101 Guide To Digital Painting Hardware: #4 The Wide Format Printer

This is the final article on hardware around digital painting for artists. Also useful for traditional artists interested in getting great prints of their art.

In case you are looking for another specific part, here are links to:
So, now that you are great at digital painting, you have set your perfect workstation up with a tablet and a great display. But are you able to bring it to the real world like a pro?

The Printing workplace before and after a printing session 
The printing process, especially if you opt for printing on your own, is the most difficult technique to master. 
You thought painting in Photoshop was tricky? Go try printing in large size with Photoshop and you learn a new definition of tricky
If you are not just limiting yourself to pixels and online usage, the printing process is as vital to an artist as the canvas to the traditional painter.

If you take on the challenge, printing yourself opens up a door to complete new freedom of expression.

Which Printer is the best?

I believe there is no easy answer to this question. Brands to pick from are Canon, HP, Epson, Roland and Mimaki to name a few. Every one of them has their advantages.

In this article I can only point to some resources that I found useful along my way and tell from my own experiences about advantages and disadvantages of some printers.

These experiences come with pro´s and con´s and are not unbiased, it is my own experience after all.

What works for me, might not work well for others. Please keep that in mind. If you have questions, please let me know in a comment.

So lets dive right in.

Why printing yourself?

Prices for ordering small and large sized prints are becoming more and more cheap these days, so why even print yourself?

Before even thinking about getting a wide format printer it is vital to answer the following points:
  • What size do I need?
  • What material do I need?
  • What number of prints do I need?
  • Do I need these frequently?
  • Do I have the space?
  • Am I able to overcome obstacles on my own?

If you can answer the above points clearly, it is time to read on.
If you are already ordering prints frequently, you know or may not know the benefits of being your own printer:

The pro´s 
  • You can print when you need to
  • You have direct results
  • You can print in last minute
  • You have a direct impact on the quality
  • You can experiment with sizes, materials, framing, overpainting, coating, beatgold, etc.

The cons
  • Big investment, one time and for material upfront
  • Cost of repair and maintenance are on you
  • The bigger the printer, the more place you need
  • Time consuming

Conclusion: The more points on the pro list count for you and if the cons are no issue, that makes it easy to justify such an investment.

When do I need a WFP (wide format printer) and when is ordering better?

  • When you need to print frequently on demand, lets say for an online shop you are running.
  • It makes also sense when you print last minute before a convention or exhibition.

Outsourcing, aka ordering prints make sense when you have to print a size you can´t serve with your own printer. But also when you need a certain amount of prints. For example I would need to have more than 25 prints of one illustration in A3 size to print before an external printer is cheaper for me. 

Then it is important to take the technology into account. A print ordered from a regular printer is most likely printed in CMYK - aka 4 colors.

With a WFP you can make use of 8-12 colors especially light Magenta or Light Cyan tones are only possible to achieve with at least 8 colors.

The most trivial truth is the following: The less colors you want to print, the more colors the printer need to have. That is the reason why Epson uses 4 blacks and is the best printer for black and white photographs.

Offset and Digital Printing

The general rule is that mass-produced products such as flyers, postcards, businesscards have only 4 colors; Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black - CMYK.
Most business inkjet or laser printers also use four colors. That can be sufficient for a snapshot print of your holidays. The best results can be only achieved with specific papers and original inks of that particular brand. They use a "sweet-spot" between what is technically possible and profitable.

When you opt for digital printing, the limits of four-color results vanish to at least 97%.
Giclée or inkjet printing technology has evolved a lot in recent years. Besides the quality, the lifespan of printed results, less fading and easier maintenance are important keywords.

When size matters

At first you don´t know what size of a print is right for you or your audience. This is something you have to find out on your own. Attend conventions or do exhibitions and see what sells. For me it is anything beyond regular letter or A4 size.

My best selling prints come in A3 and A2 poster size and Canvas around the size of 90 x 60 cm.

The printing resolution

The reolution is a very technical topic, but not as difficult as it seems. The standard dpi (density of pixel per inch) determines how many of your pixels are visible on the print. Most printers specs confuse more than they help when stating up to 9600dpi...
That is bullshit. the dpi in photoshop determine what is visible, the dpi of the printer just depict how much of your software-dpi can be printed. That means the usual resolution of 600x600 dpi will print your images pixel perfect if your image has 300 dpi in Photoshop.

There are some exceptions; if your material is a banner that will only be seen from 20 meters distance, 90-120 dpi will be sufficient. Also the texture on the canvas will draw from the resolution at least 20%. So if your image only has 240 dpi you don´t need to upscale it. It should work fine on canvas. On glossy photographic paper the same image might come out crappy.

Unique selling proposition

When you order prints it also takes time to find out what materials work best for you. It is also recommended to improve ordered canvas prints using clear coat. The colors will benefit from a coat, blacks will become deeper and colors more rich. I always spray paint mine with a special UV-clear coat and some images even with a structure oil coating for a traditional look. Edges are subject to experimentation as it gives so much more uniqueness to an otherwise standard medium.

breaking the clean edges up for a painterly look

Also the back of a print is important. There is space for signature, stamp, title and security marks. 

