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Archival Matte Paper: 10 Things to Know Before You Choose

Archival matte paper for inkjet art printing is a coated cotton rag or alpha-cellulose paper that can give an inkjet print a timeless sense of quality. While archival matte papers are typically used to reproduce watercolor paintings, pastels and illustrations with soft details, these papers can also be used for invitations and announcements for VIP events, gallery announcements, or notecards. Here are some points to keep in mind as you shop for the right paper:

1. There is no standard definition of archival. The term “archival” implies a certain level of permanence, but there is no standard definition of how long an archival document must last. The level of permanence is affected by how the paper was made, the types of inks used to make the print and how the prints are stored or displayed.

2. Not all inkjet art papers are manufactured to the same standards of archivability. Some inkjet art papers were designed simply to look and feel like the papers used by artists. These papers are fine for promotions and other applications in which the prints are not expected to last for decades. Other inkjet art papers were manufactured to meet international standards for permanence and durability in handling.

For example, ISO Standard 11108 specifies the requirements for archival papers for permanent retention and frequent use. These acid-free archival papers have a pH value between 7.5 and 10 and an alkali reserve of at least 2% calcium carbonate to “buffer” the paper from acids in the environment. The paper must also be made from cotton, be tear-resistant and be unlikely to break when folded.

The U.S. Library of Congress specifies that archival paper for long-term preservation should be acid-free with a pH value between 8 and 9.5. The paper should also be free of optical brightening additives (OBAs) that increase the whiteness of the paper. The Library of Congress also requires that archival papers pass the Photographic Activity Test at the Institute of Image Permanence at the Rochester Institute of Technology. These papers don’t have to be made from cotton, but must be made with acid-free manufacturing properties with pulps from sustainably managed forests certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

Archival matte papers from brands such as Moab by Legion,Hahnemuhle,Museo, and Innova were developed by professionals with extensive backgrounds in making archival art papers. From their deep understanding of the needs of the art market, museums, and collectors, they developed inkjet art papers for creating museum-quality art reproductions. These papers were designed for limited-edition prints, gift prints and art books that are expected to last for decades.

3. Consider the surface texture of the archival matte papers. Because art papers were initially developed to make it easier to reproduce small quantities of original art, the surface textures of many papers mimic the papers that artists traditionally used for watercolors, drawings or prints from etched metal plates. A highly textured paper might not be the best choice for printing fine text or lines. But if you use digital painting programs to make graphics or photos look like paintings, then you may want to experiment with a more textured print surface.

4. Choose a photo-art paper or baryta paper if you want to reproduce photographs on an archival paper that feels like a high-quality fibrous art paper. Photo-art and baryta papers are made with archival, acid-free cotton or alpha-cellulose base and a smooth white layer that helps reproduce the fine detail and tonal gradations of black-and-white and color photography. The barrier layer keeps the ink from soaking into the paper and provides the smoothness and whiteness needed to optimize details in the shadows and highlight areas of a photograph.

5. Look for papers that are free of lignins, acids, or optical brightening additives (OBAs). Certain types of chemicals can affect how a paper ages. If the paper deteriorates over time, the print on the surface of the paper will also be affected.

If acids haven’t been removed from the pulp used to make the paper, the acids can migrate through the paper (especially in humid conditions) and weaken the bond with the inkjet-receptive coating. A lignin is an acidic substance in the cell walls of plant fibers that can contribute to the yellowing of paper.

While cotton rag papers naturally have lower concentrations of lignins than the wood pulps used to make newsprint, some fiber-based photo art papers are made from high-grade wood pulp (alpha cellulose) that is acid- and lignin-free.

Optical brightening additives have been used for decades to make photographic and printing papers look whiter. The brighteners do a great job of boosting the vibrancy of the printed colors. But as the effectiveness of the brightening chemicals wears off over time, the paper reverts to its natural color and can make the colors look more subdued.

6. Choose the right thickness for your printer and application. Make sure the paper is not too thick for the printer you plan to use. Art papers range in thickness from approximately 12 mil to 26 mil. Many older model printers, designed solely for CAD/technical printing, are unable to handle materials thicker than 9 mil. Thicker papers are popular for large reproductions because they are easier to handle after printing. If you order rolls of thick art papers instead of sheets, you may need a method of “de-curling” the prints before framing them.

7. Don’t expect archival performance with the dye inks used in older-model printers. If your printer uses aqueous dye inks, the expense of an archival matte art or photo paper might not be worth the money. Dye inks can bleed or fade relatively quickly, particularly if the prints will be handled, shipped, stored or displayed in environments in which the temperature and humidity are not maintained at the proper levels. However, monochrome drawings made with pigment black inks on archival matte paper will last for generations when the paper is stored in the proper conditions.

8. When archival matte papers are printed with high-quality color pigment inks from Epson, Canon, or HP, the prints can last more than 100 years if they are properly stored or framed with conservation-grade, chemically stable materials. Wilhelm Imaging Research has conducted independent research on certain combinations of inks and art papers and has posted the results for many tests on his website: http://www.wilhelm-research.com.

9. Order a protective spray to protect prints on matte art papers. Pigment ink prints on matte art papers are susceptible to abrasion or scratching. Humidity and airborne pollutants easily damage dye inks. Because of this, it’s wise to protect fully dried inkjet prints on art papers with an aerosol spray lacquer that has been specifically designed for fine-art prints. When evenly applied, the spray performs like a fine film. It fixes the colors of the inks, but doesn’t change the paper structure. A spray coating protects unframed prints from abrasion, scratches, water damage and UV-light.

10. Consider buying a sample pack or archival matte papers first. Hahnemuhle offers sample packs that enable you to see how your prints look on different types of smooth art papers or different types of textured art papers. The Moab sample pack includes two sheets of 16 different types of art and fine art photo papers. To compare the differences, make test prints with your own images. Choosing the best look for your print is part of the creative process.