Archival printing

Many printers talk about "Museum quality" but what does archival mean?

What does archival mean?

The need  to make art works archival is based on the desire to preserve  important artefacts such as prints for posterity. Museums are essentially storehouses of cultural heritage and in keeping collections part of their purpose is not just to show art to the public but to preserve works for future generations and for the sake of the historical record. They are basically archivists.

As famous and important works such as the paintings of Mark Rothko are lost over time artists are increasingly being made aware of the importance of making their own works fit for preservation by using the correct materials at the outset. This means making wise choices when you set out to make a work. The problems with Rothko’s work is that they are all fading in ordinary daylight because of the fugitive pigments that he used. Papers can rot because of acids contained in them and collectors or museums may shy away from works that are inherently unstable because of the risk of a work turning to dust even under ideal storage conditions. 

Being archival isn’t just for museums. As an artist making work comes as great personal cost in time, energy and resources. You want to know that your work will remain the same as the day you made it.

Dictionary definition of ‘archival’;

i. relating to or constituting archives—”the club maintains an archival research library.”

ii. (of a material such as paper) of suitable quality to be used in archives—”the illustrations are printed with archival inks that will last about 70 years.”

Image top: Donald Moffat at Andrea Rosen Gallery

Image bottom: Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, prints produced in aid of the show at the Icelandic Pavilion at the Venice Bienalle

The primary issues

There are several areas of concern with the archival preservation of prints.

  1. How stable are the substrates? For example the paper, canvas or manmade materials that are used.
  2. How stable are the inks?
  3. What other conditions can help to deteriorate the work once it is made and is exhibited or stored? Such as damp, excessive light or pollutants.

Being conscious of archival issues in the process of making the works can help to mitigate potential problems down the line.

Pigment versus dyes

The first artists to use inkjet printers were Nash Editions in the 1990’s. The printer they used was the Iris and to this day some people still think a giclée print can only be made on an Iris printer. The Iris was famed for its exceptional quality but it used dyes as they produced bright, attractive colors that made great prints. The problem with dyes is that they are fugitive i.e. they will fade with time and exposure to light. So when Epson introduced their first pigment based printer the Epson Stylus 9500 in 2000 despite its’ somewhat inferior color their system for making prints was preferred simply because they could be preserved. Since then the quality of pigmented inks has improved dramatically and the gamut of modern pigment printers far outstrips what was achievable with the Iris.

The next issue was proving how long the prints could last. Wilhelm Imaging Research came to the fore as the independent tester of pigment stability from all the printer manufacturers. By applying very bright lights to test prints and measuring the decay in the brightness of the inks Wilhelm could extrapolate the likely period that the pigments would last. This varies by manufacturer (and even by the class of inks each manufacturer makes) but they have been predicted to be stable for 100 years and in certain conditions 200 years or more. Obviously this is predictive testing, inkjet printers have only been around for two decades but it’s generally accepted that pigment based inkjet prints have a greater longevity than any of the silver based photographic processes.

“Acid-free paper is paper that if infused in water yields a neutral or basic pH (7 or slightly greater). It can be made from any cellulose fiber as long as the active acid pulp is eliminated during processing. It is also lignin- and sulfur-free.[1] Acid-free paper addresses the problem of preserving documents and artwork for long periods.” —wikipedia

Acid free papers

It’s no good if you use the finest pigments in the world and the paper or canvas they are sitting on turns to dust. There are several issue with the quality of the substrate that is used to print on. The first is pH. Acid is naturally produced from the wood pulp in cellulose paper when it’s being manufactured. This must be taken out otherwise the paper will go yellow, then brown, then it will crumble over time. The decay is a slow process that eats the fibres of the paper but it can be aggravated by storage conditions and unless dealt with sooner or later the work will be lost. The best way to prevent this is to use papers that are manufactured as acid free or to use higher quality papers such as cotton rags or washi (Japanese mulberry) papers that are less prone to acids from manufacture.

In addition cellulose based papers are mechanically weaker than either cotton rag or washi papers as the fibres that the paper is made of are shorter—think of pulling apart clumps of cotton wool. Longer fibres help to give these papers additional strength so for centuries they have been a preferred media for high quality prints, drawings and even legal documents! They are known to last for centuries and it helps that they also have a beautiful quality that makes them luxurious to work with.

Generally non-archival papers are cheaper because they are easier to make. For this is the reason we source our papers from historic, reputable paper makers such as Canson, Hahnemühle, Awagami and Innova who specialise in making paper for artists. They understand the issues and are the ones who can be most relied upon not to cut corners or produce sub-standard product. Because you won’t know till much later how well your work will hold up if you use a low cost paper. Reputation is a guarantee of quality and quality doesn’t come cheap.

Safe handling

For all the care that is taken in making a print it can easily be undone by poor handling, storage and finishing. We have to remain as careful with a print after it has been made as we are in it’s production. Inkjet prints are exceptionally fragile and have to be handled with great care to avoid marking the surface. All photographs are vulnerable to the oils and acids in human hands therefore white gloves are considered best practice to protect the finished print from natural body oils. These days vinyl or latex gloves are often used as they afford a better grip. But you will sometimes see us not using gloves. This is because gloves afford a false sense of security that make people think that they can touch the surface of the print with impunity. Unfortunately this isn’t true and it’s possible to mark a print just by touching it even with a gloved finger. Therefore we keep handling to a minimum and only touch the edges or reverse as we move the prints around.

All tapes, mounting substrates and adhesives that we use have to be carefully sourced and selected to ensure that unsafe materials don’t come into contact with the work. One of the more extreme things that can occur is a sickly yellow discolouration that can happen to the coating of a print due to vapours given off by a solvent found in some tapes or glues. We put all our prints in archival bags, to store or ship, we interleave with acid free tissue and cover large prints with glassine when shipping. We are careful to source all of our tapes, adhesives and other supplies from specialist book-binding suppliers who are very familiar with preservation issues.

Museum quality

When a printer advertises themselves as “museum quality” it’s worth asking a few questions about what it is that they mean. It’s much more than the choice of printer that they make the work on, or who they claim their customers may be. It’s about an approach to print-making that is both 21st century in that it takes advantage of all the technology we have today and also utterly traditional in that it builds upon centuries of practice. 

The issues of archival preservation have been around for a long time and there are tried and trusted ways of preventing the deterioration of art works. As fine art printers we understand that it’s a wholistic process, one that includes knowledge of the properties of all the materials used and craftsmanship at the most intimate level to ensure that the prints we produce are worthy of being shown in a museum. That they couldn’t have been made or handled any better. That’s what we aim for.

prints by shoplifter