Paper Primer

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked newts. I don’t mean the Gingrich kind; I mean newts as amphibians. They leave me cold. As it happens, however, I’ve been egged into producing a book about amphibians for the Seattle Audubon Society. It’s a big project, involving dozens of authors and hundreds of never-before-seen color photographs.

The book is supposed to hatch this fall, so we’ve got to jump on it. Unfortunately, selecting the right paper has been a slow process, partly because the designer, Lorie Ransom, has been so selective—not that I’d let out a peep of objection, mind you. Designers are supposed to be a tad bit fussy about design. For example, when I gave Lorie a glossy-finished paper to look at, she gazed at it like it had warts. My thinking was that amphibians have shiny skins, right? The shine of the paper would match the shine of the subject. But Lorie said the paper was formulated too poorly. Ink would mottle on the surface. Point taken. Amphibians are not reptiles. They don’t have scales. Their skins need to look smooth. Both smooth and shiny.

Next I showed Lorie a higher-quality glossy stock with a smoother finish. But it still didn’t feel right to her. Amphibians are kind of low-key animals who suffer from bad press. They’re not lovable like pandas. They need some jazzing up to appeal to readers. Lorie felt that the paper needed to be more unique. I could relate to that.

For the next round, I produced some sheets with a matte finish. The matte finish would make the copy easy to read, and the smooth coating would make the ink look color-saturated on the page. Best of all, the high-shine varnishes in the ink would provide a dynamic contrast between the dull look of the paper and the bright look of the photos. The amphibians would glisten all the more because of the contrast. It was a perfect match.

By perfect, I mean that the paper Lorie selected made the maximum contribution to the design effect she was trying to create. She wanted a sheet that made type easy to read but that didn’t dull the colors of our truly spectacular amphibian photos. She wanted paper that weighed heavily in the hand and gave readers the sense that the book was a major addition to the field. She didn’t want a crisp paper, but a soft one. It had to be as neutral-white as possible so we didn’t add a color cast to the critters. The paper Lorie selected is a bright-white, matte-coated sheet from Samson Paper, with a basis weight of 128 gsm (grams per square meter).

But this paper, as good as it is, is not the perfect paper. It’s merely the best-matched paper for the job. And that’s precisely what you should look for when you’re trying to select the perfect paper for your designs.

The Nature of Paper
Paper is often referred to as a “substrate.” I remember one printer telling me that his house sheet was “a substrate with superior ink holdout and great runnability.” He sounded like he was selling me an SUV. I know the reason for this: He was a flexography printer, and he truly did print on “substrates” other than paper, such as metal, plastic and cloth. Nevertheless, I dislike thinking of paper as a substrate. It gets me too far removed from the real nature of paper.

The word paper derives from the Greek word papyros, the stately papyrus reed of ancient Egypt. If you’ve ever seen papyrus, then you know how beautiful it is and why it came to symbolize the royalty of northern Egypt. When you split the bark off a papyrus reed, you can almost smell the greenness of the color. When you lay strips of papyrus pith crosswise on top of each other, they feel a little bready. After the strips are pounded flat and dried, you can still see flecks of darker-brown plant material in the beige of the paper. If you run your fingers across a sheet, you can feel the hatched pattern of the plant’s fibers. When you rub your palm across the surface, you can hear again the rustling of the reeds.

All papers have these same qualities of smell, weight, texture and color. All papers evoke images that excite the senses. You can use these characteristics to enhance your designs. Here are some of the most important ones to consider.

Coated/Uncoated
Paper made from wood pulp is rough and porous, due to the way it’s made. Pulp fibers are beaten, chemically cooked and bleached, and mixed with water. This “furnish” is then flowed out over a wire bed that gently shakes the fibers until they bond together. At the end of the wire bed, the newly formed paper is pressed and dried. During this process, patterns can be impressed into the surface of the paper to create texture, or the paper can be polished over metal rollers. Paper made in this way is uncoated, meaning that the paper fibers are bared at the surface. Coated papers go through an additional process, in which coatings of clay and other materials are applied to the paper’s surface. These coatings seal the fibers and smooth out microscopic gaps between them.

Uncoated papers are more textured and more porous than coated papers. Ink sinks into them and spreads out more. This causes a softening of hard edges and harsh colors. Details blur somewhat and colors achieve more of a grayish, subdued cast. This can be perfect for any art that needs softening, such as pastels, watercolors or charcoal sketches. Newsprint is uncoated, so if your design needs the immediacy of a newspaper look, choose an uncoated stock.

There are several uncoated papers now on the market that have been formulated to be almost as smooth and nonporous as coated papers. Weyerhaeuser’s Cougar Opaque, for example, has a bright-white, nonporous surface that prevents ink from spreading. You get the printing quality of coated papers and the thicker, heavier feel of uncoated stock. It’s a perfect match for designs using print and offline processes such as embossing or foil-stamping.

