Large format print suppliers may find that they’re well equipped to print fine art work—most of the digital inkjet print engines they own are quite capable—and benefit from higher-than-average profit margins typical to fine art reproduction. Adding fine art reproduction services to a company’s capabilities does have its challenges, it requires investment in image capture technologies—digital camera backs and wide format scanners—but also a different mindset when it comes to the printer-customer relationship.
Even the subtlest variations in the color and texture of artwork are important to the artist who created it. Indeed, artists are among the most critical print buyers when it comes to reproducing originals. And satisfying them largely depends on how much attention is paid to detail during the image capture stage.
The following large format print suppliers are doing just that while implementing top of the line capture devices as well as printers to create output identical to the original. These five are scattered across the U.S., providing endless reprints to art lovers.
Artists: Passionate People
Mike Wilson is passionate about art. When asked his favorite medium, he replies, "Anything I can get my hands on." Lately, oil painting captures his interest, and in his Kerrville, TX-based River’s Edge Gallery—which he opened with his wife, Debbie, in 2000—he’s able to blend personal passions with professional aspirations.
Wilson devotes the bulk of his work to custom framing and what he refers to as photo impressionism. "We take a photo, print it on canvas, and then we paint over it with oil paints," he explains. "We’re doing more and more of this for our customers—portraits, landscapes, and such."
The balance of Wilson’s business is derived from fine art reproductions printed on the gallery’s two Hewlett-Packard (HP) print engines—a six-color HP Designjet 5500, and a newer, 12-color HP Designjet Z3100, which Wilson says produces "beautiful work." He’s the first to admit, however, that the quality of the digital print is only as good as the quality of the digital capture.
"We quickly learned that we couldn’t do what we wanted with just a camera," Wilson recalls. He found that digital cameras were too limited to handle the range of original artwork his clients produced, so he decided to invest in a digital scanner—a Paradigm imagePRO GxT 42 HD from Paradigm Imaging Group, Inc. The technology accommodates an array of media up to 48 inches wide—with a maximum imaging width of 42 inches—and outputs high resolution RGB files at 600x600 dpi.
"We get a lot of good color from the scanner," Wilson says of the imagePRO GxT 42 HD. To ensure that they’ll be able to supply customers with consistent and optimal color, Wilson invested in X-Rite, Inc.’s i1 calibration system.
As far as limitations of the scanner, Wilson says he hasn’t encountered an original artwork unable to be fed through the device, yet. The scanner can accommodate media up to approximately three-fourths of an inch thick, he estimates.
"We do work with some artists who go really heavy on texture, and that can sometimes be tough. But we’ve learned a few tricks on how to deal with jobs like those," Wilson explains.
"When you’re dealing with artwork that’s upwards of 42x70 inches, for example, it can get really heavy, simply because it has a lot of paint on it. So, in those cases, we use a feeder table that we’ve built at the same height as the scanner, so it’s just being fed through, rather than lifted and pulled through."
Wilson confides that working with artists can be difficult due to high expectations and keen eyes for even the most subtle variations in color. Still, as an artist himself, he sympathizes with artists’ sensibilities and doesn’t mind the extra work. For Wilson, it’s the nature of the business, and he and his wife both consider it a labor of love.
"We work six out of seven days a week. And we feel lucky to come in on Sundays, when the doors are closed, and we can actually get some work done," he quips.
Creating Ideal Output
"At IDEAL Large Format Imaging Solutions in Rockville, MD, about half of the color business is dedicated to fine art reproductions," according to Beth Riley, color services specialist, IDEAL. In addition to several scanning solutions—including a Contex MAGNUM and a Contex COPYmate—HP wide format, UV-curable solutions managethe printing.
"The camera technology is equally fine in both machines, but I find that most artists prefer the COPYmate simply because it is a flatbed scanner. With its 24x18-inch scanning area, it accommodates the majority of the artwork that comes across the counter," Riley suggests. "The COPYmate was a welcome addition at IDEAL. Previously, an artist with a stretched-canvas painting had to remove the canvas from the stretcher boards so that we could scan it. But the COPYmate’s flatbed design, with a removable lid, put an end to artists’ woes about detaching and reattaching their work."
As someone charged with producing optimal digital print, Riley admits the most challenging jobs are when she isn’t able to control the capture.
"I hear endless stories of artists who made prints from a digital photo with poor results," she remarks. "Either the lighting is bad; the painting’s over-coating caused reflections; or the shot was taken out-of-square. This is where Contex A/S scanners really excel. There is no cause for concern over uneven lighting, because the light and camera scan the image simultaneously. The scanners are easy to load without skewing the image. Various WIDEimage scanning software—available from IDEAL Large Format Imaging Solutions—settings let me adjust the brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and more—or tweak the gamma curve."
"The beauty of scan-to-print software is the accuracy of the calibrations. The scanners are calibrated to the printers, with a specific profile for each of the various print media. Artists can have the same piece printed on canvas and to watercolor paper, which results in great color matches on both," says Riley.
