Giclees prints are art prints made using an inkjet printer from a file on a computer.
A giclee is an art print first and foremost and that implies a very high quality print that people would want to pay money to own. A giclee is always an inkjet print and there is no clear line that separates a giclee print from a regular inkjet print but there should still be a noticeable difference in quality between even a poor quality giclee and a regular inkjet print.
Firstly the paper it is printed on. Giclee prints are usually printed on high quality art paper. Acid free papers such as Cotton rag papers are frequently used in part because these papers enhance the print but they also contribute to it’s longevity. Secondly the inks used in the printer must be water based or aqueous and the colors must be made of pigment and not dye. This makes prints that are archival so that they last many years without fading. These prints are collectable so buyers will always be concerned about the paper darkening or the inks fading. The quality of the printer that the giclee is printed on is very important. Professional inkjet printing machines have higher resolution and a much larger number of inks. So professional machines will have up to 12 inks instead of the basic 4 colors—cyan, magenta, yellow and black—found on most consumer inkjet printers. This allows for a much greater range and depth of colors, better blacks and shadow detail as well a smoother gradations between colors. Giclee prints are currently the best type of print available for making exhibition quality prints of photographs or digital art.
Giclee prints are intended to be art prints and are collectable, therefore it is important that they are archival. Independent testing has shown that in some cases the prints can last up to two hundred years but this will vary widely by the choice of paper and the inks used as well as the conditions under which the prints are stored. Direct sunlight will fade any artwork so they must be displayed away from windows and if being stored they should be kept in darkness such as in a folio or flat file. Paper should be acid free or it will slowly darken over time and eventually break down into a powder. Handling is very important as the surface of the prints are very delicate. To be kept in pristine condition giclee prints shouldn’t be touched with bare hands and care should be taken not to touch or rub the surface even with gloved hands. For further tips on handling the papers and prints see these reccomendations from paper manufacturers Canson Infinity or these from Hahnemuehle.
There are several persistent myths about giclee prints that it is useful to know.
The oldest is that a giclee print can only be an Iris print. The Iris printer was the first inkjet printer used for art prints but hasn’t been in production for over 20 years. So to consider only Iris prints as giclee prints would be to discount much of the wonderful work done this century and that would include almost all giclee prints currently existing.
The second myth is that a giclee print can only be a canvas art print. While there is no definitive limit to the materials that a giclee print can be made on it they do have to use aqueous inks and they should be archival. This tends to limit giclees to only being paper or canvas prints.
Lastly in the art world it is sometimes argued that a giclee is only a form of reproduction never original art in itself. This is pure snobbery. The very definition of a print is that it is reproducible whether it’s a photograph or a wood-cut, but the term ‘reproduction’ is deliberately derogatory and implies a cheap knock-off. Creating editions by signing and numbering a limited quantity of prints is the accepted way to preserve the integrity of all fine art prints. Editioning in this way brings giclee prints within the canon of an artist’s accepted and unchallenged works so that collector can be assured of a prints’ authenticity
While inkjet printing has been around since the 1950’s it’s been only since the 1990’s that inkjet started to be used for proofing commercial printing jobs. From there photographers and later artists began to use the same type of machine—the Iris 3047—to print their work directly from computers. Most famously by Nash Editions who founded the first fine art digital printing studio in California in 1991 and who also coined the term ‘giclee’. They were the first to use the Iris and did so exclusively until they switched over to Epsons in 2003.
These Iris prints were beautiful but the printers were expensive and had dye based inks that faded quickly. So when Epson introduced their first pigment based inkjet printer in 2000 the Epson SP9500 they were quickly taken up—even though the quality was initially inferior—because the prints would last much longer. Soon traditional fine art paper manufacturers such as Hahnemüehle began making digital versions of their fine art lithography, etching or screen printing papers which were repurposed for use in inkjet printers.
Subsequent rapid improvements in desktop publishing software, printer resolution, printer inks, hardware calibration, and paper testing combined to create a new field of photographic and fine art printing that someone called Jack Duganne chose to give a name to. That name “giclee printing” has entered the lexicon and it has come to mean exhibition quality digital printing in the traditions inherited from both fine art printing and photographic printing. To photographers giclee printing offers a wider range of substrates on which to make prints than silver based photography ever could. It also offers a method of printing that exceeds the quality and longevity of all the photographic processes that had gone before. To fine artists it offers a way to get a high quality two dimensional render output from a computer with a high degree of color accuracy and almost continuous tone. It also offers an inexpensive way to make high quality reproductions of traditional art works such as paintings and drawings done by hand.
Giclee printing has completely transformed the photographic industry erasing the silver based ‘labs’ that were ubiquitous in the 20th century. It has opened up a new world of digital art making to artists allowing fine art digital prints—giclee prints—to be created and sold to a collecting public.
Giclee prints can also called Archival Pigment Prints, Pigment Prints, Large Format Prints or sometimes just Digital prints. It’s a new technology the world hasn’t completely settled on a name for them yet.