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What Are Giclée Prints?

Original watercolour piece below a giclée print
An original watercolour piece below a giclée print. Artwork by Leanne Argent.

The first thing I am invariably asked by new print clients is how to pronounce the word “giclée” and the answer is: something like “zhee-clay.” The next question I am invariably asked is what makes a print a giclée print, and I will attempt to answer that question in this article.

To put it simply, giclée printing is a high-resolution, digital, photographic print process using pigment inks on archival paper. I’ll unpack this statement as we go on, but to start with I’ll point out that the term “giclée” is a neologism derived from the French verb gicler, meaning “to spray” and it’s something of an in-joke in the industry. This is because a giclée print is a print made with an inkjet printer, not too dissimilar to most home desktop printers but with a few key differences.

Giclée print on Canon Baryta semigloss paper
Detail of a giclée print on Canon Baryta semigloss paper. Artwork by Ian Hill.

The first, and most important, difference is the inks. Most home or office inkjet printers use dye-based inks, which means the colourant is fully dissolved in the liquid (usually water). Dye-based inks are cheaper but they fade faster and are not water-resistant. My Epson 7890 however, uses pigment-based inks where the colourant is actually a fine powder suspended in liquid. During the print process the pigment particles bond with the surface of the paper, resulting in an image that is more durable. Prints made with dye-based inks will often fade within a few months whereas prints made with Epson’s Ultrachrome K3 inks are fade resistant for up to 200 years – if properly framed, of course.

It is sometimes said that dye-based inks have a wider colour gamut (ie. they can make a wider range of colours) and while this may be true for a basic CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) ink set-up, the printers used to create giclée prints have 8 to 10 ink tanks, including various shades of grey and even orange and green,resulting in a much wider gamut and the capability to reproduce extraordinarily subtle gradients of colour and tone.

The second key difference is the papers. While the term “giclée” derives from the way by which the ink is applied, any print worthy of the name will be on an archival, acid-free paper, usually of a significant weight (my preferred papers are typically around 300gsm, while standard copy paper is usually 80gsm). There is a wide and wonderful range of papers available for giclée prints and in a previous article I have talked about some of my favourites.

Giclée print on smooth matte paper
Giclée printers are capable of rich colours and subtle gradients.

Some people like to highlight resolution as being a key difference but I would argue this is less relevant, particularly with the current state of technology. Resolution is often presented as an arcane and intimidating topic to nonprofessionals and, although it’s actually quite simple, a fuller discussion of the topic is probably best left for a separate article. For now it should suffice to think of resolution simply as a measure of detail. Once upon a time the professional large-format inkjet printers offered a higher resolution than their desktop counterparts but that gap has well and truly closed as the technology has advanced. The fact is, most printers these days work at higher resolutions than the human eye can distinguish and the quality of the final print ultimately comes down to the quality of the file it is made from.

As stated at the outset, giclée printing is a digital photographic process. This means the print is made from a digital file, usually a photograph or scan of the original work. The high resolution and precision of the inks mean the resulting print will reproduce that file in all its glory… or warts and all, depending on the quality of the file. For this reason, giclée printing should ideally be a collaborative process between the artist and the printer and not an impersonal, automated service where it’s up to the client to get things right. The print lab at the photography school I attended simply printed whatever files they were given and it was a painful and expensive way to learn how to set up files properly, which was actually not a bad way to learn. However, while photographers are usually quite savvy when it comes to digital files, many of the painters and illustrators I deal with are not necessarily that technically minded. For this reason I always inspect the files I am given to raise any potential issues of quality before I print and offer suggestions on how the final result might be improved. This also means my customers don’t have to stress about the files they give me; simply send me the best ones you have in whatever format you have and we can take it from there.

And, of course, if you don’t have high-quality files to print from, I am a specialist art photographer and I can create perfect captures of your work suitable for reproduction at any scale.


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