Abiding the Golden Rule
"Art is a very personal reflection. I’m an artist myself; I do oils," notes Bob Jones, manager, visual presentations department, Tri-State Reprographics, located in Pittsburgh, PA. "The golden rule is that I don’t want anything to leave this shop that I wouldn’t want to accept myself."
Though Tri-State is aptly considered a full-service commercial print shop, fine art reproduction work constitutes as one of its thriving specialties.
"We’ve been involved in giclée printing for about ten years now," Jones recalls. "I would say that it’s about 30 to 35 percent of our business these days. We work with artists of all abilities, from beginners to long time professionals. We also work with quite a few photographers and art galleries. For example, we reproduce pieces from the permanent collection for the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. It’s a rather unique program, in that anyone who tours the gallery can request a giclée print of one of the original works, and we’ll produce it, on demand."
Tri-State deploys a number of image-capture technologies. In addition to a full digital camera back and photography studio, the company also has several scanning solutions—a Contex COPYmate G18 iJET, an 18x24-inch flatbed scanner; a Contex MAGNUM XL 54, a 54-inch wide format scanner; and an Epson Expression 1640XL, an 11x17-inch flatbed scanner with transparency adapter. "These pieces of equipment are an integral part of our giclée image-capture process," affirms Jones.
Three digital print engines are used for wide format prints including a ten year old Roland Hi-Fi JET FJ-50, a five year old Roland Hi-Fi JET PRO FJ-500, and most recently, a 44-inch wide Epson Stylus Pro 9800.
For fine art reproduction jobs, the workflow unfolds as such—"We determine the best method for image capture," Jones explains. "We capture it in RGB, because it offers a wider color gamut, and it’s a smaller file. Then, we do the color correction and pull a proof, which we compare to the original. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that it’s best to print the proof on the material that it’s going to be reproduced on; that way, there are no variables, no chances for color shift."
"I currently print primarily on acid-free rag papers and stretchable canvas," Jones remarks. "The brands change according to the printer. For the Epson Stylus Pro 9800, I use Somerset velvet fine art paper and Arches textured-finish acid-free paper by Canson, as well as Epson Premium Satin Canvas. On the Roland FJ-50 and FJ-500 printers, I print on Legion Concord Rag fine art paper and LexJet brand Instant-Dry Canvas. For the best photographic results, I use the Epson Stylus Pro 9800 with Epson 250-gm premium luster paper and Epson 250-gm premium glossy papers."
"With fine art, each piece represents a unique challenge, because each artist will use a different range of colors—some use more muted colors, while others use very bright, effervescent colors. Color management isn’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. You’ve got to start with a good capture, and then have the eye and sensibility to pick up on subtleties."
Working with artists also presents unique challenges that unseasoned print professionals may not be prepared for or capable of managing. Jones has experienced these types of situations.
"I recently worked with an artist who’d had a house fire, and her original paintings had smoke damage," Jones notes. "I captured them and brought them into Adobe Photoshop, and recreated and enhanced the colors—individually, spot by spot—until we had brought them back to their original luster. She worked side by side with me, instructing me on which areas needed to be saved."
"There are a lot of printers that wouldn’t do that for a customer. Many don’t want to work with artists, because they don’t have the patience, the wherewithal, or the personality," Jones forewarns. "On the front end, it can be somewhat labor intensive—and all the more reason why you have to start with a good capture. But down the line, once you have that final file and it is proofed to the customer’s satisfaction, you are able to print it again and again."
The Element of Surprise
Michael Chambers cut his photographic and print chops at a photo lab for 12 years before founding his own fine art reproduction company, Picture Element in Santa Clara, CA, in 2004.
It was during his tenure at the photo lab when Chambers experienced digital capture for the first time, while there he used a Better Light digital camera back system. When he ventured out on his own to start up Picture Element, he found that a traditional digital camera wasn’t the only method for capturing fine art originals. He learned of the Cruse Synchron Table Fine Art scanning system by Cruse Digital Equipment, and was hooked after seeing it in action.
Today, Picture Element employs a staff of four, including Chambers, and caters to artists scattered across the country, though most of the business is derived from San Francisco bay-based customers. "We also work with other print providers and do their scanning," Chambers notes.
"The camera in my current Cruse model sits stationary above, and the table transports the artwork underneath the camera," Chambers explains. "It shoots within an inch of the original, and it has two lights, which you can operate independently of one another. So, we’ve turned one off on occasion when we wanted to recreate the texture of the original.
"People come into the shop, touch a print, and are genuinely surprised that there’s no texture on the surface of the print. It’s that good. And it’s all due to the quality of the capture," he adds.
Complementing the Cruse system are three Epson printers—two Epson Stylus Pro 9800s and an Epson Stylus Pro 11880, which Chambers refers to as the workhorse.
The digital printers are compatible with a range of media Chambers’ customer base requires for reproduction work, including photo papers from suppliers like Epson and ILFORD IMAGING, and fine art papers from Crane & Company, Hahnemühle, and others. Canvas is also a very popular media choice.
"We tried dozens of canvases, and spent hundreds of hours on trial and error tests," Chambers says. "The method for coating is a real trick to the look, and the most difficult part to accomplish. It’s done in a spray booth with a high-volume, low-pressure gun. Much time was spent exploring different techniques, because conventional solutions did not yield the look that we were after. Our final solution involves a water-resistant canvas from Breathing Color, Inc. and an archival pigment ink combination from Epson."