Coated papers are generally smoother and thinner than uncoated papers. Their surface is hard and impervious, so ink holdout—paper’s ability to keep ink on the surface without letting it sink into the fibers—is high. This means that coated papers retain more hard-edged detail than uncoated stock. Colors look brighter on coated paper because the surface reflects light back more fully and more directly, rather than scattering it, as uncoated papers do. Coated papers are great when you want to print fine detail, highly saturated colors, or any subject that shines, such as metal, human hair, water or amphibian skin. Zanders’ Mega line from M-real is a good example. Colors, particularly oranges, purples and reds, look especially bright on this paper.

Textured/Smooth
Coated papers are always smooth, although matte-finished coated papers have a kind of powdery texture. To get real texture, however, you have to choose an uncoated paper. Here, the choices are almost endless. Many wood-pulp textured papers are based on the imitation of non-wood fibers. The texture is artificially pressed into the still-wet paper as it lies on the wire bed during manufacture. For example, linen-finished paper is lightly embossed with an uneven grid pattern to resemble linen cloth. Felt-finished paper is slightly mounded with little moguls of pulp to resemble felt cloth. Eggshell-finished paper is pebbly to resemble an egg. A laid finish is a thickly patterned grid of parallel lines. Wove papers are smoother than some other textures but still hint at a cloth-like feel. Vellum is rough and slightly pitted, like animal hides. Parchment is smooth and hard like the real thing.

Some textured papers really are made from non-wood fibers and come by their texture naturally. Cotton-fiber paper, for example, has a slight roughness like real cloth. Southworth’s Connoisseur line of business papers is a good example. These papers feel thick and elegant, with a rough surface that’s still smooth enough to run through a laser printer. Linen-fiber paper (usually a combination of flax and softer pulps, such as Eco-21 paper from Ecosource Paper) feels even finer and harder, just as linen itself feels more brittle than cotton. Hemp papers, such as Hemp Heritage from Green Field Paper Co., are rougher still; they have "tooth.” All these alternate-fiber papers have a floppier feel than wood-pulp papers, adding a feel of quality and elegance.

Textured papers can be more interesting than smooth papers because they add a strong sensation of touch to your designs. They’re great for projects that use just type or one-color art because the paper itself adds so much interest. They’re also a good choice for business letterhead because they feel elegant. Conversely, they can give the feeling of hominess or environmental soundness.

You have to be careful about using textured specialty papers, though. Some are fairly smooth, but the highly textured varieties, with deep pits and high ridges, can scatter light, which diminishes detail and reduces color saturation. Detail can be further compromised because the ink dots may disappear into the minute crevices of the texture. Generally, you should stay away from designs that require pin-sharp detail and bright colors when using these papers.

Bright/Dim
Brightness is a characteristic used to classify white papers only. It’s measured by the amount of blue light that a paper reflects. The higher the brightness number, the brighter the paper. Papers are made bright by the amount of polishing and coating they receive, which can be an expensive process. If you’re going to print on white paper, you should generally buy the brightest paper you can afford, because brighter papers reflect back more light and therefore more color and detail. It used to be that only coated papers could be truly bright. Now, however, companies offer uncoated papers that are the equivalent of high-quality coated papers when it comes to brightness. Weyerhaeuser’s Cougar Opaque, for example, has a brightness measure of 92 (on a scale of 1–100), which is equivalent to a #1 coated paper. Fraser’s Pegasus Brilliant White measures 98 on the brightness scale, with a mirror-like ability to reflect colors brightly and accurately.

Glossy/Dull
Gloss isn’t the same as brightness. Gloss is how shiny a paper is. Gloss contributes to brightness because shiny things look brighter than dull things. So a glossy paper with a high level of brightness will knock your eyes out. Colors scream off the page. Highly glossy papers are therefore perfect for subjects that demand highly saturated colors. Hexachrome printing, for example, with its bright greens, oranges and purples, practically demands a glossy sheet. Outdoor pictures, especially those showing water and snow, are enhanced by glossy papers. So are metallic subjects. But highly glossy papers fatigue the eye. So if you have a lot of text in your design, you’re going to wear out your reader.

For this reason, mills have come up with a variety of bright-white papers that have a range of shiny to dull finishes. The glossiest finish is called cast-coating, followed by ultragloss, gloss-coated, satin, dull (also called velvet or suede) and matte. Duller-coated finishes are more restful to the eye, while still allowing great color to jump off the page. Thus, more and more book designers are selecting matte stocks for books that carry both text and colored art. Magazines are turning to matte stocks for the same reason, although matte papers scuff more easily than glossy papers and might not stand up to wear and tear.

Dull-coated papers can be more interesting than glossy papers because their surface is flat while process inks are varnished, causing a big contrast between the unprinted and printed portions of the page. Dull or matte finishes can thus add a dimension of movement to your designs that glossy papers can’t match.

Thick/Thin
Caliper is the measure of paper’s thickness. Most people perceive that thicker papers are higher quality than thin papers. Just think about the difference between a 24lb. cotton letterhead vs. an onionskin-thin airpost letter, for example.

Thickness results from the amount of fiber in a paper, but also from the amount of pressing it gets when made. Coated papers, because they’re pressed through more rollers than uncoated papers, are generally thinner than uncoated papers. If you need bulk in your designs, choose an uncoated paper. It’s no accident that most books with just text are almost always printed on uncoated paper. Uncoated paper looks hefty. I learned this the hard way. I once printed a 500-page guidebook on coated paper. The thing bulked to a mere 3⁄4 in. We charged $10 for it and sold practically none; people just couldn’t believe that a book that skinny could have 500 pages and be worth $10.

