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What is Giclee Printmaking?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

Giclee printmaking is a technical process for the production of fine-art prints. Early computer and digital print processes were inadequate for creating museum-quality prints of artwork. Artists soon discovered a pleasing alternative by using the high-end printers employed by the publishing industry. While this allowed artists greater control over reproductions of their work, it did not sit well with some who disdained the use of computers and printers as too common. The term giclee printmaking was coined to give these new kinds of prints a classier and more elegant feel.

Artists can spend weeks, months, or even years on a single painting or other work of art. The aesthetic results can be breathtaking, but the financial results can create difficulty. Even if the work of art sells for a high price, the artist often sees no other income from the work after that single sale. For decades, artists have compensated by selling reproductions of their more popular or accomplished work. These reproductions are often referred to simply as prints.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Traditional printmaking processes such as lithography had drawbacks. Color reproduction was often imprecise, and prints had to be produced en masse, meaning artists had to buy them in bulk and find a way to safely store the unsold copies. Early digital printing was even worse, as the process was inadequate to reproduce high-quality artwork and the ink faded quickly over time. In the late 1980s, an alternative was found in the high-end printers used by publishers to create exact duplicates of their books for proofreading and quality control purposes. This was the origin of giclee printmaking.

These printers were equally suited to create high-quality reproductions of paintings, photographs, and other artworks. They could print on any surface, using inkjets to create fine details, and did not lose image quality even on very large prints. Long-lasting archival inks were soon added, meaning artists could create museum-quality prints, even of works that had been created on a computer. The main drawback was that the art world often turned up its nose at computer-generated art, considering it crude and pedestrian. In 1991, printmaker Jack Duganne coined the elegant-sounding term giclee (pronounced zhee-clay) to overcome this liability, basing it on the French term for inkjet nozzle.

Giclee printmaking has since become the standard for high-quality art reproductions. Advances in technology have made the printers affordable for artists, who can print as many or as few prints as they need. The phrase giclee printmaking still holds some controversy among artists, who are highly individualistic by nature. Some feel it is a pretentious term for what is essentially a simple technical process. Others are put off by the word’s use in France as a slang term meaning spurt, which does not exactly convey a sense of elegance.

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