A few months ago I purchased sample packs of printmaking paper for giclée (French for «inkjet») printing, intending to test the papers out with the printer a client of mine has given me permission to use. I have been getting the prints of my pen & ink work done at Photoworks here in San Francisco, and they generally do good work. Nevertheless, I would like more control over the process. A couple of times miscommunications have led to frustrating delays or wasted prints. My thinking is that if I can move the production «in-house» I’ll be able at least to scrap and re-run my prints blaming only myself. At best I can save days on pieces being reprinted.
Doing the printing myself gives me additional latitude in choosing the brand and type of paper. While I could bring my own paper to Photoworks, doing so would only add confusion where confusion has been a problem. Furthermore, making the prints myself has an economic benefit. Even factoring in the cost of the inks making the prints myself costs about a fifth of what Photoworks charges. In theory, there’s no downside.
Practically there is great risk of a downside. The good folks at Photoworks have experience with this kind of printer. So do I, but it’s been years since I’ve used one daily, and when I did it was a constant struggle against print quality problems. I could end up putting a lot of time and energy in only to produce inferior prints. With good reason I’ve been hesitant to commit to doing the work myself. However, I’d be foolish not to explore the option. There is a good chance that increased control over the process would make for better quality prints.
My first step was to test the available selection of papers by making a set of proofs. I bought sample packs from two companies: Moab and Hahnemühle. There are other companies out there making printmaking paper, but this gave me a good starting point. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening in my client’s empty office, installing printer drivers, familiarizing myself with the printer, downloading ICC profiles, and making prints.
So far, all my prints have been made with 505g/m² (grams per square meter) Somerset Velvet printmaking paper from Epson. There are a number of other companies that make Somerset Velvet, including Moab, which is one of the papermakers I have a sample pack from. The 505g/m² variety is referred to as «doubleweight», the standard weight being 255g/m². By comparison, 20lb copy paper is the equivalent of 75g/m². 255g/m² is essentially the weight of very heavy cardstock. 505g/m² Somerset Velvet simply will not bend under its own weight.
Somerset Velvet’s other virtues are its texture, color, and composition. It is 100% cotton paper and free of acids or other impurities, and therefore designed to be archival and durable over a long period of time. It is a medium white, not as bright a white as quality copy bond but not so yellow as to be an off-white. It is very much like the color of the bristol drawing paper I use. It takes black ink very well and creates a very pleasing contrast without being harsh or severe to the eye. Its texture is subtle; there is some variation to the surface, but not enough to distract from the material printed on it.
Last night I tested prints for comparison from ten samples of fine art paper:
- Moab Kayenta Photo Matte (205g/m²)
- Moab Somerset Velvet (225g/m²)
- Moab Somerset Textured (225g/m²)
- Moab Entrada Rag Natural (300g/m², also comes in 190g/m²)
- Moab Entrada Rag Bright (190g/m², also comes in 300g/m²)
- Hahnemühle William Turner (310g/m²)
- Hahnemühle German Etching (310g/m²)
- Hahnemühle Museum Etching (350g/m²)
- Hahnemühle Photo Rag (308g/m²)
- Hahnemühle Bamboo (290g/m²)
Most of these papers have significantly more color to them than Epson’s Somerset Velvet, and none of them are as heavy as the double-weight. I’m generally more impressed with the Hahnemühle offerings than the Moab ones.
The Somerset options are good, but compared with Epson’s Somerset Velvet I prefer the latter. Moab’s Somerset Velvet’s texture has a finer and less noticeable grain, which makes it a little less friendly-seeming to me. Somerset Textured is more so. It is a gorgeous paper, but Epson’s is more appealing to me. The color of each is very similar to Epson’s Somerset offerings.
Moab’s Entrada papers are smoother than Somerset, but on careful appraisal a pleasing texture makes itself known. Entrada Rag Natural is shade yellower than Somerset, but the difference is slight. Entrada Rag Bright splits the difference between copy bond and Somerset. It would definitely be acceptable. 300g/m² is a bit heavier than the bristol I draw on, but it doesn’t have the satisfying sturdiness of the 505g/m² double-weight Somerset Velvet. None of these papers do, actually, but some of them do come in heavier weights.