A sheet can be too bulky, however. If you’re folding paper and/or sending it through the automated USPS system, then pay attention to the caliper. You need to meet minimum and maximum standards or pay extra postage. Take a folded dummy to your post office and ask someone to check it before you get too far along in the design.

Opaque/Transparent
Opacity is the ability of paper to block light from shining through. In practical terms, it’s the amount of ink you can see shining through the reverse side of the paper. Generally, the more opaque the paper, the higher the perceived quality.

Opacity can best be determined by placing a design of strong black-and-white stripes behind the paper. However much you see the dark stripes showing through the paper, that’s how much show-through you’ll get when you print ink on two sides.

Opacity is created by a couple of different factors. Lignin, the chemical that gives structure to tree cell walls, adds great opacity to paper. Lignin also adds brown color, though, so mills try to bleach it out to varying degrees. Completely lignin-free paper is called a free sheet and is much whiter than groundwood paper, which still retains a fair amount of lignin. But free sheets are rather transparent without their lignin. So mills add more fiber (basis weight) and coatings to increase opacity. One of the more successful mills to do this is International Paper, with its line of highly opaque white papers called Accent Opaque (available in text/cover and bond weights). These white papers are smooth and bright but also highly opaque to reduce show-through.

Opacity is also created by color. The darker the color, the more opaque the paper. Black paper is almost completely opaque. Wausau’s Royal Linen line of fine papers, for example, includes black and three very dark colors—burgundy, emerald green and midnight blue. You can’t print regular type on these papers, but they’re spectacular with embossing, foil and opaque-white ink, overlaid with almost anything.

When you’re checking opacity, pay attention to the amount of ink coverage you’ll be using. Dense ink coverage on every page requires more opaque paper; otherwise the colors from one side of the page affect the colors on the other side. This is especially true when the area of paper covered on one side doesn’t match up to the areas covered on the other side. You might be able to see a square of color from a photo on the back, for example, which might ruin a white area on the front.

White/Color-Cast
Almost all white papers have a slight color cast. Some are in the blue range, some more yellow, some gray. When you’re selecting a white paper, don’t pick one in a vacuum. Rather, fan out a bunch of unprinted samples. You can easily see the different color casts when you do this.

Bluish paper is best for designs that require a cold or neutral cast. Outdoor pictures showing water, snow, clouds and plants look best on blue-cast paper. Reds on bluish paper can achieve a ruby look that I find opulent and appealing. However, bluish papers aren’t the best choice for human skin, blonde hair, incandescent indoor lighting, wood or anything that needs to look yellowish-warm. Home furnishings, interior or architecture shots, wood paneling, and food pictures might look better on a yellow-cast paper.

What if you’re shooting a lot of blue clothes on blonde models in the snow? You must decide what you want to showcase: the clothes, the model or the snow. I could make a production argument for each one; only you can decide what the artistic case must be.

Some mills have recently begun to bring out neutral sheets. These are sheets that have no color cast at all. If you explore these papers, ask to see both printed and unprinted samples. Make sure the printed samples show the same kinds of art that you’ll be using. Compare the unprinted samples to other white sheets you have and see if you like the "color” you see. If a neutral white paper produces the emotional feeling of coolness or warmth that you’re seeking, go for it.

Plain White/Colored
The advantage of a colored paper is that it adds color without adding an ink fountain to your costs. One-color ink printed on colored paper creates two colors cheaply. Many mills that make colored paper add flecks of plant material to the pulp, which can add another color effect to the paper. French’s Pastel Frostone papers, for example, include flecks of white to create a kind of icy feeling.

I think colored paper is the most exciting paper to use, but be aware of how the paper color affects transparent inks. When light strikes one of your designs, it hits the ink layer first and passes through to the paper underneath. Each color of ink absorbs some of the white light that passes through. When the light hits the paper, some of it is absorbed by the paper, and some of it is reflected back through the ink layers. How much light the paper absorbs depends on how mirror-like its finish is.

Whiter, brighter, smoother paper reflects more light directly back through the ink layers. Colored paper, on the other hand, absorbs more light and reflects back its own spectrum of color. This will skew the ink in unpredictable ways. A mustard-yellow paper, for example, will make purple ink look brown. A blue paper will make yellow look green.

Will your audience still be able to "read” the colors of your design properly? That depends on the subject matter and the hue of the paper color. To some degree, you’ll still be able to read the colors because the human eye has a remarkable ability to adjust for differences in relative color. The only way to be sure, though, is to test your inks, designs and paper colors ahead of time. This can be prohibitively expensive, but it might be worth it.

I remember one job where a customer wanted to print a purple W on a gold paper for a University of Washington promo (purple and gold are the school’s colors). The W ended up being brown on gold paper, and the customer refused to pay for it. I’m waiting for this memory to metamorphose into something positive. But every time I think of it, I still want to croak.

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