Right Ink for the Right Job

738px-AltamiraBisonOver my 14+ years at Epson, I’ve been to many digital imaging tradeshows, and spoken with countless attendees – ranging from fine artists to pro photographers to illustration artists to the budding photo enthusiast.

Regardless of skill level, folks seem to always hit me with the super tough, technical questions right off the bat. While I’m happy to offer my knowledge and insight, I wonder sometimes (especially for those new to the creative landscape), if there are fundamental questions that aren’t being asked out of simple information barriers or a fear of looking foolish in front of their peers.

This very thought inspired this initial post looking at ink types – the first of a small series of blog posts dedicated to uncovering what you “need to know” to print high quality and successful output.

Dye vs. Pigment

From historic letters written during the Civil War, to the United States Constitution* to the ancient cave paintings of Altamira in Spain, these revered works hold timeless lessons on the fundamental characteristics of dye and pigment inks.  Longevity is the key differentiator; however each ink type has its own unique benefits. To determine which type of ink to use, ask yourself: “What am I trying to achieve with my prints?”

What is Dye? I usually refer to dye-based inks as food coloring mixed in water because that is essentially what it is – a colorant that is fully dissolved and in liquid solutions, resulting in the ink being soaked into a given substrate.

Why use Dye? If you’re looking for high color vibrancy and saturation and exceptional image detail, choose dye. With dye-based ink comes a wide color gamut and high Dmax (density of black). However, given its water-based consistency, dye has a tendency to fade over time, and since it’s water-soluble, the ink will run when it gets wet

What Applications? Dye-based ink is ideal for printing photos or on paper, and can even be used for image transfer, such as clothing dye and sublimation printing. Think of projects consisting of at-home photos, invitations and a range of business materials (e.g. charts, graphs, posters).

What is Pigment? I like to describe pigment ink as finely ground charcoal mixed with water. In other words, pigment-based ink is not necessarily water soluble, but rather very fine particles of solid colorant  suspended in liquid that are then deposited and reside on the surface of the substrate being utilized.

Why use Pigment? Longevity, longevity, longevity. Pigment ink particles have the unique ability to form a bond with the medium being used, resulting in long-lasting, fade-resistant output.

What applications? Silk screen printing, fine art, and professional photography always use pigment-based ink. In addition, T-shirt art is typically printed with pigment-based ink. For these types of applications, durability and longevity is critically important.

Stay tuned for the next series post where I will look at paper types and options.

Photo of the Altamira Bison public domain via wikicommmons.

*Note: a common misconception is that the U.S. Constitution was penned using pokeweed ink (dye-based), but was later discovered that it was written using iron gall ink, a pigment-based solution

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