Chambers’ enthusiasm about great art is apparent when he speaks about the business of print, "Kirk Hammett of Metallica has a great art collection that includes old, original movie posters. We scanned his and I remember one in particular—a King Kong poster that was 81x81 inches. We had to scan it and stitch the images together. But because of the Cruse scanner’s design and the way the lighting works, it was an exact match. Putting the pieces together was no big deal," Chambers recalls.
"The Cruse also—at least the one I have—has the ability to take even small artwork, scan it at a very high resolution, and enables us to blow it up," he marvels. "Because of the way the Cruse captures it, you get even more resolution, taking these little, detailed works of art and blowing them up in print."
The only concern that other print suppliers may have about the Cruse is the amount of space it requires, Chambers suspects. "The model I have right now is four by seven feet, but it takes up a whole 18-foot room, because of the way it’s made, with the table moving from side to side. It’s a big piece of equipment. It probably weighs more than a ton. It came in three huge crates when I bought it from Cruse America in TX, who ordered it across seas from Germany, where it was built to specification."
Despite its bulk, Chambers says the capture device is well worth the space investment. "This really is one of the ways that we differentiate ourselves from other printers out there. When potential customers come in and see what this scanner can do and see some of the work we’ve reproduced, they’re often sold, right there and then," he confides.
A Quest for the Giclée Workflow
To round out capture workflow at Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction, Bellevue, WA, owner Scott Moore invested in a variety of image-capture devices, including a Better Light Super 6K-HS digital scan back, Cambo Ultima camera, Microtek ScanMaker 1000XL flatbed scanner, an Epson Perfection 4870 PRO flatbed scanner, and several mid-range digital cameras.
An artist himself, Moore took a sabbatical and traveled to Japan, where he spent his days painting. During that time, he became intrigued by the giclée print process, and began to travel the globe to see giclée printers in action.
"I started wondering why there wasn’t a giclée printer in Seattle, WA," he recalls. "And then I found one that happened to be going out of business. So, I purchased all of its equipment. The owner had just bought everything top of the line."
Moore currently targets the local, Northwest fine art market and keeps two Epson Stylus Pro 9800s—one configured for photo black; the other, to matte black—busy. In addition to artists and photographers who turn to Moore for reproduction work, Bellevue Fine Art Reproduction also assists local commercial printers that aren’t equipped to handle art print jobs.
"The reverse is also true," he notes. "If I have a client who needs some commercial work done, I’ll send them to the printers who send me work. It’s a good relationship, because commercial printers work on exactly the opposite business model as we do. They do low margin, high volume; I do high margin, low volume. And I make no secret about the margin; I’m comfortable with it."
"For the photographers, all I really offer is an output service. They create the file, and I print it, and maybe there’s some color correction involved, and I may offer advice on what type of substrate to use," Moore explains. "But for artists, the digital capture is a very big deal, an important part of the job."
Moore says that he generally turns to his Better Light system, but in cases where an original piece of artwork has extremely small, detailed features—like a pen and ink drawing—a flatbed scanner is ideal.
Not only is it critical for a fine art print supplier to be able to capture accurate data from the original piece, it’s equally as important that he or she be willing to spend time with the artist and truly collaborate throughout the workflow, Moore suggests.
"A lot of times, you can’t hit every color in a painting. For whatever reason, you’ve got a color that eludes you. Every printer knows this, even though few will admit it," he quips. "But that’s when it’s helpful to have the artist there during proofing, because a lot of times, he or she will catch things that I may miss."
"And as an artist, there may be colors within a painting, let’s say, that are more important to me than others. I’ve had artists say to me, ‘The yellows were really important to me when I painted this, so you’ve got to hit those.’ It’s a very personal process," Moore admits. "I think that we get better results on the back end when spending face time with the artist. If you can spend a half hour proofing together, it’s usually well worth it."
Working with talented artists and photographers, day in and out, Moore says he’s often inspired. "I learn so much," he confides. "Granted, there are some artists who come in and they just suck me dry of any information I’ve got—about painting, color management, printing—but there are others who are far more experienced than I am, and know so much about color, that I wonder if I should be paying them. It’s also very helpful to learn how other artists are marketing their work. It’s information I can use personally, and that I can share with my customers daily."
A New Frontier
Image capture isn’t a one-size-fits-all opportunity. In fact, depending on the art genres and type of media, many fine art specialists find they need more than one way to convert an original to digital form. Where digital cameras and well-lit photography studios may be necessary and even excel in some cases, digital scanning systems may not be well suited to the job—and vice versa.
Sign shops and other large format print specialists are, no doubt, seeking new ways to grow their businesses in this increasingly unstable economy, and fine art reproduction presents a rich opportunity to do just that. Smart print suppliers will be well served to entrench themselves into the local fine art community, discover the best ways to capture the types of artwork they’ll likely be reproducing, and plan to invest in the personnel to manage this new type of print customer. After the research is completed fine art capture will be a profitable option.