What are fine art prints printed on?

Author: May

Mar. 08, 2024


Fine art prints are created to be as close to the original as possible. The general understanding is that they are not considered simple reproductions given their special function to be printed with all the nuances, textures, brush strokes, depth, and the dimension of the source painting or artwork.

Because there is nothing different about the print other than the fact that it is a print, they are considered noteworthy entrants in the collections of avid curators or art lovers. But what are fine art prints and what goes into their creation exactly? How are prices determined and what factors help one determine choosing one print over another? 

Here’s the difference.

What’s different about fine art prints?

Fine art prints are considerably more inexpensive than original works for obvious reasons. When prints can be had at more economical prices it’s assistive in creating a collection that turns heads. However, some of the more renowned prints can sell for hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. 

Fine art prints in large part liberate the art collection process for individuals who love art and want to be apart of the family of art collectors. It’s much like the famed words of Jean Michel Basquiat when he said, “I’m not an elitist but an autodidact who would like to be a part of the family of artists.” Elitist ideas about art, that say art should be out of reach, remaining a pay handsomely to play, niche movement is limiting. Especially in terms of an art form meant to be shared, curated, discussed, and sustained. 

And part of the printmaking world has made fine art so accessible as to be wearable and useful day-to-day. Printmaking in ways pushed to limits of where art could be seen. A recently released Coach x Jean Michel Basquiat collection demonstrates how dynamic fine art can be, printed on boots, high-end bags, scarves, and more. This venture has been highly debated by on social media but absolutely speaks to the idea that fine art prints and the versatility of reproduction are not meant for reigns. To that end, art prints from the iconic Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Henri Matisse combined sold for over $11 million.

MAC FINE ART also has a collection of Salvador Dali Lithograph, Etchings including the iconic Changes in Great Masterpieces Persistence de la Memoire.  

Printmaking as art


History of printmaking is on a magnitude that created a platform for the greatest paintings by the most renowned artists are actually prints created by printmakers. These paintings are so true to their original form they’ve again earned millions at auction.  Often times the talent and skill printmakers and printmaking requires is minimized though printmakers are the catalyst to the art collector whether layperson or wealthy to maintain their collections. 

A print is defined as an image produced by a multiplication process, the process engineered strictly to replicate which requires the original painting and a printing surface with wood, metal, and or stone materials. Followed by creating impressions by inking the image or design on a paper surface, satin, vellum, glass, fiberglass, textiles, ceramic, plastic, or copper. 

In earlier years, prints were viewed as secondary because of the reproductive process but printmakers cite the possibilities created by the interaction of ink and paper unduplicable by any other process save for printmaking. This precise process in printmaking creates considerable credibility to printmaking as its own art form. As greater than a simple replication of drawings but their own intentional creations achieved through printing. By this there is then no divide between the original and the print, each is equally supreme. 

Before printmaking utilized technology, all prints were done by hand circa 1800.  At this time due to the engraving process done by “painter-engravers”, these were not viewed as reproductions but as originals. This distinction was drawn again between the painter-engraver who did not use photomechanical printing and the printmaker who used photomechanical reproduction e.g. posters, pictures, illustrations in books. The photomechanical process actually cheapened the skills of the painter-engraver printmaker and devalued the art of prints as a lesser form of art.

Anatomy of a good fine art print


The anatomy of the paper used to print fine art is as important if not more so than the print itself. If the paper is somehow adulterated or is mediocre or substandard it will affect the longevity of the print purchased. Below are different types of paper and what is used to make them. 

Acid-free paper is comparable to acid-free water or an acid-free or low acid diet. Today one might hear the term alkaline more than they ever have with an ever health-conscious generous seeking to eliminate mucus causing bacteria from the body to achieve alkalinity or the absence of acid. This concept is similarly applied to fine art print paper. 

When the paper is acid-free it is what Strathmore papers call “alkaline paper technology”; yes paper can be alkaline which means the pH of the paper’s pulp is neutral, indicated by the number 7 as opposed to an acidic 6.0 pH 4.5 pH which is extremely acidic. The alkaline paper requires calcium carbonate which further neutralizing any of the acidic blends drawn from the air or organic aging which would increase acidity overtime. Many of the most reliable acid-free papers are also 100% cotton and free of bleaching and low on metallic levels. Metallic is actually what gives prints their dimension, causing them to almost leap off the canvas. 

