on a metal sheet.

The point of this tome is to explain to you why I don't care to put artwork into people's hands knowing that it can't last, or that in some way obscures the image. And as you can see from my artwork, I'm never a trendy person, because I expect myself as an artist (and I think you expect me) to go the way my instincts tell me are the way I must go to produce the best artwork I can for you.

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