Moab Kayenta Photo Matte is the whitest paper I tested, though there were brighter samples in the box. It has a smooth matte finish with almost no detectable texture. As the name suggests, it would be a good paper for photo printing, but I found it to be too bright a white and overly smooth for line art. Though it was fairly white, it didn’t hold the blacks as well, so it is doubly less suited for high-contrast work. None of the Moab papers I tested were as good at holding black ink as the Epson Somerset Velvet. In fairness, I have to disclose that it may be because of the artwork I used to test, which is neither as good a scan nor as dark as the work I compared it to on the Epson Somerset. I’ll perform some more tests using files I’ve already printed onto the Epson Somerset.
The Hahnemühle papers were all a pleasure to look at. The Photo Rag was the brightest of these that I tested, roughly the same as the Epson Somerset. There is an «ultra smooth» variety of Hahnemühle Photo Rag as well as a «bright white». As their names suggest, one is smoother and the other whiter. The Photo Rag papers have a pleasing texture once it can be seen, but the texture is not pronounced. You really have to be looking for it. Photo Rag is also available in a 500g/m² variety which makes it a real contender here. I’m undecided about the texture though. The texture is interesting, but it is not easy to see. I really will want to make more tests with the Hahnemühle Photo Rag.
Hahnemühle Bamboo is a fascinating paper. While the other Hahnemühle papers tested are either 100% cotton or alpha-cellulose, Bamboo is, as its name suggests, made from 90% bamboo fibers and 10% cotton. It is smooth with a texture much like Photo Rag and a less bright, more natural color. It holds black well, but provides a less dramatic contrast due to the natural tone of the paper. It would be a good choice for warm-toned images.
At the other end of the range is Hahnemühle William Turner, which has dramatic surface texture. Almost rough to the touch, the William Turner paper feels stronger than the other 310g/m² papers. It holds blacks well and is ever so slightly less bright than the Epson Somerset Velvet. It might be a contender, but I find the texture to be too distracting for my work.
Hahnemühle German Etching bears a strong resemblance to William Turner but is not so severe. It is smoother to the touch, and has texture that is not as pronounced as William Turner. It is lighter than William Turner, making it a good match for Epson Somerset except for the texture, which I still find too pronounced for my work. I can imagine many images that would work well with this paper; in particular I think this would work well with actual etchings, where the texture in the paper within the area of the etching plate is pressed flat but the texture survives around the edges. For an inkjet paper I think the texture is too much.
I’ve saved the best for last. Hahnemühle Museum Etching is a truly gorgeous paper. At 350g/m² it feels substantial in the hand. It holds black very well, and it has exquisite texture. It is the only paper of this bunch whose texture I like more than the Epson Somerset Velvet’s. It’s 100% cotton, which will please the paper snobs (though I’m not at all biased against alpha-cellulose and am downright intrigued by bamboo.) My only quibble with it is that it is just a shade less bright than I expect. It is smoother to the touch than the other Hahnemühle papers I tested except for Photo Rag, but really we shouldn’t be touching prints and getting our grubby hand oils all over them, should we? I think I’ll need to make more tests with this to see how it performs with other images, but this really might be my replacement for Epson’s Somerset Velvet.
Of course, there’s nothing saying I can’t keep using Somerset Velvet from Epson. It’s an excellent paper and works for me for all the reasons I outlined at the beginning of this article. It’s readily available and I’ve been happily using it for years. There’s also no reason I cannot choose my papers according to the piece I’m printing, though I do like the consistency and my pen and ink work doesn’t vary too much in what I demand of the paper. If I continue to use Somerset Velvet, I’ll do so knowing that I’ve considered more options than those presented by Photoworks. Also, I doubt that I’m done testing paper. There are dozens of makers of paper, and I’d be a fool to think I’ve seen it all. But there will also come a time when I’m certain of what I like and what works best for me. At that time I may still feel the pull of experimentation, but for its own sakenot from a sense that I haven’t seen or tried enough variety to get what I want.