A Background to Art Editions and Giclée

Since the development of the first printing processes in the early fifteenth century artists have recognised the potential to reach a wider market for their creative output.

Artist printmakers in the early nineteenth century become highly skilled at the very specific techniques required to work directly on a plate, stone or wood matrix in order to create fine etchings, engravings, relief prints and later lithographic prints.

The development of the halftone process towards the end of the nineteenth century opened the door to a whole new range of possibilities; it allowed for photomechanical reproduction from any photograph or art original. Allied to this, the invention of the fully mechanised offset litho press, around the same period, made reproduction from existing art a more efficient and affordable process.

Apollo & the Muses, 1784, engraving/etching - Raphael Morghen

Now artists were able to regain the freedom of working with their chosen medium, if preferred, whilst controlling the distribution by means of numbered fine art limited editions or open editions.

Starting with a High Quality Image Capture

It is interesting to note that although much is written by trade bodies and manufacturers about print quality, specifications and standards relating to image capture and processing are far less clear.

Sadly, even within the industry, it is often assumed that all you need is a scan or digital capture from the art original to be able to produce high quality giclée prints. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth if the aim is to create fully detailed, accurate reproductions that the owner will want to display and appreciate for many years to come.

Image capture and manipulation is a vital modern day artisan skill and the key to authentic art reproduction.

The use of conventional scanning equipment is often precluded by the size, surface texture, mounting or fragile nature of the original. Much of Formatrix' image capture equipment has been custom built and has evolved over a number of years. The current studio copy facility now includes 2 metre high lighting units, an art mounting/clamping rig and a large format process camera. The camera system employs highest quality optics and a scanning insert, capable of producing image files of over a gigabyte in size without the need for interpolation.

Low resolution from scanback capture - John HaysomThree Tenors - John Haysom

There are an almost infinite number of variables within the scanning process. Factors including resolution, lighting, focus, and sharpening all need to be optimised for the particular image. The biggest issue however concerns the way that different devices handle colour.

Colour profiling systems attempt to create a common language that scanners, digital cameras, editing software and printers can use to interpret colours in an original. In practice the profiles created work only up to a point, and only under very specific conditions. Different pigments, dyes, lighting and surface textures produce different results in the capture device and crucially, the relationship to the output device (the printer) is not linear or entirely predictable.

Without human intervention the results, even from properly profiled systems, produce at best a safe compromise in the final print, often resulting in dull or inaccurate colour with flat contrast. A degree of craftsmanship, requiring time and experience, is involved in fine tuning the captured image in order to achieve a really true representation of the original artwork.

Framed giclée print on wall, Rachel Toll - Owl


It was not until relatively recently, at the beginning of this century, that digital technology was able to add greater flexibility, control, and accessibility to the fine art printing process.

The term ‘giclée’ printing was coined by Jack Duganne in the 1990s to describe the process by which ink is applied by the inkjet printer (based on the French for nozzle – gicleur).

The latest printers used for giclée offer considerable advantages over offset litho for fine art editions:

  • expanded colour range with the addition of up to 7 additional base ink colours (often allowing for a far better match to the colours in the original)
  • fade resistant pigment based inks (offering a lifespan of over a hundred years under normal conditions)
  • very consistent colour output, print to print, and day to day
  • very precise, high resolution imaging
  • print ‘on demand’ avoiding the practical necessity to commit to an entire print in one go (as with offset litho)
  • quick, stable, and economical proofing for the print (essential to achieve the best colour match to the original)

Giclée printing materials

Although production techniques, materials and hardware differ somewhat between giclée print producers, the basic tenets (as supported by the Fine Art Trade Guild) are:

  • high quality inkjet based print production using CMYK or multiple inks
  • pigment based fade resistant inks
  • acid free, conservation quality substrates, usually heavyweight matt art paper
  • prints produced to consistent standards, published as signed and numbered limited editions or open editions.

The traditional printmakers' art is, however, still alive and thriving today in a wide variety of forms including litho, monotype, etching, engraving, woodcut and monoprint, and it should be stressed that giclée printing in no way threatens or replaces the unique artisan skills that define creative work in these media.

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