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Museums and fine art provide unique graphics application

Features, Graphics | September 1, 2008 | By:

Museums are fast discovering the benefits of fabric use in their facilities. Although these institutions often use fabric for signage or wayfinding, designers are also finding innovative ways to incorporate textiles into their exhibits. The same applies to those who are reproducing works of fine art. Manufacturers are consistently creating new and improved canvas-type materials and replicas suitable for digital printing. The unique applications in this market, inks and printers best suited to museum and fine art projects, and the special challenges and opportunities all deserve a serious look.

Fabric success stories

In museum settings, designers and curators have found that fabric’s versatility can create powerful statements. When the Madison Children’s Museum in Madison, Wis., developed its “Hmong at Heart” traveling exhibit, graphic designer Sue Manske knew she needed a material that was durable, flexible and retained its color.

Manske commissioned Chicago artist Jeff Wrona to create four large paintings, which were photographed with a large-format camera. Manske then scanned the transparency and turned it over to Fabric Images in Elgin, Ill., which reproduced the images on a polyester canvas-type fabric via dye sublimation. The result: four murals—one 14 feet by six feet, the other three eight feet by six feet—that represented Hmong life in Laos and in the refugee camps. The murals made their way to 10 different cities in four years.

Manske chose to go the fabric route for several reasons. “If someone paints a mural that’s a one-of-a-kind piece, and it gets vandalized, damaged or broken, you’re faced with replacing it or traveling to it to repair the damage. Digitizing them gave us the option to reproduce the murals if we needed to. Transporting the murals was very easy because we could just roll them up and send them off. They are as good as the day we made them.”

Rockaway, N.J.-based Roysons has seen its dreamScape product applied in a variety of settings. A fabric-backed, textured material with a vinyl facing, dreamScape is available in 15 different textures ranging from leather to plaster. Such versatility in this digitally printable wall covering has captured the imagination of designers and installers at museums.

For one museum project, Roysons distributor Lex Jet worked with Vista Color Imaging, which produced a 17-foot by 65-foot reproduction of an original painting by artist Rob Evans for the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. Vista photographed the painting, scanned the transparencies and printed the images on15 vertical sections of dreamScape suede.

In the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Rieger Imaging in Clarksburg, Md., printed expansive wall coverings that reflect images of the sea. For the El Paso Holocaust Museum & Study Center, designer Victor Mireles and Metro Signs used dreamScape to showcase a wall exhibit of World War II photos and Nazi propaganda posters. Like the Mariners’ Museum, these two museums also used the suede version of the dreamScape product.

“These textures give the designer working on the display the ability to add a graphic onto a textured surface,” says Roy Ritchie, president of Roysons. “It’s more of a 3-D approach as opposed to a flat piece of paper or vinyl. The texture makes it more of a tactile product.”

Susanne Jansson, principal of Better Mousetrap in Long Island City, N.Y., has produced projects for two different museums. For a Civil War museum, the firm scanned, cleaned and color-enriched 19th-century photos back to their original sepia tone. The photos were printed on transparent chiffon fabric and formed running murals as long as 30 feet.

In another instance, Better Mousetrap collaborated with a sports museum to develop tensile structures of varying shapes and sizes with several different images on a single structure. Although the project (printed on a knit with spandex) is a permanent installation, the structure can be modified to fit images of future sports idols.

“The immense visuals create awe for the eye and really drives home the idea of ‘larger than life,’” Jansson says. Both projects were produced on a Gandinnovations dye sublimation machine.

Fine art finds fabric

As it has done in museums, fabric diversity has crossed over into the fine art reproduction market. DHJ International in France has developed the Decoprint® collection, a wide range of specially coated 100 percent polyester fabrics for digital and dye sublimation printing.

Several products within this collection have been used in the fine art reproduction market. Grain is a heavyweight, coarse-looking polyester, while Ray uses the same fabric with an additional top coating. “It gives an even better image in terms of color, reproduction and rendition,” says Blaise Humphries, product development and international sales manager for DHJ. A lightweight canvas called Backdrop is one of the company’s best sellers for art reproduction.

