Inkjet Print

Q. I like the high-quality reproduction of inkjet prints, but I’ve read articles that raise concerns about their longevity. How long can I expect one to last?
—DSP, Phoenix, AZ

Opinions vary widely about the life span of inkjet prints, commonly known as Iris or Giclée prints [SWA APR 96]. Some critics contend that the prints fade after two years of exposure to typical home lighting; others believe that with proper care they can last more than 50 years.

Iris Graphics, Bedford, MA, the company that manufactures the Iris printers used to make fine-art inkjet prints, has developed over the last two years new inks, papers and protective coatings designed to reduce fading. Prints made with these products are currently being tested by an independent research firm contracted by Iris, Wilhelm Imaging Research. Wilhelm will release the results in early summer.

We asked Iris spokesman Peter Alpers about the controversy, what steps Iris has taken to increase longevity and what collectors need to know about buying and caring for inkjet prints.—MLB

SWA: The longevity controversy traces back to test results published in 1993 by Wilhelm Imaging Research, which projected a life span of 21/2 years for Iris prints exposed to home-lighting conditions. What is your take on these tests?
Alpers: Wilhelm’s initial tests were conducted using standard watercolor paper and inks that Iris had developed for the Iris printer’s original function of creating color proofs for use in the product design industry. These inks were not intended to be permanent. Once the printer started being used to create fine-art graphics—a process pioneered by Nash Editions Ltd., Manhattan Beach, CA, in 1991—Iris turned its attention to the issue of fade resistance.

In late 1993 Iris introduced a line of longer- lasting inks that Wilhelm tested using standard watercolor paper, and the projected life span increased to 15 years.

SWA: Iris has subsequently introduced a further-improved ink, specially treated watercolor paper and a protective coating. How long a life span are you trying to achieve?
Alpers: I asked the most vociferous critic of the Iris process how long he thought the prints should last without fading, and he didn’t have an answer. Obviously, a 15-year life span hasn’t been good enough to put the controversy to rest. Our recent improvements should add substantially to the life span. Price comes into play here: If you spend $400 on a print that lasts 30 years, is that satisfactory? Our target will ultimately be whatever the art- collecting community demands.

Keep in mind, too, that Wilhelm has determined that Iris prints have an almost infinite life in dark storage. This is good news for the many collectors and museums that keep the prints in portfolios instead of framing them.

SWA: Why is longevity more of a problem with inkjet prints than, for example, offset lithographs?
Alpers: The Iris printer sprays ink onto the paper through a tiny nozzle at a rate of millions of microscopic droplets per second. Traditional pigment- based inks are thick and would clog the nozzles, so the Iris printer uses thinner, water-based vegetable dyes. But water-based dyes don’t bind as solidly to the paper as traditional inks. Our newest Iris inks alter the chemical structure of the dye to improve adherence.

SWA: How can collectors ensure that they are purchasing the highest-quality, most durable Iris print available?
Alpers: More than 100 North American printmakers use Iris machines to produce fine-art graphics with inks and papers from a number of sources, including Iris. I recommend that collectors ask art dealers for details: Does the watercolor paper contain optical brighteners that may cause yellowing over time? Can you supply data about ink permanence? Does the printmaker have a long history of printmaking and familiarity with archival practices?

This information is becoming increasingly available. Wilhelm Imaging Research, for example, recently started the Approved Preservation Practices Program, which requires member printmakers to list on the back of each print details about the materials and methods used to create it.

SWA: How does one care for an Iris print to maximize its life span?
Alpers: If you hang the print, keep it away from direct sunlight and sources of artificial light. It is also essential to frame the print with acid-free matting and helpful to use ultraviolet glass.

Editor’s note: Looking at Prints will provide the results of Wilhelm’s tests on the new Iris products as soon as they become available.