Always found on my prints, signature, year, title and stamp

So much for the theory

I´m printing with large format printers since 12 years now and my first printer - an HP Designjet 90 is still doing it´s job. I got a second one from a dear friend last year which serves my mobile needs on conventions now. And since 2014 I´m a proud owner of an HP Designjet z2100 - 44"

My z2100 in action, canvas printing is a dream come true

With this little printing facility I´m glad to be completely independent from online printing services. 

In busy times I run all three printers, above the Designjet 90 (s)

My recommendation for a large format printer therefore can most likely go to HP. The advantages that count for me are;

  • They are easy to use
  • The inks don´t dry within a month of not being in use such as Epson and Canon printers do. 
  • The inks can be out of use date and work still fine, which makes original ink cartridges cheaper on the aftermarket. 
  • There are service manuals around that can help doing maintenance that usually can only be done by professional service personell.
  • The only downside with the z2100 that I can speak of is that the printer takes long to boot. 
  • The downside on the Designjet 90 is that it can´t really print black and white only, there is always a green tint

What I know from Epson
  • Epson printers do need regular printouts to prevent the pigment inks to dry in the cartridges or tubes.
  • Printheads are more expensive than on HP. HP uses 2 colors in one printhead which means you only need 4 for 8 colors. On the aftermarket you get 1 package with two printheads for as low as €25.
  • Epson is best suited if you need near proof quality black and white prints, perfect for bw photographers

What I know from Canon
Canon printers especially the IPF series is only interesting for professional users with a contract. Even then there is a long list of known issues. For some folks they are the least effective machines even though they are the fastest. It seems speed comes at a price and if that has to be invested in technician, replacement and service costs - it is not recommended for smaller businesses. If you can get one of these cheap on Ebay, calculate another €2500-4000 on top for repairs.

There are for sure older printers of HP, Canon and Epson that you can have for cheap, but these have their own problems. You need to dig deeper to get these information.
Other plotter or large format printers such as Roland, Mimaki or Kodak have their specific advantages depending on material. It takes a lot time to review or learn about the known issues of a certain model. It is vital to understand the techniques and what they are used for. There are latex printers or solvent printers that are best suited for outdoor use, when printed on canvas, the result is plain awful. So if you can get one of these cheap, it might not help you but take up space and time.

This time is better spent in research upfront. Can´t stretch this enough.

The best practice would be to ask other users or look up your interest in a forum, for example in forums such as this: http://printplanet.com/forums/ or this:http://www.colorprintingforum.com

You can also read reviews from various publishers or online here: http://www.wide-format-printers.org/ or http://wide-format-printers-review... to get an idea about the market in general.


Then there is at least as much software for printing around as there are printers. However, a RIP-software is probably not needed for a print in a now and then kind of use.
I use to print from Photoshop via LAN and I never had any issues besides getting used to it.

Printing from Photoshop by Jeff Schewe: http://www.peachpit.com/articles/art... shows how it works, the rest is just making it a habit.

Color Management

Understanding CMS or colormanagement for digital imaging is important, colorimeter or spectrocolorimeter however are a nice and expensive widgets and you can come far without them. If you use the right materials and matching ICC profiles with the specific materials - color problems are cut down to a minimum. Here are some interesting information about printing and the problems that can occur with color gamut and it´s conversion. 

However, I would not worry too much about that matter.

The easiest way to get perfect colors is to print thumbnails of all images that you want to print. Then compare these images with your display version in RGB. If there are some darks too dark or greys tinted, you can use color changes to work against this or change ICC profiles or materials. Then save a jpeg version of the working version in a separate folder.

The jpeg version can save the ICC profile and printer settings with it!
That in turn saves you time when you need to print this file again.

You will never get the perfect print always. There are difficult images. Even the best printers will have trouble with some images. So this is not a question of money but gamut.

Understand color gamut and the printing technology and you find a way to make your image look fine.
Another vital aspect is that most people who see your print, will not directly see the RGB version. 

General advice

  • learn as much about the topic as you can, understand the technology
  • Get to know Color Gamut - make it your new religion
  • Always use original ink cartridges from the manufacturer
  • Same goes for printheads
  • Paper or canvas can be from third-parties, but try to match weight and material with existing ICC profiles otherwise the longevity of your printer is at risk
  • Keep an eye on original inks on Ebay or Amazon marketplace (At least for HP)
  • Keep the printer plugged in always, power voltage keeps the lifespan up
  • Get a Large Format Rolling Trimmer (even used, it´s a life saver)
  • Order stretcher bars online and save on discounts instead of buying every single bar in a local store
  • Save a working print file as jpeg including the ICC profile, that saves time in the long run
  • Do always make test prints with thumbnails of new images before printing in the correct size

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Oliver aka Fantasio is a creative blogger who likes to share his insights about art, marketing and social media. Follow Fantasio on twitter or facebook


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