Storage of your acid-free paper prints is as important as the alkalinity process used to make. The top culprits in fading your prints or making them frail/fragile or moldy are sunlight, ultraviolet light, and mold according to Strathmore.

Archival Inks are not exactly defined by the term archival. The word archival is attributed to the act of archiving or documenting and storing documentation or art in this sense. Wilhelm Imaging Research cited the mention of these inks as having little to do with how long the ink actually lasts on a print before the natural aging would come through like fading or yellowing largely based on how the print is stored. Archival ink specifically indicates the quality the print maker intends the product to possess such as, said fine art print is intended to last for a considerable length of time then a print without archival ink. A secondary issue however, does arise when the archival papers and archival inks are not coming from one location to ensure uniformity of quality. 

Fine art paper then is especially important in the process of maintaining the longevity or permanence of a fine art print. The paper used is equally important and in line with the ink used helps the piece stand the test of time while still looking as beautiful as the day it was purchased with little mind for how old the print is. Good quality ink and paper would assist in making the print sometimes appear as if it were created in the age at which it was purchased. The contents of fine art paper then is such that the more natural the fibers in the paper are, the more it will lend itself to changelessness and the brilliance collectors and art lovers want to experience in the presence of fine art. The finished print can also be glossy or matte. Glossy finishes provide the smooth shine some prefer while matte gives off a more textured appearance.

Types of fine art prints

Giclée Printing originated from Oklahoma born artists and revolutionary printmaker Jack Duganne. The inception of this form of printing became popular in the 80’s and 90’s. The original Giclée style and print process was established with use of IRIS printers. The Proceedings of the International Symposium on Research of Arts explains Giclée as indicating “the ink is sprayed”. This process also made from more high-resolution prints and was not limited by the medium of the work be it a painting, sketch or drawing. 

Etching according to Britannica dates back to 1513 when the first etching was created by Urs Graf, a Swiss artist who made prints on iron plates. This printmaking method made it possible to not only print on iron but also copper with the use of acid. In order for the imaging to become superimposed, the metal of choice is dipped or coated in a substance making the metal resistant to the acid so it will take the image without destroying the metal. This later enables the design to be drawn into the metal with pointed instruments. This process is referred to as ground which is amalgamated beeswax, bitumen, and resin. Following this step the nitric acid is used to break down the parts of the plate that were not protected by the acid-resistant substance which forms the pattern of lines that gives the etching its character and holds on to the ink once the plate is pressed into wet paper transferring the design.  

Photogravure is similar to etching in its use of plates to create impressions. The first photogravure print was made in the 1800’s by two men termed the pioneers of photography  Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Fox Talbot. Niépce was a French inventor and the first to ever create a permanent photograph. Intaglio or a design engraved into material was a the printmaking form or mechanics with use of “a copper plate [that is] grained (adding a pattern to the plate) and then coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio plate that can reproduce detailed

 a pattern to a plate, coat it in a gelatin.” 

While Talbot created the negative process in photography. Think back to the days of old when you’d pick up your photos from Eckerd’s or Walgreens and the negatives in the photo pack would be behind your positive photos. The process of getting those negatives entails that the paper is made sensitive and is then exposed through the negative which is usually close enough to the paper to reverse the negative tones into the positive producing the end result of a black and white, sepia, or colored photo. In order to get the finished photo the consistency of the negatives differ greatly in terms of chemical compounds used. 

Black and white photos are made from negatives that have metallic silver grains which are decreased due to the need to hit the silver salt with light to develop the photo. The negatives for a color photo use a triad of dye images reversed in tone which come together with a silver image at the time of development. This silver is later removed leaving behind the original triad of dye images which can not be dissolved so as to be overlaid. 

