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  • Writer's pictureJustin Key

Peeling Back The Acrylic

So you’re curious about my preferred display options? Makes sense. If you’re considering investing in a new piece of fine art, you want to know the ins and outs of the work that will be hanging on your wall and verify that the money you’re prepared to spend will deliver you a product of value. Well, as happy as I am to brag about the quality of the work I ship out, I’m just as happy to break down the details that will make your new artwork a generational heirloom. 

A black and white abstract photo hanging in a room.

For seven years, I worked for one of the premiere fine art labs in the country where I received a hands-on education for the various display options available to photographers. Not only was I able to determine the optimal presentation for my work, but their quality expectations, attention to detail, and hands on approach set the standard for which I still produce my art today. My behind the scenes training gave me the knowledge to partner with a lab that uses the best materials, refuses to cut corners, and demands perfection to deliver you a work of art as fine as the photograph itself. 

I scoured the country to find such a facility and eventually whittled the field down to three that checked all of my boxes. It was an arduous process but ultimately I found a lab that I’ve been able to trust and build a strong partnership with. 

So what are these boxes I sought to check and why do they matter? That’s what you’re here to find out. These checkboxes are the difference between a piece that will work and a piece that will last, a piece that will say something and a piece that will sing. So take your seats and allow me to introduce the next performer set to steal the spotlight in your personal gallery.

The number one requirement my production lab needed to meet was offering acrylic prints. Having studied the various, wall ready presentations available for photographers, acrylic is the gold standard in my opinion. It’s sharper and smoother than canvas, sleeker and more durable than wood, and higher quality than metal. It is the pinnacle for frameless, ready to hang wall mounts.

This was fairly easy as acrylic has become a common material in the printing industry. Most labs now offer acrylic prints but where some fall short is with the size options they offer. Some labs only offer fixed sizes or limit how large they will print. Not only did I need a lab that could produce large scale pieces but they also had to offer custom sizes as well. My work does not always fall within a standard ratio and I don’t want to restrict my options if a very specific need arises. This surprisingly placed a lot of labs directly into the no pile. 

But maybe you’re not interested in the frameless display. It’s hard to beat the classic framed look with traditional matting and all the customizable options available these days. I agree with you and am currently sitting in a room with two framed sand dune photos hanging on the wall as I write this. Do they look great? Absolutely! With a white printed mat and timeless black frame the photos are singing like MJ and Freddy in a heavenly duet we’ll unfortunately never get to hear. If this is the type of performance you’re looking for I’ll save you some reading and recommend ordering a fine art print. I will just as gladly send you a rolled, fine art print on my preferred Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta paper as a finished acrylic mount if that is the ticket for you. Your local framer can offer more options to tailor the final piece to your design needs than I can so I’ve chosen to leave that to those experts. 

This actually leads me to my next requirement, face mounted acrylic. Technology has improved and, while it has made life better in many ways, it has made things easier but easy has its drawbacks. Direct printing is a cost effective method for producing acrylic mounts but as the saying goes, and this will be a theme throughout, you get what you pay for. Much like the metal prints I mentioned earlier, there simply is no comparing the quality difference between an infused or direct printed photograph and a fine art paper print. 

The face mount utilizes an inkjet print which provides perfect color accuracy and higher resolution for the photo. The smooth paper creates a fluid finish when mounted, sealing the fine art print to protect it from physical and UV damage. Using a paper print also allows me to hand sign and edition each piece personally. This gives me an opportunity to inspect each print before it’s mounted and this stamp of approval gets sealed securely behind the acrylic with the print. For more on the importance of signing my prints and the lengths I go through to do so please read my “From Seattle With Love” article.

So we have a fine art print mounted to acrylic, now we can get into the little details that make a big difference. Let’s start with the face and work our way back. The finish of the face acrylic can play a huge role in the display. Factors like the specific photograph and its hanging location matter with this decision and having options to ensure every photo can sing from any placement on the wall was a must. 

White Sand

High gloss is the standard for most acrylic and metal prints these days and is great for photographs with plenty of fine details and color. That glass-like sheen makes details sparkle and colors burst off the wall but can also result in glares and reflections that can diminish the impact of the piece. Fortunately, photos with plenty of details can break through the glares and reflections without taking away from the overall presentation but what if the photo is more minimal like say #10 from the Sands Study here.

Non glare acrylic is not a staple like its high gloss relative. It’s often a more expensive option and isn’t carried by every lab. Having built an entire series around the smooth, simple hills of the sand dunes, I needed a lab that offered it. The non glare acrylic reduces glares and reflections to minimize distractions that windows and other light sources can create. When you have a more minimal photograph, the slightest disruption can greatly reduce the impact of the piece. The non glare acrylic helps combat those effects and allows the photograph to sing from any placement in the home. 

Compared to the high gloss, the non glare does flatten the image a small amount. I find the effect pairs perfectly with photos from my Sands Study but may not pair as well as the high gloss for certain photos in my Landscape Gallery like “Something Good Coming” for instance. The final decision is ultimately yours to make but having the flexibility to offer both was a must. 

Mangroves growing in the sand beside green water.

