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Wednesday | 19 November, 2014 | 10:47 am

Photorealism

By Corinna Petry

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Another type of ‘3-D’ printing has viewers gasping ‘wow’

November 2014 - Just when you might believe all possible applications for metal have been exploited, another one comes along.

ChromaLuxe, based in Louisville, Kentucky, developed a proprietary sublimation process to put a thin coating on aluminum sheet that allows for heat transferred printing, making photographic prints luminescent, durable, fade resistant and longer lasting than any other archival print process.

Initially developed 18 years ago, the process has gained much wider acceptance in recent years among professional and commercial photographers and artists, galleries and museums.

Tropical Wow in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, uses this technology to produce high-definition metal prints that have a three-dimensional appearance on a flawless surface. Tropical Wow’s founder, metals industry veteran and art photographer Michael Persky, specializes in capturing and printing images of nature, wildlife and seascapes.

The difference from printing on canvas or paper is in the exquisite detail that comes to life in each image. Consumers first love the depth and detail, along with the luminescent quality, according to Persky. Secondly, they appreciate the metal prints’ durability and longevity. 

“You can put a torch to this, wipe it off and it won’t be affected,” he says.

For Persky, Tropical Wow combines his particular talents: He has spent 30 years buying, selling and trading metal coil and sheet products. He earned a degree in science related to botany/horticulture and grows exotic tropical flowering plants and trees. 

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Metal print technology

There are a couple methods for printing on metals, says Tobe Hall, director North American sales for ChromaLuxe. “One uses a big flatbed printer to print right onto the surface of the metal with little or no surface preparation. Then there is a sublimation process, which we engineered [with] a dye-receptive coating.”

Sublimation infuses the dye into the body of the coating. The pigment is neither on the surface of the metal or on the surface of the coating, so that nearly impervious layer makes the print scratch-, corrosion- and UV ray-resistant.

Photographers like Persky have the blank coated sheet with images printed in reverse onto a special transfer paper and then, with a heat press, press the paper into the coating at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat causes the inks to transfer from the paper into the coating in the form of a gas. Pores in the coating open to receive the gas and when the heat is removed, the gas cools and the pores close, trapping the dyes in place, Persky explains.

Because the coating is tough, “it is extremely difficult to damage the print.” And, because the image is in effect suspended between layers of coating and the metal surface, “a lightbox effect is obtained, giving the pigment great luminescence,” he says.

ChromaLuxe, which supplies the top 20 to 25 photo printing laboratories in the United States with the material, typically buys 48-inch-wide aluminum coils from rolling mills, has the mills pre-treat the coils with a primer, then apply the proprietary coating. The mills then cut the coils into sheet blanks and ship them to ChromaLuxe, according to Hall

He declined to indicate how many pounds of aluminum ChromaLuxe consumes per year, but notes that the company also supplies the product to customers throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa as well as North America.

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Testing for outdoor use

One immediately wonders why this technology has not replaced every glossy paper billboard throughout America.

“It isn’t used in outdoor advertising because you cannot put it in direct sunlight,” says Persky. “Keep in mind that billboards would require a lot of aluminum panels,” and due to the nature of both the coating and printing processes, cannot be very cost effective against conventional materials.

Hall says ChromaLuxe “has been working for 15 years on a process that won’t fade in sunlight but UV is hostile to any coating.”

Yet, tests show that even when exposed to some indirect exterior and interior UV rays, the archival value of metal prints is 2.5 to three times the rate of archival paper. “If paper lasts 50 years, ChromaLuxe panels last 100 years or more,” Hall says. MM

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