Inkjet Printed Wall Murals Communicate and Create Ambience

Printing wallpaper with an inkjet printerUnlike signs and other forms of commercial advertising, museum exhibit graphics serve various functions beyond simple promotion and must work on multiple levels to be effective… They support the purpose of the exhibit, communicate its message, create an environment consistent with the subject and draw people in to take a closer look.

Take, for instance, two wall murals San Francisco-based The Blow Up Lab printed for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s summer exhibition of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which runs through Sept. 6 at the museum.

One mural is a reproduction of a pattern that would serve as a wallpaper-like background, while the other is an 8 ft. x 12 ft. reproduction of a photograph taken of Stein in the 1930s. The Blow Up Lab was responsible for not just simply reproducing images, but ensuring that they coalesced and conformed with the exhibit to create a cohesive whole.

Printing wall murals for exhibits with a large format inkjet printer“With the photo reproduction, Gertrude Stein was in the center with the door behind her. Off to the right, from the viewer’s perspective, the image faded out and was very distracting. We spent some time working on the detail and where we couldn’t get details where it was blown out, we cloned in details,” explains Frank McGrath, owner of The Blow Up Lab. “We basically reconstructed the picture. We lightened the center and did a vignette in that area so that your eye would not be distracted to the side, but focused on the subject. The original photo was somewhere in the 2 MB range and it was a grayscale image, so we brought the resolution up in Genuine Fractals so that the print was as sharp as possible.”

Both murals were printed on LexJet Velvet WallPro SUV on The Blow Up Lab’s 72-inch Roland SOLJET low-solvent printer. The wallpaper mural was a different story. The image was in the multi-gigabyte range and spliced it into six sections. Each section was printed separately on WallPro and installed as a 9 ft. x 20 ft. background.

“The museum was very happy with the material. It’s low glare, totally scratch resistant, and was easy for our professional paper hangers to install. The color spectrum we’re able to get out of the combination of the WallPro and our printer is fantastic,” adds McGrath.

Relocation, Restoration and Revitalization at AW Artworks

Gallery studio profile of AW ArtworksIn real estate, the great cliché is location, location, location. AW Artworks realized that location, though an important part of growing its business, was only one element of many that would help take this fledgling print shop to the next level.

“We were kind of stuck in a warehouse-type location that didn’t have much exposure,” says AW Artworks owner Andy Wredberg. “We wanted to get into an area that was more visible so we could make full use of our printers’ capabilities.”

Wredberg found the perfect spot on Main Street in Sun Prairie, Wis., which is about five miles outside of Madison. The catch was that the building needed work. Built in 1899 and home to the town’s first bank in the early 1900s, the building hadn’t been occupied for years.

Renovating an old building for a fine art reproduction studioSo Wredberg and his family set to work on the place on New Year’s Eve. It was tough work, but worth uncovering the gems they found, like the original marble tile that adorned the place more than 100 years ago. What was a relocation turned into a restoration and ultimately a revitalization of AW Artworks as the company moved from mostly wholesale canvas printing to custom, high-quality work.

“We want to set ourselves apart from the big quick stores. We will not be the least expensive, but we offer personal service and quality,” explains Wredberg. “I read the article at the LexJet Blog about The Blow Up Lab in San Francisco and it really struck a chord with me. They really stuck to their guns about not compromising quality for quantity – and that’s our desire as well.”

Large format canvas photo in a fitness centerIn a highly competitive field where almost everyone has the ability to shoot nice digital photos and have them printed on 8x10s at a big box retailer, the key is differentiation. As Wredberg puts it, they can make prints that are super-big and a variety of materials and finishes you simply can’t get elsewhere.

It’s one thing to tell a customer they have options, but quite another to show them, which is why Wredberg put LexJet’s sample Portfolio Packs of fine art and photo papers to good use in a Unibind photo album.

All the papers are printed in color and black-and-white so customers can see the subtle differences that make a difference in the final image and choose something custom, as opposed to the usual glossy and matte finishes they’re used to seeing.

Using Canon’s media configuration tool (AW Artworks has a Canon iPF8100 and an iPF8300) along with the profiles from LexJet has made it “super easy,” says Wredberg. “I just worked with Rob [Finkel, his personal customer specialist] last week on getting the profiles set up. One of the things I love about LexJet are the readily available profiles and the profiles have been excellent, plus it’s usually a one-day turnaround on materials from LexJet so that’s been fantastic,” adds Wredberg.