So face, check. Onto the back and you may be wondering why that would even matter. Once the piece is on the wall you’re only going to see the face and occasionally the edge which I’ll cover in a bit. The back, however, does play a major role especially in the long term health of the piece. For starters it protects the backside of the print from damage which can affect the face. It also provides a more secure way to adhere the backer frame than applying it directly to the print. But the primary responsibility of the backer material is to keep the piece straight. 

Once on the wall, the acrylic will start to fight against its vertical positioning and attempt to pull away from it. The backer material needs to be as strong or stronger than the acrylic to help maintain its rigidity long term. Plastic materials are the cost effective option, or the Covid option if you’re building a festival display in the height of the pandemic. I currently have a few pieces in my festival booth that used a plastic backer out of necessity and they have not held up as well as ones with a proper backer material. Acrylic is stronger and heavier than the plastic backer and thus makes it prone to warping over time. This may not matter as much on a small piece, but on larger ones, not only do you have more weight to counterbalance, but you’re more likely to notice any distortion that occurs. 

A photograph of sand dunes hanging in a living room.

Dibond is the current backer material I use. It is an aluminum, plastic composite that equates to the strength of the acrylic and thus helps keep it straight. The material is not as cheap as the plastic option but to prevent your favorite photograph from sagging over time, the added cost was a must have. 

Behind that backer material is the backer frame, and this plays a similar role. The cost effective materials include wood and plastic or even aluminum in a sidebar fashion. In my search, I sought a company that included a complete aluminum backer frame and this helped narrow the field dramatically. As with the backer material, the backer frame prevents the piece from warping over time. The inset, full aluminum backer frame adds rigidity to support the backer material while floating the piece off the wall and providing a secure support from which to hang the piece. This element, while hidden, plays a vital role in preserving the value of your investment. 

As I mentioned, the aluminum backer frame is how the piece hangs on the wall. If you’re like me you’ve struggled with wire hangers that don’t always land on the wall as you expect, can cause the art to lean, and can be a pain to get and keep level. When your acrylic print arrives at your door it will include a strip of aluminum z-bar and all the hardware you need to hang the piece with ease. The z-bar provides a lip on which the backer frame can rest and remain flush against the wall, its position on the piece is easy to calculate, guaranteeing placement accuracy, and the simplicity of leveling not only makes it a cinch to hang but will ensure the piece remains level throughout its lifetime. 

A landscape photograph hanging above a couch.

The final detail that gets baked into the finished piece is the edge finishing. This is a small detail that ultimately doesn’t make the biggest difference if you’re viewing the art from a proper distance, but providing a smooth, flush finished edge will make the piece look sharp up close. Options of a polished or satin finish are available to accent the face material. This small detail ultimately plays a minor role in the final presentation but having a lab that pays this kind of attention to the edges says a lot about their quality standards and commitment to providing a complete, high end product.

Now that your new work of art has been finished, it’s time to ship. This became the deciding factor for me after narrowing my search down to the final three labs. In my time working at my previous lab, I helped with the construction of our wooden crates and packaging of pieces for shipping. Again I got to see the attention to detail required to provide a quality product from start to finish so for me this check box was as much about aesthetics as it was about protection. Not only do I want to ensure that each order arrives in pristine condition but I want the quality of the packaging to match the quality of the contents within.

While smaller pieces will be shipped in cardboard boxes, larger ones are packed into custom built wooden crates and they all ship fully insured with a damage free guarantee. If you’ve been waiting weeks in anticipation for your new piece to arrive, the last thing you want to see on your door is a mangled box of disappointment. While some things remain out of our control, partnering with a lab with a 99.9% success rate will diminish the chance of a remake while guaranteeing that they will make it right should those bad day stars ever align.

So you have your piece, you hung it on your wall, and now you get to enjoy it for years to come. This is where I’d like to mention the final check box on my list that might have been the most important of them all. I’ve touched on the quality of materials used to produce the piece, but not on the quality of the hands that built it. Having worked in a production house I’ve seen first hand the imperfections that can occur at various stages of the process. Minor flaws in the acrylic, dust specks in the laminate, and blemishes in the print can and do happen on occasion. Oftentimes these imperfections can go unnoticed by those outside of the industry and there are plenty of companies relying on that fact that will ship work out with the intent of remaking the piece if the flaws are discovered by the customer. Not me.

Artwork hanging in a room.

The lab I was searching for and ultimately partnered with doesn’t pass quality control onto the customer. They inspect every inch of the piece up close to ensure perfection before it leaves their facility, giving you the piece of mind that if it arrives at your door it is ready to go on the wall for a lifetime. They absorb the responsibility of producing perfection and have put emphasis on their processes to prevent flaws from occurring. But when they do, a lab willing to eat the cost instead of risking customer disappointment can put both of our minds at ease that your wait will be worth it. 

Like I said, you get what you pay for and I hope this explanation has helped you understand the value I expect my work to provide for those willing to invest in it. Acrylic prints are not a cheap product to produce and plenty of companies have found corners to cut in an effort to make them more affordable. I like my corners and my edges sharp and have partnered with a production lab that meets my expectations and will hopefully exceed yours. I hope this article was able to answer your questions and relieve any reservations you might have had. If you still have questions or need more information you can call or email me and I will gladly provide what you’re looking for.

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