Engraving is the engraving method that spawned all other metal plate techniques to impress a design onto the preferred medium with sharp cutting tools, this particular cutting tool is called a burin which is made of steel and specifically used for engraving wood and copper. It is said that the first ever engraving was found in the Rhine valley of Germany and in parts of Italy circa 15th century attributed to German goldsmiths of the day.  Today, most engraving methods all use copper plates which coined the family of engravings that will follow, “copperplate engravings”. These kinds of print methods are also known by the term “line engraving” because the image is created by a reproduction of linear lines or markings. To add depth with tones and shading those linear lines or markings are paralleled or crosshatched where those parallel lines are made to intersect which creates a vision of contour and light. 

Drypoint appeared circa 15th century thanks to Albrecht Durer, a German artist who popularized the technique; alongside the renowned Rembradt van Rijn who was well known for his drypoint etchings. Drypoint is an engraving or incising technique that scratches the original piece of art directly into a copper plate with a pointed tool. The image comes out in the lines which appear kind of subdued due to the ink that it is printed with and an apparatus that purposely leaves rough edges and ridges in the print with a tool called a burr.

Where the lines of a drypoint print are is determined by the placement of the burr on the grooves. These lines tend to have sharp points or angles which are starkly visible as the lines change the direction they’ll go due to the resistance of the points of the engraving. Drypoint is literally meant to resist itself to create the desired effect and is a dynamic technique that makes it effectively useful with other types of print methods to accent the print or as the initial feathery light sketch to indicate where the artwork will be ultimately incised. 

Monotype MoMA describes this printmaking form as one that makes the print regardless of its original form, appear as if it was painted given the form the print takes as though a painters brush strokes created it. The use of paint or high quality printing ink coats the desired surface, usually a sheet or a metal, a sheet of glass, or a sheet of plastic. Next the paper transfer is completed by rubbing or using a press machine to get the image onto the desired paper. The plate that helps apply the image can either be coated in paint or archival ink with a brush method to form light areas or the opposing dark areas are the same ink or paint coating stage takes place but the ink or paint is later taken away by brushes, rags, or fingers. This method is called subtractive. Each plate can only produce one type of design hence the term monotype but the designs after the fact, are duplicable and are termed “ghost impressions” because they are so faint because they are created from the residue of the leftover ink or paint. 

Lithograph believe it or not, was actually incredibly top secret before the technique was fully revealed. The art of lithographic printmaking was introduced to the world by Alois Senefelder born in Munich, Germany. Senefelder discovered it in 1798 when he experimented with high porosity limestone from Bavaria as it is permeable. He used this limestone for his plate and this is where lithographs get their name as the Greek work for lithos is “stone”. The full process was not unveiled until circa the 18th century by Senefelder who decided to publish a complete guide to the process called A Complete Course of Lithography. At this time in the 1800’s lithography was the chosen medium of printing for French artists of the day. 

What makes the process tried and true is the particular use of the limestone and its the one thing that has never changed about the process and is unique to Senefelder. The difference in plates is what revolutionized lithographic printing processes. This includes an exclusive preparation process for the limestone. Subsequent techniques were created as means of editing the original process but most seem to prefer the way it has always been done. 

Lithographs utilize a flat or leveling technique with the use of two or more liquids, in this case grease and water. In the processing the ink is placed over top an image that must first be treated with grease. The surface to which the print will be adhered must be flat. The printer must also be aware of the parts of the image that are blank so they remain moist so the ink will not be drawn to it. Once this is complete the surface can be printed onto paper or a rubber cylinder. The method of adhering the image is usually determined by industry. The press is used in the making of fine art while the cylinder is used in more commercial print spaces. 

Today lithography is more or less viewed as the mother of hand printing which is a more contemporary process that duplicates the entire process of the lithographic prints down to the way the image is drawn with a special stone crayon and grease from liquified carbon pigment. All of this is done prior to fixing the printing surface with water an ink. It calls to mind the screen printer as it utilizes the sliding, scraping, press, and pressure method to print onto the surface. And limestone is so durable and tough that it can be used a multitude of times to created a limitless bounty of print copies. This advantage makes lithographs especially demanded in those years although the nature of printmaking at that time and today would still limit the number of prints that are actually sold to the public. The unique stone that created those prints is then destroyed. 

