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Print Permanence

One of the questions we get asked most frequently here at Print Art is "How long will my print last?". A question to which there is an answer as accurate and succinct as it is annoying..."It depends".

To be clear, pigment inkjet prints on fine-art paper are some of the most light-fast and long-lasting works on paper ever created. But even the most archival-quality prints are affected by a number of external factors.

If you just want to skip to the conclusion at the end, go ahead, but for a fuller understanding carry on reading.

Longevity of prints is dependant on, firstly, the quality of materials used, and secondly, the environment and handling of the print. The second point can’t be emphasized enough. Which is why I am often surprised by bold statements from material manufacturers, and print shops, casually promising print longevity counted in centuries, without any obvious qualifiers or caveats.

The Rothko Harvard Murals

In 1962 the renowned American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko was commissioned by Harvard University to supply a set of large scale murals to be hung in Harvard’s Holyoke Center. By 1964 the paintings were finished and installed under Rothko’s supervision. But a mere 15 years later the paintings had dramatically and irreversibly faded. Particularly problematic were areas of deep rich red and vermilion which had faded to muddy browns. In 1979 the paintings were removed and put in dark storage, where they remain to this day.

Why did these paintings fade so dramatically over a such short time? Rothko himself was dead by then and not able to offer any insights. At first there were rumours that he had used cheap house paint. These rumours have since been proven to be untrue. Instead, recent scientific studies of the works have shown that one of the pigments Rothko used was ‘lithol red’. Lithol red was widely used in printing and paint manufacturing at the time, but is now known to be a fugitive (light-sensitive) pigment. Hence the especially noticeable fading of the reds in the Harvard murals.

The other problem was the location. The penthouse dining room where the works were hung had large south-facing windows along one wall. On a pre-installation site visit Rothko had stipulated that blinds be installed. Which they were. But the windows opened to panoramic views of the university grounds, and there was no permanent guard in the room, so the blinds were generally opened and left open by users of the space who wanted to enjoy the view. This flooded the paintings with direct sunlight. The combination of sunlight and non-stable pigments caused the paintings to quickly fade beyond redemption.

But why would a famous and successful artist, especially one to whom colour was so crucial, use a light-sensitive paint that would quickly change colour? One has to assume that Rothko was not aware of the light-sensitive nature of the pigment.

"The question of whether Rothko was aware of the inherent light sensitivity of lithol red is one that cannot now be answered. Although it was known that lithol red was fugitive in the paint industry and trade at the time Rothko was using it…that information had not necessarily filtered through to all artists"

Rothko installing the murals at Harvard's Holyoke Center.

One of the Rothko murals in place. Note the blinds on the windows.

Materials, materials, materials

The 'Rothko Murals' story is a good illustration of the importance of using materials of proven longevity.

Paper - For prints to be archival-quality, the paper used needs to be both acid- and lignin-free. Additionally it needs to be clear of impurities and additives. Ideally paper should be sourced from a manufacturer with excellent quality control whose products have been independently verified to meet exacting international standards of purity and longevity. The quality of the water used in the manufacturing process is hugely important.

Ink - And of course the quality of the ink used is critical. The current water-based pigment inks used by professional fine-art inkjet printers have been proven to be extremely light-fast. Independent ‘light fade’ testing by organizations like Wilhelm Imaging Research and Aardenburg Imaging and Archive have proven these inks to be extremely light-resistant and long-lasting. We have empirical data related to projected longevity of individual inksets. Which is a lot more than can be said for most other types of printing.   

This was not always the case and early generations of these inks were definitely prone to fading. Since the advent of digital fine-art printing 20 odd years ago, Epson and Canon have been constantly striving to improve the light-fastness of their inks.

Not all inksets are created equal. Yellow has always been the most problematic colour. In recent years Epson in particular have made great strides in this regard. The current generation "Epson UltraChrome PRO" inkset is the gold-standard in terms of longevity at the moment while Canon has been somewhat left behind in recen years.

"Not Recommended for exhibition or archival printing (specifically) are Canon’s Lucia Pro inkset and Epson inksets prior to UltraChrome HDX (due to print longevity concerns)......UltraChrome HDX, PRO, PRO10 and PRO12 (the modern Epson inksets) have significant longevity advantages over older Epson inks and Canon’s Lucia Pro that render the shorter-lived inks Not Recommended where longevity is a primary concern."

Print Art uses the "Epson UltraChrome PRO" inkset for all our fine-art printing.

Be sure to ask your printer which inkset they are using.

Location, location, location (and a bunch of other stuff)

The 'Rothko Murals' story is also a great example of the importance of environmental factors affecting any artwork.

The main elements affecting longevity are light, heat, humidity, chemicals, water contact, pests and human handing. Living with a smoker, or near a busy road, or in a climate that has fluctuations in humidity and heat, will all affect the print.

Anything, and I mean anything, will fade in sustained expose to direct sunlight. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible.

Proper framing plays a big role in preserving the print. Conservation framing uses all acid-free materials. Glass protects print surface from human touch, insect residues and air-borne contaminants.

A print that is carefully handled and framed with conservation materials and hung in an area with 'Standard Home Display Illumination' light levels will last 3 or 4 times as long as the same print hung without glass in a sunny spot in the kitchen.

(see technical note at end about "Standard Home Display Illumination")

Print Handling

Careful print handling is crucial to ensuring longevity.

Pigment prints need at least 12 to 24 hours to fully dry after being printed to allow the inks to settle. Avoid handling or transporting prints before this dry-down time. And allow at least 48 hours before framing.

Make sure your hands are clean and dry and wear gloves when handling the print. Hold print by the edge and avoid touching the surface of the paper. Do not touch the printed image. Protect the surface of the print with acid-free tissue or glassine paper.

If possible store prints horizontal in an acid-free folder or box.

Print Art supplies prints sandwiched in brown cardboard sheets. Brown cardboard is not acid-free and these folders are intended for short-term transport only.

Avoid packaging with self-adhesive tape. The solvent in these tapes will quickly damage the paper.

For an excellent overview of best practises regarding handling and conservation of works on paper, have a look at this PDF from The Institute of Conservation.

Download PDF • 99KB

No really, how long will my print last?

As discussed above, longevity of prints is subject to a wide range of variables. But a conservative rule of thumb is that inkjet prints made with current generation pigment inks will last anywhere from 60 to 100 years before any visible fading when framed behind glass and hung in 'Standard Home Display Illumination'.

Using UV-filtering glass in the frame will push that number past 120 years.

The same print will comfortably last at least 200 years in an archival box in dark storage.

It is worth noting how these figures compare to other types of prints. For example, a digital C-Type print (i.e. LightJet or Lamda) is only rated at about 35 years, at best, when framed behind glass and hung in 'Standard Home Display Illumination'. And only about 80 years in archival storage.

Current pigment inkjet prints can be best-in-class in terms of longevity and will easily outlast other techniques like lithography and most screen-printing. The best pigment inkjet prints will easily match or exceed the light-fastness of traditional silver gelatin hand-prints.

For a detailed look at estimated longevity for prints made on our fine-art Epson Surecolour P1000 from Wilhelm Imaging Research, download the below PDF.

Download PDF • 874KB

(Technical note, "Standard Home Display Illumination" is usually rated as 450 or 500 lux/10 or 12 hours a day)

Notes and further reading

The Rothko Harvard Murals

Best practises for print conservation


Storing and caring for you print

Print longevity estimates based on accelerated light tests


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