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Understanding your ink
By Andy McCourt

“If all the world were paper and all the sea were ink; If all the trees were bread and cheese, what should we have to drink?”  Well, if the vast oceans really were ink, as the quoted old nursery rhyme suggests, we’d be able to afford more than bread and cheese. Yes, for professional reproducers of digital art and photography, ink is a major expense but; much more should be considered than price alone as Andy McCourt explains.

From the earliest days of civilization, dyes and pigments have been highly-prized in societies and commerce. Tyrian Purple – produced in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre from the glands of thousands of Murex sea-shells – was worth far more than its weight in Gold and as such was favoured by Roman Emperors, European nobility and anyone who would aspire to ‘wear the purple.’ The Carthaginians (who were Phonecians) of Hannibal fame, controlled its distribution for many centuries.

Fast, bright red and crimson dyes were produced by crushing and fermenting insects such as Cochineal or Kermes while bright yellows, as the name suggests, came from the Saffron plant. Indigo was a very expensive blue dye made from plants grown only in India.

Commoners had to make do with duller colours, russets and browns made from readily-available plants. Woad, the blue dye made famous by Celtic warriors who painted their bodies with it before battle, was made from the leaves of a mustard-like plant, which were composted together with manure over several weeks. The resulting aroma was so bad that Queen Elizabeth 1st forbade the production of Woad within five miles of a Royal Estate.

 

“The number one rule to observe is that ink alone does not provide a print’s colour gamut and longevity. It is the combination of a specific ink, with a specific media, printed on a specific printer using specific software and – if coated – with a specific coating, laminate or glass.”

The great painters of the renaissance period kept their paint formulations so secret that dye and pigment espionage became a popular pastime. Incidentally, the durability of these old paintings is attributed to the addition of white lead into the linseed oil and pigments. The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century necessitated a new, oily ink formulation and so soot was combined with turpentine and walnut oil.

FROM CARTHAGE TO CARTRIDGE
Yes, ink in one format or another has always been with us, from the first ‘inkjet prints’ made by cave-dwellers chewing berries, holding their hands on the cave-wall and spraying the juice out to make a stenciled hand-print: to the modern global mega-business of inkjet inks and cartridges.

Not so long ago, the printed colours you achieved photographically were already in the photosensitized paper. You just applied light through a negative and the cyan, yellow, magenta dyes were developed, then fixed, in the emulsion of the paper. The same process applied with black-and-white reproduction, but with a single emulsion layer.

If you printed your art or photography using ink, there were several processes available; offset, silk screen, gravure, intaglio and so on. Today, where art and photographic reproduction is concerned, digital methods using inkjet or ‘Gicleé’ (it’s just a French word for spurt), methods have all but taken over from all other methods of reproduction.

It’s as if we’ve gone full-circle back to the cave where the first hand-prints were made by spraying dyestuff.

THE DYE-PIGMENT DEBATE
Much debate has populated the trade media, internet forums and exhibition floors on the topic of dye - versus – pigmented inks. Dye inks contain sub-micron particles in suspension. Pigmented inks use larger, irregular particles dispersed in water-glycol or other chemical mixtures and subsequently can produce water-resistant prints of greater durability. Solvent inks used in the signage and outdoor industry are all pigmented but do not concern us for photographic-quality reproduction.

Traditional logic has dye inks as outperforming pigmented inks in colour gamut and brilliance, but suffering from rapid fading when exposed to light, ozone or chemical fog. Maybe this was true in the earlier days of inkjet – before the alchemy of ink-paper-coating was fully understood. The fact is; if dyes are of good quality and are ‘fixed’ into a media – just as dyed textiles can be ‘fixed’ - dye ink can perform just as well as pigmented formulations. RolandDG, for example, offers its HiFi Jet Pro 8-colour printer in a configuration that takes both dye and pigmented inks.

 “Seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars for a litre of liquid that is 60%-80% water?”

 
The number one rule to observe is that ink alone does not provide a print’s colour gamut and longevity. It is the combination of a specific ink, with a specific media, printed on a specific printer using specific software and – if coated – with a specific coating, laminate or glass. As a general rule, though, pigmented inks will deliver more durable and water-resistant art, indoor graphics and photographic output.

Of course, the major manufacturers – Epson, HP, Canon, Kodak, Roland DG, Mimaki and others – go to great lengths to create a system of ink, media and printer that answers all of the compatibility issues. Third-parties enter the fray with cheaper or more varied offerings to tempt inkjet users away from the OEM branded consumable products. Usually, this involves the user in more legwork to discover the optimum print performance. Ink refillers come in varying grades of quality; but there are also reliable, ethical ink substitutes that can add value to the digital reproduction matrix.

