The Fine Art Giclee

The word Giclée (“g-clay”), is derived from the French verb gicler meaning “to squirt or spray”.  In 1991 Jack Duganne of Nash Editions coined the word to describe the new at the time process of creating fine art prints using an inkjet printer.  At that time, the notion of using a computer and inkjet printer to create art was something the art community wasn’t ready to embrace.  Fast forward 20+ years and things are a little different.  In fact, with the acceptance of digital printing, many people now refer to Giclée prints as pigment ink prints.  Whatever term you choose to use, the fact is that this form of printing is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  And the reality is that it provides the finest quality reproduction printing in the world.  By combining archival inks and museum grade paper or canvas we can now produce rich vibrant prints that will stand the test of time.

There are of course other popular methods of printing available in this day and age.  Some people prefer a traditional chromogenic (wet process) photographic print.  Others like the extreme saturated colours of dye sublimination transfers onto aluminum plates.  However, one thing is certain.  Of all the processes available, the pigment ink print offers the most number of surfaces, probably the longest life and is readily available at reasonable prices.  These days all the processes are tested thoroughly and the science predicts lifespans of 30 years or more for wet prints or as much as 75-150 years for pigment ink prints!  The two types that will not have long lives are the sublimination prints on aluminum due to their dye based colours (Which is a shame since they are spectacular) and of course most 4 colour lithographs.  But the fact is that we won’t know if the science is right until the real years go by.  However, the short life span of some of the technologies does remove them from what most consider a fine art print.

A Fine Art Print

So what makes the pigment ink print a fine art print and not just a print?  Well in the world of pigment ink prints it is a combination of things.  Unfortunately there are actually no rules that can be quickly applied to determine if the print is a fine art print.  In the case of the prints I produce for myself and my clients, I choose to use Epson printers which are among the best of the printers available.  But selecting a top quality printer is not the end of the story.  The bottom line is that to make a museum worthy print will require a great printer, quality archival inks, the best papers or canvas and careful colour management.

Pigment Ink Printers

Although they can be thought of as inkjet printers, the printers used to make fine art prints have some significant improvements over a standard inkjet.  First, they will have more colour inks in them.  Currently, the most popular printers will have either 8 or 12 inks in them.  The increased number of inks allow a much larger number of colours to be mixed which allows for tremendously smooth gradients and bold bright colours.  For B&W aficionados, there are even special carbon inks that produce probably the finest B&W prints ever made.  Printers from Epson, HP and Canon dominate the market for art printing at this time.

About The Ink

Pigment inks contain solid physical particles which are deposited on the surface of the paper or canvas.  These particles are as lightfast as current technology can make them.  The pigment of course needs to be acid free.  Since pigments are actually finely ground powders, they require some form of liquid carrier to suspend them while they are waiting to be deposited onto the paper or canvas.  Each manufacturer has their own secret sauce they use as a carrier, but in each case they use a material that is completely neutral to the printing process.  The carrier must be able to off gas out of the print leaving behind no trace.  Generally the inks made by the printer manufacturer are the best to use in their respective printers.  However, there are some specialty inks available that are from third parties that can be even better than the manufacturers.  Rest assured though that these are not the cheap junk inks that are used to refill desktop inkjets.  The best inks are so costly that if their price per gallon was calculated, it would be in the $1000 per gallon range.

Print Media

The papers used to make a fine art print are universal in their need to be acid free.  If the paper or canvas is not completely acid free, it will cause colour shifting and fading.  Sadly, nearly no media is acid free.  The closest materials to being acid free are cotton rag papers and cotton canvases.  When making a fine art print, the media must be carefully selected.  Professional grade media from reputable makers such as Hahnemuhle, Epson, Canson and others will be the most commonly used.  It should also be noted that fine art prints should not contain compounds which make the paper a brighter white than a natural warm tone.  Bright white papers contain optical brightening agents known as OBA’s.  OBAs are a class of chemicals added to paper to make it appear “whiter” to your eye. These brighteners work by absorbing UV light and re-emitting light in the blue region. OBAs breakdown over time and allow the true, more natural shade of paper to emerge – thus yellowing will occur.  Interestingly, OBA breakdown does not affect the life of an inkjet print. However, the changing shade of the base paper will become more noticable over time and cause colour shifts in the print.

Colour Management

The final piece of the puzzle is the management of colours.  Every printer will produce a slightly different result if compared to another.  In fact two printers off the same assembly line at the same time will produce a slightly different result.  They will be close, but not quite the same.  Couple this fact with the knowledge that each type of paper or canvas will react differently to the ink used in differing printers and a big problem develops.  It is necessary for each printer and paper to be calibrated to one another.  To do this, the printer will produce a series of coloured targets on the paper that are measured by a photospectrometer to see how close they are to the theoretical colour values of each target.  Software then evaluates the resulting colour shifts and produces a profile that is used for the printer and paper combination being tested.  These are generally known as profiles.  In order to produce repeatable and correct colours in a print, profiles are a must.  Without them, prints could be awful at times, acceptable at others or even different each time an image is printed.  When selecting a company to do printing, the artist or photographer needs to have a copy of these profiles so that they can soft proof their images on the PC.  This will help ensure the most accurate print is made.

To be honest, this is a gross over simplification of the fine art printing process.  From the side of the printing company the work is constant and frustrating.  From the artist or photographer’s side of things though they have to select their printing company carefully and work hand in hand with them to generate a beautiful print that is worthy of exhibition in any gallery.  A print that sings to the rafters and will stand the test of time.

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