What Does Giclée Mean, Exactly?

Photography Essentials

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The term “giclée,” (prounounced zhee·klay) often heard in art circles, can be both misunderstood and controversial. Derived from the French verb “to spray,” it refers to a specific type of art print, one that surpasses ordinary inkjet prints in quality and significance.

Originating in the early 1990s with the advent of digital inkjet printing, “giclée” marked a departure from traditional screen (serigraphy) and offset (lithography) printing methods in art reproduction. This transition wasn’t smooth, as early inkjet prints were plagued by quality issues—poor color accuracy, loss of detail, and a tendency for colors to fade or shift prematurely. Such shortcomings, combined with skepticism towards digital printing, cast doubts on the value of inkjet-produced artworks.

Initially, high-quality art prints were rare, with Iris printers (by Scitex) leading the way. Soon, other brands like Epson joined, elevating the quality and reliability of these prints. Today, brands such as Canon, Roland, and HP also produce excellent giclée prints, contingent on the use of suitable inks and media.

The introduction of “giclée” was meant to distinguish these superior inkjet prints, characterized by their archival qualities and desirability among artists and collectors. However, it’s crucial to note that while all giclée prints are inkjet, not all inkjet prints qualify as giclée. In the realm of fine art and photography, “giclée” implies adherence to archival standards in both materials and methods.

The distinction is also evident in the equipment used. A $200 consumer-grade inkjet printer falls short in producing true giclée prints, mainly due to issues with permanence. In contrast, giclée prints, conforming to archival standards, can remain unchanged for a century or more, while lower-quality prints deteriorate much faster.

Commonly, giclée refers to canvas prints, often hand-embellished to replicate original artworks closely. However, technically, any print meeting archival standards, regardless of the substrate, can be considered a giclée. This includes fine prints on archival watercolor paper, though this usage is less frequent.

For artists, photographers, collectors, and art specifiers, understanding the nuances of giclée is crucial. When ordering or purchasing giclée prints, it’s essential to inquire about the printing process and materials to ensure they meet archival standards. The label “giclée” carries an expectation of longevity, and its price should reflect the quality and durability of the print.

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