Easy way out – Inkjet on ‘DIY’ papers

No, I haven’t given up on color carbon yet. But as I was messing with the inkjet printer anyway, making hundreds of digital negatives and greyscale tests, at some point I got experimental in that direction as well. You see, the thing with inkjet is that I just don’t like most inkjet papers. They’re very high-tech and offer great gamut and dmax. But they don’t have much subtlety to them and the paper surface is always lifeless to me. The exception is the (rather pricey) inkjet baryta papers that indeed resemble fiber-based B&W papers. But couldn’t we expand our choices a bit, perhaps by trying something ourselves? Well, turns out, we can…read on!

One of the main attractions in working with alternative printing processes, to me at least, is the choice we have in papers. While not all papers work for all processes, it’s generally great fun to fondle different papers at the store, and select papers that you really like because of their surface texture, the tint of the paper base, their weight, etc. There are so many great papers being manufactured for different arts, like etching and watercolor! And the really great thing about that is that many of them work just great for photography.

Unless you’re using an inkjet printer, that is. Because then you’re stuck with ‘proper’ papers specifically made for inkjet printing, usually with a microporous surface that readily soaks up the ink and allows it to dry super-quickly, creating a (mostly) water-proof image that won’t be destroyed if a raindrop happens to land on it. Moreover, the higher-end papers are optimized to give really great dmax (deep blacks) and a wide color gamut. And the very high-end ‘baryta’ papers mimic B&W fiber-based papers with a slightly irregular, ‘artsy’ surface texture, but still excellent inkjet printing capabilities. You do have to pay for these though; just check the price of e.g. Canson Infinity Baryta PhotographiqueFomabrom B&W silver-gelatin paper (so ‘real’ baryta paper) is actually cheaper, at least last time I ordered it.

And even the baryta inkjet papers are a bit…well, industrial. Paper-surface and tint are just slightly too perfect, too nice, for all purposes. It’s great if you want technically the best print you can make, but it’s not so great if you want to have a certain character to the print, or when you want the print to be the combination of the image and the substrate, and not just the image itself. Inkjet papers tend to be optimized for not being the limiting factor, but that also makes them void of a clear character, in my opinion.

Well, since I was messing about with the inkjet printer anyway, and I have several ‘art’ papers lying all over the place as well, I decided to do a little experiment. This is already a few weeks ago, but I saved the prints and at least some of the memories…

First, I just stuffed a bit of paper into the printer without any treatment other than tearing it to size. I actually used some fairly random bits of paper I found close at hand; this one happened to be Fabriano Artistico. I don’t use it much for alt. process prints as on silver-based processes it tends to fog rather easily, and it has this weird ammonia-smell when used with some processes (I guess this relates to the fog!) Anyway, here’s the print I made, from a digital photo I also selected fairly randomly:

Untreated Fabriano Artistico

This digital file actually runs the pretty much the entire density range, with near-paper white highlights in the bottom right corner and near black in the top right corner. It’s evident that without treatment, the paper doesn’t really produce much contrast, and there are clear specks all over the place where no ink hit the paper. This is due to the characteristic weave-like texture of this paper – a characteristic I actually quite like, but it doesn’t work too well for inkjet.

So I googled a bit and found that I’m not the first to try this route, and others have had good luck sizing their papers with things like polyvinyl acetate (PVAc) – or in plain English, wood glue. So that’s what I tried, and it sort of worked, albeit in a hit-and-miss kind of way. Here’s the same paper stock, with PVAc glue brushed onto it. I think I used two coatings for this:

Fbariano Artistico, sized with PVAc / wood glue, brushed

For the sizing, I just diluted some wood glue with water so that it became a free-running liquid and could be processed easily. Blast it with a hairdryer and the paper was ready to print within minutes. But, as you can see, there are some issues; most notably there are clearly visible brush marks in the upper right corner. They’re not as apparent in the scan as in the real print, but problematic enough to require improvement. On the other hand, contrast is much better as the blacks are significantly deeper. By far not as deep as on proper inkjet papers, but that’s OK for me, as sometimes a more muted, subtle and pastel-like look is just what I’m after. Note also that the white specks are gone; the ink now covers the paper evenly. Good!

Here’s a more successful try, also with PVAc. I think this was a single brushed-on coat, but less diluted PVAc. Somehow this one came out pretty even, without brush marks.

Fabriano Artistico, PVAc / wood glue sized

This suggests that a wood glue sizing can be pretty effective, and easy as well, but care must be taken to avoid brush marks. I tried the obvious route of using a foam roller instead of a brush, and got comparable results, but with more beading of the ink and white spots. Overall, brushing worked better, probably because it’s easier to brush the PVAc into the fiber texture that way. Just speculating, really.

Since I have some albumen at hand for sizing transfer sheets for dual carbon transfer, I figured I could try that as well. This wasn’t particularly successful. I think I hardened the albumen because otherwise it would probably end up on the print head of the inkjet printer and wreak havoc on its nozzles. Well, turns out the ink starts to bead on the hardened albumen surface. This was done on a different paper; I don’t remember what it was, but it’s some kind of lesser-grade paper that I just got one or two sheets of to experiment with (won’t buy again):

Albumen sized paper

Note the grainy character of the print; lots of beading and poor ink adhesion. Yes, it does dry alright. Hmm, well, maybe for some kind of special-effects print, but not something I’d use a lot.

In a similar vein, I have quite a bit of paper sized with hardened gelatin on hand, again for carbon transfer. This is Schut Laurier with a fairly heavy gelatin sizing (~25g gelatin per square meter), hardened with chrome alum. I use this all the time for single transfer carbon printing. Here’s what an inkjet print on it looks like:

Schut Laurier, sized with hardened gelatin

Well, that didn’t work out as planned. There’s an odd kink to the image on the right hand side. This is actually due to the print head hitting the edge of the paper so hard that it jolted out of alignment during printing. Ouch! The problem with gelatin-sized paper is its curl and waviness, and inkjet printers really don’t like this for the obvious reason of lack of clearance between the print head and the paper. There are also large patches where the ink didn’t seem to have penetrated the sizing – or perhaps the print head actually damaged the surface as it went across it. Either way, mechanical problems all over the place.

Otherwise, dmax is quite nice for a DIY-sized non-inkjet paper, and detail rendering is also promising. In fact, although this test image isn’t very suitable for it, detail rendering seems better than with the more successful PVAc-sized paper. But I figured the gelatin sizing was simply too hard and impenetrable to allow the ink to soak into it readily.

So on to the clear winner of this ‘test’: for double transfer carbon, I use the same Schut Laurier paper with a gelatin sizing, but this sizing is hardened only slightly with potassium alum. Since I didn’t acidify the sizing as I applied it, it was actually practically unhardened, making it unfit for single transfer carbon: the sizing would simply dissolve along with the unexposed gelatin. For double transfer carbon printing, it’s ideal, as the sizing swells nicely in cold water, making good contact with the hardened and developed carbon relief. And, it turns out, it works quite well for inkjet printing as well! It has the advantages of the gelatin sizing tested earlier, but without the disadvantages of the hardened gelatin. It also helped that this scrap of paper was less wavy than the other one, so there were less problems with head strikes.

Schut Laurier, unhardened gelatin sizing

All considered, this was a quick & dirty experiment that actually yielded some interesting results. When I find the time and inspiration, I might continue experimentation in this route. I’ve been inkjet printing a little more over the past weeks, and while it’s still not my favorite way of getting an image onto paper, it sure is convenient and quick, and for some images it works very well indeed. And within that segment, there might be room for some more variance in paper substrates, which this experiment shows should be feasible. Interesting times!

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