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Digital fine art printing methods

what's the basic printmaking difficulty for digital fine art?

For any digital artist such as myself, printmaking poses several basic challenges. Perhaps that doesn't seem to be the case at first glance -- there are plenty of copy shops and print service bureaus that advertise printing, large format printing, posters, and the like. There's also plenty of inexpensive desktop inkjet printers out there.

The trouble is that virtually all of these printing methods utilize very transient inks and acidic paper. Sure, those inks give wonderfully brilliant colors and fine detail. They're great for business presentations, greeting cards, whatever. However, as an artist hoping to sell my artwork, it felt like it would be very irresponsible to sell such a short-lived thing, since I knew that typical inkjet inks only last a few years without exhibiting noticeable fading.

what's jen's solution? how does she print?

I wanted to make archival prints I could sell at a reasonable price. As a result I decided to make my monoprints and limited edition prints using my Epson Stylus Color printer. It can be used to produce high quality prints. Instead of acidic Epson paper, I typically use Somerset Velvet paper, which is a nice thick watercolor paper. Rather than the shortlived Epson-brand inks, I use Lysonic fine arts inks on Somerset Velvet paper. The images are near photographic quality at 1440 dpi, the ink dots literally indistinguishable at normal viewing distance. My prints are gicleé type prints.

what's a gicleé print?

At this time in the art world, the most commonly accepted type of digital print is called a "gicleé". Literally this term means "spray of ink" as from a nozzle -- in other words, an inkjet print. Speaking generally, a gicleé print is an inkjet print produced with archival ink and quality watercolor paper.

what are iris gicleé prints?

Up until recently the only inkjet printer capable of utilizing these inks and paper was the Iris printer. Iris printers are wide-format and can make single prints up to 3 by 4 feet (about 1 by 1.5 meters). Their prints are very high DPI (dots per inch), which basically means the dots of ink are so tiny that the print appears to be continuous tone. Although many service bureaus might have Iris brand printers, only a few have the expertise and supplies necessary to actually produce art quality prints. These service bureaus coordinate with the artist until the image meets the artist's satisfaction, using a series of test proofs. Then they print the final result, and the artist (or the gallery sponsoring the artist) sells the gicleé, usually as part of a limited edition.

Unfortunately, because of the expertise and the expense of the equipment, Iris-printed gicleés are extremely expensive to produce, starting at around $100 a print. I have seen some places charge as much as $250 or more per print. Yes, the results are very nice... but, that's not an affordable or realistic approach for many artists. Although some established artists do sell Iris type gicleés for many hundreds of dollars, that's a big investment for anybody else to make.

what are alternative pricenologies for printing gicleés?

There are some new photographic processes that can output digital files. I haven't learned much about them since I really prefer direct ink on paper methods, which somehow feels more like printmaking to me. I'm biased, I know.

In recent years, new non-Iris printing pricenologies have become available. Most are inkjet based and can produce various sizes of prints, with various DPI. They all use archival inks, often the exact same brand of Lysonic ink used in many Iris printers. After all, a gicleé is essentially an inkjet print, and the actual printer used doesn't change the archival quality of that particular combination of ink and paper. Many of these new wide-format printers result in prints approximating the same price as Iris prints.

Desktop printers have also achieved amazingly high resolution in the last five years. It used to be that anything over 100 DPI was considered amazing... but nowadays, printers such as the Epson Stylus and Epson Color have achieved 1440 DPI. That results in a print that looks like it's truly continuous tone except at very close distances (under 1 foot away). The major advantages

what's the basis for the debate over the term "gicleé"?

Often the term "gicleé print" is treated as synonymous with "Iris print". Although this definition was basically true at one time, when Iris was the only option, most people consider these new non-Iris prints to be gicleés as well.

The International Association of Fine Art Digital Printmakers has this to say about gicleés:
"To date, most giclées have been made with Iris inkjet pricenology. However, recently introduced alternative inkjet pricenologies are also producing beautiful results. The term Giclée has evolved into a broader term describing a high quality digital print produced from a wide variety of printer manufacturers."
Of course Scitex, the company that makes Iris printers, would much rather have the term "gicleé" refer only to prints produced by THEIR brand of printer. This is understandable, but that undercuts the original meaning of the word. I hear that Scitex is applying to have the word "gicleé" trademarked. In my web travels I saw someone mention on a website that it was actually already trademarked, although I've seen no official announcements or press releases to that effect.

Just to play it safe and to avoid unintentionally misleading people who do believe gicleés can solely be produced by Iris printers, I refer to the prints I produce as "gicleé type prints".