What is a digital print?

The Epson Surecolor P6000 printing a copy of 'The Mezzanine' in the studio

The Epson Surecolor P6000 printing a copy of 'The Mezzanine' in the studio


Just what are digital prints and how are they produced?

For nearly 25 years I created prints using screenprinting technology (some call it serigraph technology) but when I first acquired a computer in the late 90s I soon realised that not only could it handle the text for my lecture notes it could also manipulate images and photographs.

Since then I have only used digital means to create my prints. Essentially all prints need a matrix - something from which the print can be made; in etching it is the metal plate bittern with acid, in screen printing it is a stencil and woodblock printing speaks for itself. So where is the matrix for a digital print? It can be found as a digital file which contains all the information in digitised form to send commands to a printer to print out the print as I have designed it. 

Digital prints are made up of tiny bits of information in the form of pixels - in my case tiny little square of a designated colour and tone. A digital photograph for instance is made up of millions of these squares each containing the necessary information to complete the command. By using filters and graphic tablet pens I can alter the content of the pixels that surround each other and every change is recorded on the computer. A hard flowing line will affect fewer pixels either side of the central core of the line than a soft and more fluid line where there might be a greater width of variation affected on the surrounding pixels.

In screenprinting I laid down colours in many transparent layers where each subsequent printing altered those previously laid down - with a few transparent layers it is possible to create hundreds of colours and tones. It is similar when working with digital layers. Imagine each layer as a sheet of glass with a transparent image on it i;t by adding layer upon layer on top of each other the initial image is modified by each addition, and it is easy to alter the order of the layers and get a different effect each time.

Layers are the secret to digital prints and I use many of them and very subtly. It is possible to have two hundred variations, positive and negative with each adjustment of a layer and if , as I often do, over 40 layers are employed the subtly of the changes is immense. It is usual to alter only part of the image at any one time allowing for almost infite enhancement of detail and colour, focus and texture. It is easy to open a digital photograph and apply a filter but most of my prints begin from scratch with no initial input where every detail is painstakingly added or 'drawn', textures imported and modified into an overall design. As a result, some prints take weeks or even months to complete to my satisfaction - usally a point where any further addition or change no longer adds anything worthwhile to the overall image.

The resultant file is then sent to the large format printer that contains all the information as regards size and placement of each droplet of ink - and there are 9 inks available in the printer. The images are tested in strips to match what I see on the calibrated monitor - no point working away on something if it doesn't look anything like the image I see on screen. The prints are laid down on special coated paper ready to accept the digital ink - I only use the best paper - currently Hahnemuhle German Etching paper 310 gsm whci has a fine texture and produces vivd colour renditions of my files. The prints are produced in signed limited editions. The amnufacturers of both the inks and paper guarantee long life between 75 to 200 years if well looked after.

I recommend conservation mounts are used when work is framed - it really is worth the small extra payment to protect the work of art.

Further reading

As yet it is perhaps too early for the definitive book on the subject of digital printmaking, but there are hundreds of books on the techniques of digitally manipulating images along with thousands of magazine articles (such as to be found in 'Printmaking Today'). Below are a few references which develop the printmaking side.

·         Digital Printmaking by George Whale and Naren Barfield published by A & C Black November 2001 Paperback ISBN 0-7136-5035-4   Still the best book available currently.

·         Transformations - the fine art print and the computer published by the London Institute with the British Council 1998 Exhibition catalogue ISBN 1-870540-01-8

·         Computers and Printmaking published by Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery 1999

·         Relativities - Catalogue of the 4th British International Miniature Print Exhibition contains three useful essays around the subject published by Loughborough University in 2000 Edited by Mike North ISBN 1-900856-43-3

·         The Art of Enhanced Photography by James Luciana and Judith Watts published by Mitchell Beazley 1999 ISBN 1-84000-195-X Features a number of interesting artist/photographers using inkjet printing creatively.

·         Digital Photography by Tom Ang published by Mitchell Beazley in 1999 ISBN 1-84000-178-X A really useful introduction to the art and techniques of digital photography that helps getting to grips with all that stuff about pixels and file sizes.

·         Pixel Surgeons by Martin Dawber. A dazzling display of over the top 'photoshopery' related to fashion photography but contains some state of the art digital images as well as the more modest but haunting photographs by Paul F R Hamilton. Published by Mitchell Beazley 2005 ISBN 1 84533 1575

·         Printmaking at the Edge by Richard Noyce published by A & C Black 2006 Hardback ISBN -13 978-0-7136-6784-4 A personal look at the current state of printmaking round the world featuring 45 artists from 16 countries including much digital work. Refreshingly critical of much art criticism, it is mercifully free from art jargon. Well illustrated.

·         Art of the Digital Age by Bruce Wands published by Thames and Hudson 2006 Hardback ISBN-13 978-0-500-23817-2 Illustrated survey of digital art with plenty of images and well referenced with website addresses. Now out in paperback.

·         The Printed Picture by Richard Benson published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2008 ISBN 978-0-87070-721-6 An intriguing and well written exploration of all manner of printing an image from medieval times right up to today's digital processes. It covers the many photographic methods of creating printed images with wit and erudition. Handsomely produced.

·         Digital Art by Wolf Lieser published by H.F Ullmann, Berlin 2009 ISBN 978-3-8331-5338-9 Another broad survery that includes plenty of examples of work printed as inkjet images. Interesting contributions from a number of practitioners, though suffers from a clunky translation.

.         Making an Impression - Celebrating 40 years of printmaking by Christopher Noble. Explains why my work looks the way it does now by looking at the digital side of my practice. Published with a series of exhibtions celebrating 40 years as a printmaker. Fully illustrated in colour. Ryelands Press, Hereford.

.         Printmaking - a Contemporary Perspective by Paul Coldwell published by Black Dog Publishing, London 2010 ISBN 978 905155 43 8 A fairly comprehensive view of printmaking in all its forms from traditional to recent digital developments. Well illustrated and written by a leading academic and printmaker. Concentrates on artists who give printmaking activities great importance in their practice as a whole.

. Perspectives on Contemorary Printmaking - Critial writing since 1986 Edited by Ruth Pelzer-Montada published by Manchester University Press 2018 ISBN 978 1 5261 2575 0. 367 pages. This is a collection of 32 essays about contemporary print, with a general and sectional introductions by Ruth Pelzer-Montada, which is the only one of its kind in English. Covers a wide range of issues centred around the critical theory of printmaking. Not exactly an easy read, and you might find having a good dictionary to hand is helpful, but worth persevering with for engaging insights into current thinking by both academics and printmakers themselves.