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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: High-end Inkjet for Fine Art Prints

Photo purchased from …

What is a giclee? Actually, the word, which is derived from the French, means to “spray, spout, or squirt” (Wikipedia). It refers to a high-end inkjet print used as a work of art (perhaps like the one printed above).

Back in the 1980s when I was a graphic designer, inkjet was a very new technology. Instead, analog color prepress proofs (Matchprints, Color Keys, and Cromalins) were made from mixed color powders or overlays on a base that was different from the final selected commercial printing paper.

So late in the ‘80s when I started reading about IRIS proofs, and seeing them when our custom printing sales representatives delivered prepress proofs, I was impressed.

And so were a lot of other people, among them fine artists. In the late ‘80s the artists’ community needed a way to reproduce original artwork for sale. For instance, a large, $4,000.00, one-of-a-kind painting might be reproduced in a series (a limited run of high-quality reproductions) for maybe a third of the price of the original.

There has always been a market for prints. I myself have many lithographs (actual art prints without halftone dots but made in a way similar to offset lithography), as well as serigraphs (screen-printed pieces produced with multiple mesh screens each printing a single color on a base paper substrate).

The IRIS Phenomenon

Prior to the inkjetting technology of such printers as the IRIS, these were the options for an artist who wanted to produce multiple copies for sale from a “matrix” (usually but not always a printing plate of some kind): lithographs, engravings, etchings, and custom screen printing. So the IRIS opened up a number of options.

Artists and galleries worked to resolve the two main problems with Scitex’s (eventually bought by KODAK) IRIS inkjet process. The process, which involved wrapping the commercial printing substrate around a metal drum and then jetting colored ink onto the paper, had to be modified for thicker media (such as canvas). And then the image produced via the inkjetting process (which faded over time) had to be made more stable.

After all, when I was getting IRIS proofs from my commercial printing supplier in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all that I (like other designers) needed was to check critical printing color in a continuous-tone (as opposed to halftoned) proof. The proof itself was irrelevant once the job had been printed and delivered.

But the IRIS held promise, in spite of its higher than $100,000.00 price tag, and artists had a new technology to use along with screen printing and etching for a limited series of salable art prints.

The Move to Large-Format Inkjet

Eventually it was no longer necessary to depend on the single IRIS technology. Overall, inkjet technology had improved, and companies such as HP, Canon, and Epson were offering large-format inkjet equipment at a lower price point than the IRIS. Equipment using dyes or fade-resistant, pigment-based archival inks, as well as substrates such as watercolor papers, coated and cotton canvas, and vinyl, replaced the former IRIS technology of choice.

These were now not only archival prints (created using technologies and materials that yielded final art prints with an exceptionally long life span), but they also provided a wider color gamut than before.

For instance, instead of just the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), large-format inkjet printer manufacturers such as Epson, HP, and Canon offered up to 12 colors in an extended inkset, all available at the same time on their inkjet equipment. These might include light magenta; light cyan; maybe an additional photo black; or red, green, and blue; or violet, orange, and green. All of these provided a much wider color gamut (more distinct colors) than a 4-color-only (CMYK) inkset. They also allowed for more subtle gradations from one color to another.

The Marketplace

When my fiancee and I go to the thrift store, we often see framed prints that look like originals. However, under a 12x printer’s loupe I can see the halftone dots of the offset lithographic process. This is different from both a traditional lithograph and a high-end giclee (inkjet print). And given its customarily lengthy press run, the individual offset lithographic prints are not worth much.

In contrast, individual copies from a traditional lithographic run (of maybe 250 copies) are worth a lot more (depending on the esteem in which the artist is held, whether the prints are signed, etc.).

The same is true for a giclee print. In this case, the artist has just used a digital process for creating multiple copies rather than a serigraph screen or etched copper plate. She or he has used the finest archival inks and acid-free paper or canvas, and has been closely involved in the production of the limited edition. Hence, the signed copies do have value, and they will last a long time, just like the prior editions of serigraphs, engravings, lithographs, and such.

Moreover, a fine artist might choose to print copies of the fine art piece one at a time as they are purchased (perhaps a color-corrected, high-quality photographic image of a large oil painting that might otherwise sell for $4,000.00). And the buyer is happy because she or he can afford to buy a piece of art for maybe a third of the price of the original oil painting.

So overall, the production process is much more under the control of the artist, and the prints are much more affordable to the buyer. Plus, the process of giclee custom printing can provide copies of photographs, flat artwork, and even computer-generated art, all meticulously color corrected and color controlled by the artist.


Having collected serigraphs, lithographs, monoprints, and such, over four decades, I initially had a distrust for this technology. “How can this be any more valuable than one copy from a press run of many offset-printed posters?” I thought. But over time I came to view giclee custom printing as nothing more than a controllable technology suited for producing a limited run of archival prints, just as the prior technologies had done. I realized that if I couldn’t afford a $4,000.00 oil painting, I could at least afford a giclee at a third of the price. And I knew that the artist’s involvement in the process (attested to by her or his signature and the numbering of copies in the limited press run) had been confirmed.

With this in mind I was interested in the advice I saw online from a number of artists and galleries as to the process of valuing giclees. The general consensus is that artists should factor in all expenses, including materials, time spent in the creation of the giclee, color scanning and correction of the original, and a reasonable amount for profit. That said, the key determinant would also be the renown of the specific artist in question, or how well regarded she or he is by peers and patrons.

It’s a little like pricing your graphic design work. If you’re good, and well known, you can charge more. After all, the value of a piece of art is what a willing buyer will pay to acquire it from a willing seller.

That said, many of the articles also included pricing grids (as a starting point), noting low-end, median, and top-end pricing of giclees based on their size (say 8” x 10” vs 36” x 48”).

And, of course, the press run makes a big difference as well. If you’re an artist and you’re selling 50 copies of your giclee work, you would command a higher price per copy than you would if the press run were 250 copies (the same idea as a custom screen printing or etching run of 50 signed copies rather than 250 copies).

Again, giclee is just the technology used to accurately print a limited run of color-corrected, archivally produced art prints, just like the lithographs and even the IRIS prints that preceded the current spate of Canon, Epson, and HP large-format inkjet giclees.

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