The term was coined in the early 1990s, when digital inkjet printing first started to be used to produce art prints. Prior to this time, screen printing (serigraphy) and offset printing (lithography) were the primary methods used to make reproductions of artworks.
At the time (and maybe still to this day) there was a common notion that inkjet prints had questionable value in the art market, and for understandable reasons. Early inkjet prints were rarely of very high quality. Colours were inaccurate; detail was often lost in the reproduction. Worst of all, most early inkjet prints could not be expected to survive very long before their colours started fading or shifting.
For these reasons, along with skepticism and misunderstanding about this newfangled digital printing, people were dubious about purchasing anything made using the inkjet printing process.
In the early days, there weren’t very many printers capable of producing fine art quality prints. Iris printers, a product line developed by legendary digital imaging company Scitex, were among the first. But it wasn’t long before other printer companies—most notably Epson—joined the fray. Over the past two decades, I’ve made fine art giclée prints using Iris, Epson and Canon printers, all with excellent results. I am happy to recommend Epson above all others. Printers from other manufacturers, including Roland and HP, can also make fine giclées, provided the inks and media are up to snuff.
The term “giclée”, then, was intended to give a fancy name to a better quality of inkjet print; one that might be expected to have archival qualities—and the resulting value—that artists and collectors desire.
Today, you’ll hear the word giclée bandied about very casually. What’s important to understand is this: while all giclée prints are inkjet, not all inkjet prints are giclée. In the fine art world—including fine art photography—correctly using the term gicleé means the print was made using archival methods and materials.
You get what you pay for
A consumer-grade inkjet printer costing $200 can’t reasonably be expected to produce fine art giclée prints. The main issue is permanence – how long the ink and paper (or other substrate) will faithfully preserve the image. (When a color begins to change, it’s referred to as fugitive.) A giclée made to archival standards can survive 100 years—or even much longer—without significant change, whereas a lower quality print will start to degrade within a few years …or sooner!
Most often, it’s a print on canvas that’s called giclée. In the case of fine reproductions of original paintings, giclée also often describes a print that has been embellished, by hand, with paint and/or other traditional mediums. Also, a giclée reproduction of a painting should match very closely the colour and values in the original work—no easy feat.
But technically, a giclée can be a print on any substrate, so long as it meets archival standards. in other words, you could accurately refer to a fine print on archival watercolor paper as a giclée. But this is not the most common usage of the word.
Read the fine (art) print
If you’re a photographer or artist ordering prints from a service bureau and hoping to sell them as giclées, ask about the printing process. Be sure the materials are to archival standards. If you’re a collector or art specifier, the same rules apply, and the price of any print should always be relative to how it was made. If something is labeled giclée it should reasonably be expected to last for generations to come!