What Is a Giclée?

It can be a humorous adventure to go on Web sites where digital reproduction are sold under the Giclée moniker and read the vain attempts to explain: what the word means; its genesis; how to pronounce it; or to accurately describe the process of creating digital reproductions.

The reality for the art industry is it really isn’t a laughing matter. There literally must be thousands of poorly informed and worse written descriptions floating around cyberspace these days. Many with futile attempts to inform collectors and surfers what the heck is a giclée. The term has become as nondescript and amorphous as the word “print.”  The more the word and its description gets mucked up, the more confusing the term becomes to the public and the less ability it has to be a powerful valuable descriptor.

There isn’t enough space here to go into the history and meaning of the word. However, I do commend to you the following information and strongly suggest any who are truly interested in understanding what a digital print or giclée is to spend time with these links. They provide the best most accurate detailed history I’ve seen. It is from Harald Johnson, author of Mastering Digital Printing (Digital Process and Print). Johnson generously offers these excerpts on his Web site pulled from the above-mentioned book: What’s in a Name: The True Story of “Giclée” and Digital, Fine Art Printing Comes of Age. (Editor’s note: the website is no longer live.)

If there is a soapbox here, it comes from the frustration some artists and printers have with the loose use of giclée to represent digital fine art reproductions. When a term can be used to describe a homemade print coming off an Epson desktop printer based a low resolution digital photograph or worse, an image scanned from a garden variety photograph and also a meticulously produced digital print that might have taken hours just to setup the image capture and more hours to thoroughly manipulate the RIP software and printer calibrations to produce a masterful faithful reproduction on fine art paper or canvas, then the industry has a problem.

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In a nutshell, the term “giclée” has become nearly as generic as Kleenex. Did you know that the words aspirin, thermos and fridge all started as a trademarked name and look at them now. Giclée itself has never been trademarked. But there are many companies now trying to incorporate it into a trademark, Tru Giclée, UltraGiclée and a handful of others are being bandied about as companies such as Epson attempt to get their brand into the process. News flash, these marketing maneuvers are not going to help the industry as a whole; collectors are never going to clamor for an UltraGiclee or any other trademarked process. They will continue to trust dealers and gallerists to guide them to purchases based on their interest in the artist and the art.

Another debate regarding digital printing is there are those who think it is bad for business for companies such as Epson and H-P to be exhibiting at shows such as ArtExpo. They believe it confounds the pubic, confuses artists and does nothing to elevate the process. Remember, the whole reason giclée got into the vernacular was an attempt to move away from techie terms like computer generated digital print. That sounds like something you can make at home whereas giclée has that hoity-toity je ne sais quoi quality to it.

I don’t blame anyone for using the term giclée, but I also don’t blame those artists and printers who are moving away from it either now that it has come full circle and no longer has the cachet of something special. To be honest, seeing pixellated digital prints from well known highly publicized artists at ArtExpo adds yet more negativity and cynicism around the giclée moniker.  That’s another post, but anyone looking at this can see it is problematic for the business.

Back in the day long before the first digital print hit the market when Bill Humberg was editor and publisher of Decor magazine, there was terminology used to delineate a fine art print such as an etching, mezzotint, etc., from a reproduction. Graphics were used to describe high-end pieces designed as originals in the print medium of choice, i.e., serigraphs, linocuts and so forth. Prints was used to describe those pieces that were reproductions. At that time they were primarily offset lithography on paper. Even then you saw poster publishers using graphics in their company names, but at least there was an effort to bring order to the confusing array of terminology.

The problems with getting everyone in the industry to use standards for descriptions will never cease. There is no governing body, no real authority to monitor usage and make positive changes where necessary. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. As individuals you can help by becoming and staying informed about correct terminology, printing processes and the business of the art print market. If you can clearly articulate what is a giclée to a lay person, you will help yourself and the industry in the process. If you can suggest changes to someone using the term inappropriately, you will help. With the ease of access to voluminous information available to all consumers these days, it’s more important than ever for all involved to be forthright and clear on what we are selling to the public. It’s harder to fool them, although my recent posts on convicted felons Kristine Eubanks and husband Gerald Sullivan and cruise ship art auctions belies that notion.