There is much in a print

John Sexton’s musing about printmaking summed up both its purity and its positive adulteration of the original work, when he said, “ There is a considerable amount of manipulation in the printmaking from the straight photograph to the finished print. If I do my job correctly that shouldn’t be visible at all, it should be transparent.” Thus the printmaker is as essential as the artist and when done infallibly it should cause you to question its authenticity or assume you just might have an original. 

What is a Fine Art Print?

If you’re looking to book a newborn or family photography session chances are you’ve heard a photographer mention fine art printing, and you may be wondering what that means. Is fine art printing different from the prints you can get on the high street? And does it matter where you have your photographs printed?

I adore fine art prints – the colour and quality is fantastic, and incredibly beautiful. But if you haven’t seen a fine art print in the flesh it can be difficult to understand what all the hype is about, and why it’s worth spending more on these prints than you would with a high street printer. In this post I’ll be explaining what a fine art print is, the materials that go into creating fine art prints, and the difference this makes.


What Makes A Fine Art Print?

“Fine art”, “museum-quality”, “archival-quality”….these are all terms you may come across as you explore the world of photography and see photographers talk about their prints. But what does this really mean? In short a fine art print is a very high quality print – of the same quality that a museum or gallery would print work at for display. In short there are two things that make a print a fine art one:

  • The paper it’s printed on

  • The inks used to print it

Paper for Fine Art Prints

The paper used for fine art prints is acid-free. It’s the acid in photographic papers that causes photographs to discolour and crack over time, so using acid-free papers helps to ensure your print lasts a lifetime.  

Interestingly, the same goes for the mats that your photographs are mounted on to – if these contain acid they will yellow much more quickly.

Inks for Fine Art Prints

Just as photographic papers are not all created equal, nor are the printers used to make prints. Fine art prints are printed using very high end printers, which have a much broader colour spectrum than standard printers. These printers will have 8-12 different coloured inks, which they can mix together to create millions of different colours. The result is that the colours in your print will be much more accurate, and true to the original image than if you had printed it with a standard printer.

Not all Fine Art Prints Are Created Equal

So as we have learned so far, the difference between a fine art print, and one you may order from a high street or online printer is that the colour reproduction is much more accurate, and the paper will hold that colour, and it’s form for many years. With the right care, this can be for more than 60, or even 100 years.

But there is more to the printing process than this. The type of fine art paper you choose for your print will also make a difference to the appearance of your print.

Fine art papers are often made from cotton fibres, but can also be made from other materials such as bamboo, or have a special coating. The different characteristics of these papers will have an impact on the appearance of your print – some papers are good for printing vivid colours, others will make your black and white photographs pop. Others are better for softer, muted tones. In short, choosing the right paper for your print will impact it’s appearance.

How to Care For Your Fine Art Prints

How to Care For Your Fine Art Prints

So now that you have some gorgeous fine art prints, what can you do to ensure they last a lifetime?

The main thing you can do is consider how they are exposed to light. Over time, it is light exposure that will lead to damage of your photographs – not just causing colours to fade, but UV light can also cause weakening and bleaching of the paper. Extremes of temperature can also damage the print too.

To care for your prints, you can do a few things to limit their light, heat and cold exposure:

  • Avoid hanging your prints in a place where they will be in direct sunlight for all or part of the day.

  • If your prints are displayed in direct sunlight, try to limit their exposure by closing blinds or curtains when the room is not in use.

  • Leave lights switched off when the room is not occupied

  • Be aware that if you hang your prints over a fire that is used often the heat may cause your print to age more quickly.

(Sources: https://www.nedcc.org/free-resources/preservation-leaflets/2.-the-environment/2.4-protection-from-light-damage and http://www.artuner.com/insight/caring-for-fine-art-photography/)


Over to you

I hope this guide gives you a good overview of fine art printing, and why it makes such a difference to your photographs. What other questions do you have about printing your photographs? I’d love to hear. Let me know in the comments below.


What are fine art prints printed on?

What is a Fine Art Print?




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