As part of its dreamScape collection, Roysons has developed Artist Canvas for giclee reproduction. Cotton-polyester fabric covers the back, while a vinyl surface comprises the product’s face.

“It looks and feels like a real canvas, but it is in fact a faux canvas,” says Roy Ritchie, Roysons president. “We’re able to control the white point of the material, and there aren’t variations as there could be in natural canvas fibers, so printers would get an identical product time after time. Another advantage is its price point. Because it is a faux material, it’s less expensive than coated canvases on the market. It stretches and performs beautifully.”

Printing matters

The effectiveness of a reproduced work of art or a museum graphic relies as much on the printing method as it does on the fabric. The two most common forms are solvent printing and dye sublimation. Each has its place, depending on the project’s end use.

As a manufacturer of wide-format printers, Irvine, Calif.-based Roland DGA Corp. has seen firsthand the ongoing evolution of solvent printing as it relates to fine art reproduction.

“Various solvent printers have been gaining acceptance in the fine art printing market because solvent offers fast dry times, high productivity, and also durability, which eliminates the need for post-print protection like varnish,” says Andrew Oransky, Roland’s director of product management. “Until now, though, utilizing solvent printers and inks for art reproduction has involved significant compromises in image and color quality, since most of the available canvas products had been designed for some other print technology.

Based on this observation, Roland developed two new materials: the Solvent Satin Canvas and Solvent Gloss Canvas, which are designed to be used in tandem with the company’s ECO-SOL MAX ink.

In an example that showcases the capabilities of digital printing on textiles, the DuPont™ Artistri™ 3320 enabled its customer, Marx & Moschner GmbH of Lennestadt, Germany, to produce an exceptional (and expansive) panorama of baroque Dresden,Germany. The panorama, which measures nearly 33,000 square feet, is on display in the circular Drewag Gas Works building.

Dye sublimation is another option for museum graphics and fine art printing. Paul Glynn, general manager of Portland Color in Portland, Maine, uses only dye sublimation for all his company’s projects. “For works of art, it would most likely be done with a direct-to-fabric method using pigmented inks, and if the artist would be looking for far greater image longevity,” he says. Glynn adds that dye sublimation is limited to polyester-based fabrics, “but so many variations of weaves and knits make for some very unique materials, and the fabric’s hand stays soft,” he says.

Dye sublimation’s capabilities prompted the Madison Children’s Museum to use it for its “Hmong at Heart” traveling exhibit.

“The ink is in the fabric so it doesn’t rub off, and if it ever got dirty, you’d just throw it in the wash,” Manske says. “We just fold up the murals and throw them into a bag. After they’ve been reassembled and stretched onto the frame, it looks perfect.”

For mass reproductions of fine art, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc. in Aurora, Ill., has developed a special canvas for offset lithographic printing. “The distinction between where you do art reproduction via digital or litho printing is the volume of the images you want to make,” says Jeff Leagon, vice president of business development for Aurora Specialty Textiles. “With digital printing, you can print on demand as the reproductions are sold versus making a huge inventory of prints that you hope to sell someday.”

Special challenges

Both museums and fine art reproducers demand a set of standards from their printed fabrics, but, Leagon says, “You have to keep in mind that these are still textile products, and chances are the original artwork on canvas has some imperfections in it.”

Glynn of Portland Color agrees. “The fine art world demands excellent quality with no room for fabric flaws, so pressure is put on manufacturers to make their processes better,” he says.

Other challenges include color matching, installation, stretching, shrinking, and making sure the fabrics look and feel natural, according to Glynn.

Still, museum exhibit designers and curators tend to favor fabric products because they can offer durability, flexibility, and creativity. “By combining graphics with text, museums can tell a story. Textured surfaces add life to an exhibit, Ritchie says.”

Jansson would agree. “Fabric and museums work well together,” she says. “Fabric allows museums to display oversized exhibits that are free-standing and easier to assemble, without the heaviness of substrate material. Fabric creates many levels of depth.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

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