EPSON’S K3 WINS TIPA
Perhaps no other company has spent so much time and money on ink research than Epson. This was reflected at Photokina ‘06 when its K3 UltraChrome ink won the prestigious European TIPA (Technical Image Press Association) Best Printing Technology award for 2006. This accolade applies to Epson’s entire range of K3 UltraChrome-using professional printers from the 13” R2400 A3+ sheetfed through to the 44” StylusPro 9800 B1+ roll-fed machine. Epson’s K3 UltraChrome ink is pigmented but encapsulates each particle in a resin that serves to create smooth dye-like images with minimum metamersim (read colour-change when viewed under differing light), and excellent longevity.

While Epson seems content to market printers with eight colour inksets (plus a choice of three changeable blacks), Canon and HP have upped the ante with 12-colour machines. Whether the nett result is wider gamut and more photographic-quality has not yet been irrevocably proven – remember vastly differing results can be obtained using differing Rips and software - but one thing seems assured: a 12-colour inkset will set you back more than eight. However, ink frugality will affect overall TCO (total cost of operation) and a $1,500 Canon mixed dozen inkset for its iPF5000 will reputedly deliver around 1,500 A3+ prints, or about a dollar’s worth of ink per print at 80% coverage.

CANON & HP GO 12-COLOUR
Canon’s flagship ink is known as Lucia, a pigmented formulation that, with the addition of red, green, blue and gray, can potentially deliver a gamut greater than Adobe RGB itself.

HP’s release of two new spectrophotometer-carrying photo/art printers offers further ink choices. The Z3100 comes in 24” and 44” sizes and both use HP’s Vivera pigmented inks, with a claim of up to ‘200-year quality’ – whatever that means. With 130ml ink cartridges, a set costs around $1,200.

Just as a fruitless exercise – 130ml x 12 = 1.56 litres. $1,200 ÷ 1.56 = $769 per litre of ink? Seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars for a litre of liquid that is 60%-80% water. Of course, the plastic and chip have to be added but mass production makes these just a few dollars if that.

Whichever way you look at it, advanced inkjet ink is an expensive commodity and it is no wonder that so many third-parties are emerging to get a slice of the action. One could be forgiven for imagining that the substances used in the 20%-40% that is not water, are rare elements mined from asteroids and transported back to Earth in Space Shuttles.

But look at the other side of the coin. If the big manufacturers did not have their ink revenue, the cost of the hardware would be much higher. Immense R&D funding goes into ink and printhead development. There is no doubting the fantastic quality and durability of today’s generation of pigmented inks from the big three and the quality from their printers has never been so readily achievable in the past.

It’s like being a member of an exclusive club – you pay for the benefits and a matched printer-ink-media combination from any of the OEMs delivers considerable benefits to professional image makers.

THIRD PARTY INK – THE CHOICE IS YOURS
I won’t buy into the third-party ink debate too much save to say, it’s definitely cheaper but my experience has shown that if you use 3rd party ink, you need to do a lot of homework as to its quality, and then do your own R&D on profiling and suitability to media. Some excellent manufacturers do exist; ITL, Eterna, J-Teck3 and Perma-Jet, Staedtler to name five but there are also a swathe of no-name poor quality refillers that will do your reputation – and possibly your printheads – no good at all.

There is one third-party ink area I believe the printer manufacturers need to address, and that is bulk ink feed systems. For the busy and industrial user, a bulk feed system makes complete sense and to keep changing 90, 110, 130 or 220ml cartridges is wasteful in materials, money and packaging.

Perma-Jet of the UK has introduced PermaFlow bulk feed systems for A3 to BO pigmented printers and they are the best designed I have seen. The ink bottles sit in a tray by the side of the printer and silicon tubes carry the ink to the permanent flow cartridges that fit like normal cartridges. Apart from the savings in ink cost, permanent flow ink reduces the risk of air bubbles in ink lines, as they are constantly full.

If a third party can come up with a bulk ink feed system like this, I hope it is not too long before the printer manufacturers themselves offer bulk systems as an option to their already excellent digital inkjet printers.

SUMMARY
Yes, if all the sea were ink and pigmented wide-gamut ink at that; we would be able to dip in and run our digital art, indoor graphics and photographic reproduction printers very cheaply. But we would miss out on the dependability of tried and trusted systems and the continuing advances that make digital reproduction technologies better and better.

When you consider an A3+ art or photo reproduction, beautifully matted, signed and framed and selling for $100 to $150:- the choice of ink to deliver acceptable longevity and fidelity is important.

It may hurt to shell out $1,000 to $1,500 for a set of inks for a large format printer and by all means shop around but, if you are running your business profitably is it a cost of manufacturing that is, well….a drop in the ocean?