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If you have followed my musings, you know I champion having open editions on giclées unless the editions are truly limited to very small sizes such as 95. Consumers realize it’s easy to run off more copies once an image is digitized. With open editions, there is never the worry that more than the stated edition size was sold…it is a non-issue. To me, the issue ought to be selling the intrinsic value of the art on the paper or canvas without having to resort to a limited edition marketing gimmick. There will always be a place for limited editions, I just believe the giclée market is not the right place for them. Some limited edition prints might sell well for years if they were open. Imagine how much money is left on the table when something like that happens. Sure an artist can continue to paint more like before, but there is magic with some pieces that can’t be recaptured. Often neither artist or publisher can say with authority that a certain piece will get legs and sell through the roof. But experienced ones know it happens and they can count on it, but can’t tell you why. Limited edition giclées shut the door on such possibilities

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  1. Barney, this is an excellent description of the problem helping clients to understand the differences in quality of various reproduction processes.

    You also make a good point about “open editions,” but because the public has been taught to believe that limited editions are better, I think it’s hard for an artist to choose that route.

    Lynne

  2. Hi Lynne,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you, it is hard for individual artists to single-handedly change how art is marketed. They are pressured by their galleries and some collectors to continue to produce limited editions. I can’t blame them for not taking up the fight. That said, it only inspires me more to make the case for them. I think if I pound the drum long and hard enough, some others who are in a position to effect change will join the movement.

  3. Hi Barney, I’ve been on the fringe of the printing industry for 25 years, as a Graphic Artist/Illustrator. When I first heard the term Giclee, it was very humorous to me, it was as you said- a highfalutin’ word used to make something sound expensive.

    When I finally decided to have some archival, high quality digital reproductions made of a few of my paintings, I refused to use the word to describe them. But finally gave in, as it is a short word that most people understand, as meaning: a superior quality digital reproduction of an original art work. It’s as you said, once you start using a word like kleenex, or aspirin it just sticks, and is hard to change.

    I’m also a horseback rider, and have been
    practicing “dressage” for many years.
    Similar type of word, a fancy word, that
    sounds very, well, important. It has been
    described as “high level animal training”.
    which is more at what the original French
    word was meaning. You say the word, most
    people have at least an idea what you are
    talking about, and there are varying degrees
    of quality in the actual practice of it.

    So, I have made peace with the word “Giclee”
    but would be very glad to drop it if another
    more truthful one comes along. Let me know
    if you come up with a better one!

  4. Hi Paula,

    Thanks for your thoughts and observations on the giclee issue. You are not alone, there was tremendous resistance in the early days of digital art reproductions.
    While the word giclee carried much negative baggage, the initial problem of colorfastness and longevity was of more concern.

    And, let’s be honest. There were just as many who resisted the process because it represented something new that had the potential to cause a major upheaval in the way reproductions were marketed. I wrote a recent blog about Goya creating the first limited edition offset print. One can only imagine what kind of hand wringing field day the art cognoscenti of the day had with that development.

    I admit some of the original concerns were valid, at least to the point they needed to be discussed and thought through and processes refined to assure better longevity. But, once the digital printing process came underway, it would help revolutionize how art reproductions are made and how art prints get to market. Of course, the advent of the personal computer and corresponding rise of the Internet greatly aided in changing the rules on everyone.

    Digital printing is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. The story goes the camel’s owner on a cold desert night allowed the camel to put his nose under the tent for warmth. Soon came the head, followed by the hump. By the time the camel’s whole body crept into the tent, there was no longer room for the owner.

