What is a giclée print: giclée vs litograph print

Updated: 2021-06-06

The giclée (pronounced /dʒiːˈkleɪ/ or zhee-clay) is a type of digital fine-art inkjet print, which is usually a reproduction of a work of art originally created in a traditional medium, for example, painting, drawing, etc. The production of fine art prints was traditionally handled by conventional four-color offset lithography before digital printing made it possible. Since the 1990s, giclée printing has taken that role and we are now making prints that correspond closely to the original.

The evolution of Giclée. How it all began

At the turn of the century, the digital printing pioneers were working hard to produce beautiful prints, but they needed a new name for the products they were producing and lacked a brand identity for them. The artists wanted to differentiate between their creative work and the pre-press prototypes that IRIS printers were turning out.

The color fastness of the prints made by IRIS was questionable at first, and after a few years, there were instances where the prints began to fade. There was also no way to accomplish a completely smooth transition of colors, which were so essential to the reproduction of artwork at all. After all, they served mainly as guides for making sure color matches when the mass production print run occurred.

The development of new technology changed all that. A wide variety of archival inks with fade-resistant properties has been used to increase the longevity of the printed images. As a result, printing technology has become so versatile that it has enabled the printing of a large variety of papers and media, which were previously unthinkable.

Today, giclee prints are taken on canvas, archival paper, watercolor paper, photo-base papers, even vinyl and clear acrylic. There has finally come a time when digital prints of paintings and other works of art are a common thing.

What does the word giclée mean?

It should be noted, however, that the words „computer“ and „digital“ still have a negative connotation in the art world. In order to avoid these „bad words“, the perfect term for the new art form was coined by Jack Duganne (1942 – 2020) of Nash Editions in California in 1991.

A scientist at the University of California, Davis, sought a generic word for the nozzle, and settled on (French) le gicleur. A related French word referring to the verb “to spray” was gicler. The feminine form was l’giclée, and that’s it. In the following years, giclee canvas print has become one of the most frequently used terms to indicate high quality art prints.

In the early 1990s however, the name giclee was to become more than merely a brand name used by artists. It soon became a term used to refer to any digitally produced fine-art print of high quality. A number of printers’ associations have attempted to set standards for the quality of the giclée prints. In some instances, the following requirements have been requested by the associations:

  • The Blue Wool Scale measures and calibrates the permanence of colouring dyes. The giclée print must be 6 or higher on the Blue Wool Scale
  • Limits for the pH of the substrate from 7 to 9
  • The substrate must weigh at least 250 gsm
  • The details such as the title of the work, the name of the artist, and the publisher and the year of publication must be included
  • The type of substrate, the type of ink, as well as the details of the equipment and production process must be included.

Giclée printing technology and methods

A giclée print is an individually produced high resolution, high quality reproduction of a digital artwork that is printed on specially designed large format printers using a digital image. In addition to being a digitalized image of a traditional piece of artwork, this file can also be digital art that has no real-life counterpart that is exhibited on a wall; that is, it is a work of digital art.

It should be noted that the technology used in giclée printing is far superior to the inkjet printer  technology used by the average desktop printer. A typical giclée printer now employs six or more colours, although you may see variations of the same colour, for example, regular cyan and light cyan. Six-colour (CcMmYK) printing model improves the reproduction print quality by increasing the prominence of the middle-tones. This makes the print appear crisper, richer and has a greater ability to convey subtle color differences.

Using pigment inks (not dye-based inks) ensures archival quality pigment based prints that are more lightfast. A pigment is unlike a dye, since it is not completely soluble in its base. In addition, pigment particles tend to be larger and less susceptible to environmental damage, and the image stability of pigment prints is therefore superior to its dye-based counterparts. The giclée printer has a large number of fine replaceable print-heads which ensures that it is possible to print on a very wide range of substrates with a wide color range (gamut).

Giclée printing delivers a higher degree of color accuracy than other techniques of reproduction because of the combination of precise color correction and expert scanning.

Giclée print vs offset litography. The advantages of giclée

There were actually a number of different techniques available before giclée was developed so that original artwork could be reproduced. There were several four-color offset lithographic processes that were most widely used; the most popular was photomechanical.

As both giclée prints and offset lithograph prints have made it possible for high art to be affordable to many buyers, who cannot pay for an original, they have extended the reach of high art into the home by making them affordable to many buyers.

Galleries accept both methods of reproduction as far as quality is concerned. Both methods result in quality prints that stand the test of time. But giclée prints do have a few advantages over litho prints. The advantages relate to the quality of prints, the ease of use, and the economics of the process.

Giclée equals high-quality prints

When offset litho printing is used, tiny dots in four colors are printed in varying sizes in order to deceive the eye into thinking it is seeing different colors.

In contrast, in the giclée printing process, as well as all other forms of inkjet printing, the ink spraying on the actual substrate actually manipulates the colors so you get a fine blend of colors with nearly continuous tone. Since the gamut (color range) of giclée is unlike that of lithography, giclée prints are highly prized by collectors for the quality and fidelity that they offer.

Giclée print requires very little effort

After an artwork has been scanned and archived digitally, the artist can custom print it when required (print on demand). This will require little effort on the part of the artist, and should be easy to do.

Also, this gives the artist total control and flexibility over all the aspects of printing – the size, media, and color tones. They even have the ability to own and operate the printer.

Directly printing from a digital file eliminates the need for intermediate negatives and plates, which are associated with litho printing and reduce the overall quality of the image.

In addition to this, archived files are less likely to deteriorate than slides or negatives.

Giclée printing is cost-effective

Alternatively to traditional offset lithography, giclée printing is a cost-effective solution. Although the cost of individual giclée printing ($10 – $50 based on the print size) is higher than with offset lithography (typically less that $10), with offset lithography you have to consider a minimum volume of around 1000 pcs, which makes the litho printing significantly more expensive. With the giclée prints, you produce individual artistic reproductions in a limited edition.

Litho prints have a much higher capital, marketing and storage cost, whereas giclée prints come in at much lower cost, as the artist can print and sell them according to demand, compared to lithography prints.

When you consider all of the above, you can say that giclée prints have been a godsend for both artists and galleries as well as fine art collectors alike.