Pixel power

Digital printing is rapidly coming of age, offering great flexibility and detail – as well as colour reproduction that is vivid enough even for fine art books. Anna Richardson talks to designer-makers who are using these processes to maximum effect

Mention digital print and low-quality, short print-runs spring to the minds of many. Digital print is not perceived as a bedfellow of fine art and high-quality craft, but they do, in fact, go quite well together.

In fashion, digitally printed textiles were prevalent in many of the spring collections. Designs by the late Alexander McQueen featured collage animal prints, and Prada used photographic floral and beach imagery.

Melanie Bowles, senior lecturer in digital textile design at Chelsea College of Art and co-author of Digital Textile Design (published by Laurence King), has worked in digital print for more than ten years. She believes that the arrival of a number of small print bureaux specialising in digital textile printing has driven accessibility and popularity.

’It’s developed rapidly in the past five years and has become really sophisticated,’ says Bowles. ’You can now print on pretty much everything, from silk and organza to canvas.’

Glasgow design studio Timorous Beasties has also experimented with digital printing techniques. ’I’m very excited about digital print at the moment,’ says Timorous Beasties founder Paul Simmons. ’For years, it’s always looked like a bad photography transfer, and it was only possible to print on quite bad-quality fabrics.’

The emergence of printers offering a one-stop shop of print, textile treatment and steam washing has driven development, agrees Simmons. ’They’re achieving amazing detail and colour.’

There are still processes that digital can’t compete on, such as printing with opaque inks, varnishes or metallics, Simmons points out. However, one of the main problems is the over-exuberance with which it is embraced.

’It’s a bit like when Photoshop first came out and graphic designers got hold of it -it was all about crazy, over-the-top graphics,’ says Simmons. ’That’s the problem with some of the possibilities – they’re quite endless, and sometimes too much choice is a bad thing.’

’Everything has gone madly psychedelic, and everyone is overexcited – it will be interesting to see whether it will calm down next season,’ agrees Bowles. ’I prefer more emotional, durable design with digital printing. For example, if you have a favourite vintage garment you can scan it and print something on top of it – it can have more meaning when it’s used that way.’

For Alice Mara, using digital print is about the concept driving an object. The ceramicist has been experimenting with it for 15 years. She started with a time-intensive screen-print transfer method, but during her ceramics MA at London’s Royal College of Art, she experimented with a Xerox print process that printed ceramic pigment on to decals, allowing her to kiln-fire an image into a glazed surface.

’It’s a very nice way to work because everything is possible,’ says Mara. ’For me it’s about the concept behind the piece.’ Her work is on show in London at the Original Print Fair later this month, and alongside her late father Tim Mara’s work at the Eagle Gallery in London’s Farringdon in May. It includes urns, vases and other ceramics that use digital prints to add to their three-dimensional attraction, and Mara is currently experimenting with adding texture and surface decoration.

For large print runs, digital printing is usually prohibitively expensive, but Timorous Beasties’ Simmons enjoys the element of exclusivity and customisation that it offers. The studio’s digitally printed cushions for Liberty in London – in 20 different designs with different front and back motifs – have been flying out of the door, he says. ’We’re on our third run and have printed 200m in length already.’

Hurtwood Press, meanwhile, has used digital printing for its fine art books for some time, and its founder Francis Atterbury is amazed that some still assume digital printing offers low quality only. ’Cheap and cheerful it’s absolutely not,’ he says. ’It’s really up to the people who are working in that field to have an understanding and decide whether they can make processes work. The trick with technology is to apply your own standards to it. Technology is fantastic and should be employed, providing it maintains or improves standards.’

Atterbury appreciates the ’fantastically lively colour’ digital printing can achieve, especially on uncoated paper. ’The pigments seem to be pure,’ he says. ’But what distinguishes our work is the quality of paper and the quality of the binding.’

Hurtwood Press’s Monet book won The Financial Times Exhibition Catalogue Award last year. ’Nobody asked if it was printed digitally,’ says Atterbury. ’If you start by saying it’s digital everyone is going to imagine that it’s not very good.’

In the past, too many manufacturers saw digital as a way of reissuing an out-of-print design – used more as an afterthought or a back-up of traditional printing, Simmons says. ’Now that the quality is there, people are going to start using digital for digital’s sake.’

London Original Print Fair is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1 from 29 April to 3 May

Digital textile print bureaux
Listed in Digital Textile Design by Melanie Bowles and Ceri Isaacs

Artisan Colour Separation – 01625 869 859
CAD Works UK, Bury – www.cadworksuk.co.uk
Cameron Gilmartin, London – www.camerongilmartin.co.uk
Centre for Advanced Textiles – www.catdigital.co.uk
Cloth – www.clothuk.com
Colplan Engineering – 01706 655 899
Digitex – www.digitex.com
Digital Fashion Print – London College of Fashion, www.fashion.arts.ac.uk
Direct Textile Imaging – 01706 656 070
Elanbach – www.elanbach.com
Fab Pad – www.fabricprint.co.uk
Forest Digital – www.forestdigital.co.uk
RA Smart – www.rasmart.co.uk
The Silk Bureau – www.silkbureau.co.uk

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