    Bye, bye serigraphy on the high side and offset lithograpy on the low side. One need only read Art World News, attend ArtExpo or any other show where reproductions are allowed to see the prepronderance of giclee prints. The former two methods haven’t gone away, but the sun has set on them as them preferred medium of most artists in the print market

    My self-published book is POD (Print-on-demand.) I neither stock inventory nor pay anything to have my book listed on virtually every online bookstore. When an order hits, my printer fulfills the order and pays me 90 days later. I net between 10x to 32x what a traditional book publisher would pay me. It’s still only $30 retail, so I will never get rich from publishing it. But, POD at least allows me to make a far better return than was available to any author just a few year ago. Today, smart marketing artists are using the same tools and techniques to earn more from their creative efforts. To that end, I say about time.

    Back to the use of the “G” word. I, too, have made peace with the usage despite it’s Frenchified loopiness. My initial post here was only to decry the blundering attempts to pronounce the word and explain the process intelligently. Combine the loose use of description and then see the word attached to low resolution crappy home made prints and it loses its charm and mystique.

    If I or anyone else were lucky and smart enough to come up with some other descriptive word, how long would it take for it to be usurped by the same crowd that butchers a servicable word like Giclee?

    People, if you are going to use a foreign word to describe your printing process at least learn to properly pronounce it (zhee-clay) and learn the real story of how it came to be used. By doing so, you help the public understand the process can represent fine art as far as any art reproductions go even in the face of a glut of poor quality stuff. (See the original post for links to learn more about how giclee came to be used to decribe digital fine art prints.)

    This is not new. In the heyday of posters and offset limited editions on paper, they existed in the market alongside really cheap poorly produced prints.

    Because there is no accounting for taste, the pie is large and there is room for prints in a wide price point range and quality range. Unfortunately, giclee can be used to describe any of them along the spectrum. That means if you are selling quality and it’s real quality, you are going to have to educate your collectors on why there is a difference and what they are.

  5. It’s nice to read well written, accurate information on this subject. The overall problem of creating standards in language, techniques and finished products in the print business has been going on for a long time. I hope your carefully reasoned arguments for correcting the problem begin to get some exposure.

  6. Thanks for the comments Glenn. I’m not sure the industry will ever be able to address the problems of confusing terminology, but that shouldn’t stop individual artists who value the integrity that comes with transparency from doing their best to be as straightforward as possible.

    BTW, I am an immediate admirer of your work. I didn’t realize how much I liked red until I saw your site! 🙂

  7. Hi Barney,

    I am a big fan. I enjoyed your book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market.I would like to invite you to be a guest on my podcast where we interview leaders in art marketing, publishing, and some digital painters as well.We have several recorded but not published issues. I will be interviewing one mutual friend, Marilyn Sholin regarding her new book. if you have any interest please post me at [email protected].

    best regards, Tim

  8. I think that your description of Giclée and Harald Johnson’s overview in his book, Mastering Digital Printing are excellent. I think that sometimes a word can make people feel like they are buying something special. Would you expect to see “Escargot” or “Snails in Garlic Butter” on a menu?

    My understanding is that a Giclée means “fine-art digital print,” a term coined by Jack Duganne. It has been used primarily to describe inkjet prints with good longevity on good quality substrates, but it is very possible that other print technologies are being used and marketed as Giclée prints.

    I wrote a book about inkjet printing and the word giclée doesn’t appear once. It is not because I made a concerted effort to avoid it, I just focused on inkjet printing, and both I and the guest artists who contributed all used the words fine-art inkjet printing or similar language when describing their work.

    On the topic of limited editions, I think it is entirely up to the artist. I don’t think that there is a right or wrong approach as long as it is legal and ethical (with full disclosure). Hopefully the choices artists make enable them to continue doing what they love. That could mean just giving away prints to friends and family, or making a living from their art.

    Some make a single inkjet print and treat it as a painting, and others make them unlimited, or available in 20 different sizes. I was watching a program about limited edition Nike shoes, and I suppose that helps them to get people to camp out for days in front of stores to pay about $150 per pair. Scarcity seems to sell.

    All the best!

    Andrew
    —————————————————
    Andrew Darlow
    Editor, The Imaging Buffet

    Author, 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques:
    An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers – http://www.inkjettips.com

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