He says the most popular photo paper with his customers by far has been LexJet’s Sunset Photo eSatin. “It’s beautiful, durable and resistant to fingerprints,” Wredberg says.

Wredberg is working on the final restoration of the building for a grand opening in a few weeks. Right now the studio is available for work by appointment, but after the grand opening it will double as a gallery of local work and be completely open to walk-in traffic.

Inkjet Quality over Quantity at The Blow Up Lab

The Blow Up Lab is not McDonald’s. After more than 30 years in business, owner Frank McGrath decided early on that he would not offer a pre-packaged commodity for the masses. Instead, he would provide a custom service that would meet the detailed needs of a demanding client base, one that varies from photographers and artists to corporate accounts.

Frank McGrath Blow Up LabWhile the foundation of The Blow Up Lab’s success is individual customer service, McGrath has also made smart moves with technology and finances. He was one of the first traditional photo labs in San Francisco to make the move to inkjet while taking a conservative, pay-as-you-go approach to it.

“We’re solid, we take care of business, we take care of our customers and we’re really good with our suppliers. We never ask for terms and pay our credit cards on time. It proves that you can be fairly small, compete with larger companies and have a profitable niche market,” explains McGrath. “We’re not cheap. Everyone is so price-conscious these days, and to be able to offer a quality product with really good service and turnaround times at a decent price, you have to do old-fashioned things, like stay late if the customer needs you to do that. It’s so corporate now that it’s hard to manufacture that concept into your company mission statement. You can have as many mission statements as you want, but if you have new employees every two months or so, for instance, it doesn’t matter.”

Canon Inkjet Printer at the Blow Up LabThese principles were instrumental in helping The Blow Up Lab come out of the recent recession with a small profit during a time when flat was the new up. “People are always looking for the cash cow; the client they can milk that won’t give them a lot of trouble. We have found that if you can listen to the picky clients, work with them every inch of the way, let them know they’re a valuable client and come through for them, you may not deal with them again, but six months later you get a reference, you’re networked and a whole new avenue opens up,” says McGrath.

Ultimately, McGrath found a service gap and exploited it. “There were a lot of photographers and artists who needed TLC and quality. We were able to create that niche, and now we’re in the black, all the bills are paid and we’re growing,” he says. “Our solution was to become more or less boutique oriented. We’re really good at working with super high quality and understand the concept, but also about speed and making deadlines. We went where most of our competitors couldn’t believe where we were going, which was working with artists and picky professionals.”

Chemical to Inkjet
The third leg of The Blow Up Lab’s stool – technology – began to come to fruition in the early ‘90s with the advent of viable inkjet printers for photo reproductions and graphics. McGrath worked closely with the two forerunners of the time – Encad and HP – and brought inkjet in-house. The switch was relatively sudden since McGrath was certain inkjet was the future. McGrath says the total transition took about ten years. Then around 2000 everything went inkjet at The Blowup Lab.

“Inkjet technology was in its infant stages in the ‘90s, but look how far it has come. The prints I’m doing now will last substantially longer than the traditional chemical based photo printing we were doing. In the old days, if your processor went down you were in a lot of trouble,” says McGrath. “Early on I decided to follow the money; manufacturers were pouring a lot of capital into the technology so I knew that if we stuck with inkjet it would be a winner. In hindsight it seems totally bloody obvious, but at the time it seemed like a radical departure and people were surprised we did it. We were able to lower our labor costs and the productivity per employee went up substantially. Now we were just putting something on a scanner, scanning it and putting it in Photoshop. We rode that wave in.”

McGrath has been working with Photoshop since its inception and has mastered the fine art of color management to serve those artists and picky professionals that make up the bulk of his clients. The key is in the interface between software and hardware; The Blow Up Lab creates custom profiles for almost every project, ensuring a color workflow that is both consistent and designed for the client.

The Blow Up Lab’s printer stable now includes a 64-inch wide Epson Stylus Pro 11880, a 72-inch Roland low-solvent, two Canon iPF8100s and an Epson 4900. McGrath estimates that the split between fine art and fine photo and commercial work is about 50/50.

“We do a lot of canvas and vinyl printing and our work often blends classic fine art reproduction with projects that are more institutional, such as some huge murals we printed for Pixar and museum projects” McGrath says.