Giclée printmaking for artists



Information about Giclée prints

Giclée prints are made by scanning the original artwork or transparency into a computer at the highest resolution possible to capture all of the nuances in the artwork. In the shop that I deal with the main scanning device is a Hasselblad camera with a Phase One Digital back that connects directly to the computer. The ability to capture the digital information accurately and precisely is a marriage of the technical and artistic ability of the operator and the quality of the equipment being used.

Using a color management system they manipulate the image to achieve the desired results on the computer screen. A proof is then printed on fine art paper or canvas to evaluate the colors. This process is carried on until the desired results are achieved. In order to keep costs low all proofs are printed in a small rendition though larger proofs can be produced at an additional cost. Once the desired results are achieved the image is stored on a compact disc and the image may then be output on the printer.

The main reasons for the acceptance of the Giclée print and its notable growth is its quality. They are often printed on archival stock. The advantage of the Giclée process is the flexibility; prints can be produced one at a time on demand in different sizes and substrates. There is thus less need for a large capital outlay and stocks.

With the introduction of so many different ink-jet printers artists and their dealers are faced with additional decisions about which type of print is most suited to their style of art. To avoid misconceptions, dealers and artists should approach Iris prints as they would any reproduction by explaining how the art was made. Digital art is confusing because many people don’t realize that the computer is simply a tool used in the production of this craft. Just because they use a computer doesn’t mean it’s automatic. The process involves collaboration between the artist and technician. The better the technician the better the print.

Iris Giclée prints are produced with water based inks and should be treated as an original watercolor painting. They need to be framed right away and kept out of sunlight. The print is sprayed with two coats of a product called Bulldog Ultra, a solvent borne, vinyl elastic clear coat. Bulldog Ultra provides long lasting ultraviolet protection to digital imaging ink. This is a fast dry, very elastic coating that will not yellow, oxidize, check, crack or peel. Bulldog Ultra has a very high resistance to ultraviolet light, claiming to block 99% UV light transmission. For further information see

The company I deal with, ZheeClay Arts Ltd., has a total of five printers, two of which are the latest Ixia’s and use Iris Equipoise inks. All substrates used are archival and have been tested for longevity by the Wilhelm Imaging Research Inc. In spite of the longevity of pigmented inks, they feel that the Iris printers offers extra quality, and color that makes for a quality print. In order to offer a service to artists wanting larger prints than the Iris 35×47-inch and 100-year longevity pigmented inks they also offer a 62 inch Mutoh, which is a wide-format inkjet printer.

There are actually many companies in the business of manufacturing large format ink-jet printers. These include Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Roland.

Mastering Digital Printing by Harold Johnson is a new 383 page book. Highly recommended, this is a useful and up-to-date overview of the field. It features a chapter on image permanence entitled “Not Fade Away: Print Permanence.” The book includes print permanence data for a variety of printers from Wilhelm Imaging Research, Inc.

In reproducing their art in the form of Giclées artists should be aware that many colors cannot be reproduced exactly, they have to compromise colors in certain areas. It should be noted that the same image reproduced on watercolor paper and canvas will be more vibrant on canvas as the range of color would be greater on the coated canvas. Artists should also be aware that Giclèes are not reproduced all at the same time so that there may be a shading difference in some images produced at different times and weather conditions.


Giclée Technical information:

In a world dominated by computers, it’s not surprising that the latest advancement and controversy in the art world revolves around the digital method used to reproduce art images. At the forefront of this debate is the Giclée, or Iris Print. Iris prints were named after Iris Graphics of Bedford, Mass., a leading supplier of the ink-jet printers used in the process.

Giclée (pronounced Zhee-clay) is the French word for spurt or squirt, to describe the Iris printing process. The Iris continuous-flow printer has revolutionized digital fine art printmaking and the art industry has found this accurate reproduction and print-on-demand method irresistible.
In recent months several other ink-jet technologies have been aggressively making advances towards the ultra-fine resolution and color fidelity once uniquely claimed by Iris. Artists need to be aware of these changes in order to choose the best type of printer that would suite their requirements. The higher costs of purchasing and maintaining the Iris printer as compared to regular ink-jet printers will be a factor as well. However Iris printers still have a unique head and drum combination, which eliminates “banding.”

The high-resolution and saturated-color capabilities of the Iris printer were enabled by the introduction of a continuous-flow ink-delivery system. In this technology, as ink leaves the nozzles, it breaks into stream of droplets and by vibrating the nozzles at a constant frequency, the droplets are formed at the rate of approximately one million drops per second. The ink droplets not used in the image formation are given an electrical charge, and then deflected into a waste ink collection system by an electric field. The uncharged image droplets are not affected by the electric field, and continue to the paper surface on the drum.


Mutoh and Ixia printers in action at ZheeClay Arts Ltd.


The Iris printing process depends on its ability to create extremely small ink drops. The drops are approximately 15 microns wide, or one-tenth the width of a human hair. The drops of ink leave the nozzle at a rate of approximately one million drops per second, traveling at more than 85 miles per hour. Although each drop exits the print head the same size, the drop size is changed through the ink diversion process. Gaps in the ink stream, caused by diverting the ink, allow air pressure to build, and forcing drops to combine. When this larger drop reaches the paper, it provides greater penetration and better color saturation. Therefore, by controlling how many drops reach the media, the printmaker controls the intensity of the color. In the highest quality printing mode, up to 31 droplets can be combined and placed at each pixel location, which presents the potential for expressing detail, particularly in the shadow areas of the image.

An Iris digital print exceeds the photographic quality benchmarks of sixteen to thirty two shades of gray per color by producing 497 shades of gray color.

The Iris print head moves slowly from one edge of the print to the other completing the entire image in just one pass as the drum spins. The print heads of other ink-jet printers move across the substrate at only one speed, whereas the Iris head, moving so slowly as to be imperceptible to the eye, achieves its apparent “speed” by varying the speed of the rotating metal drum. Control of the printer-head speed greatly affects color saturation, and the Iris printer has a distinct advantage in highly saturated images due to its ability to slow down. The Iris print head is a very expensive part, while the other ink-jet manufacturers view the print head as an easily replaced, inexpensive, consumable component.
The paper feed of the Iris is the attachment of the paper to a drum that spins during printing at 150 inches per second, allowing exceptionally accurate ink placement and offers the high degree of accuracy required by fine art printmakers. The large diameter Iris drum also allows printing on media of varying thickness up to 1200lb so that prints can be reproduced on the same watercolor paper that the artist originally used.



Each ink-jet manufacturer offers a variety of ink sets, each with its own attributes. These inks, in combination with the ink-placement systems result in a varied color gamut with the capability to exceed swop standards in the process color printing. The Iris uses water-soluble dye based inks, which are formulated specifically for fine art applications. Other ink-jet printers can use both pigmented and dye base inks. Most of the pigmented inks are waterproof and longer lasting than the dye-based inks but offer a smaller range of color. The Iris Equipoise inks offer a remarkable intensity and saturation of color. Wilhelm Imaging Research of Grinnell, Iowa, USA has released official results of the longevity test for Iris Equipoise inks on different substrates. On Arches Cold Press Paper, 32 – 36 years, on Somerset Velvet Paper, 20 – 24 years and on UltraStable Canvas, 18 – 22 years (For further information on longevity testing of inks and paper, see


Chris at Ixia


Artists need to be concerned with the wall-life of their work. Homes with large windows, skylights and reflected sunlight from lakes and oceans bring in far more UV light than the dark homes of our ancestors. Test Giclée prints protected only by glass and set on my studio roof over the course of one summer, were history in a couple of months. They fared about the same as color photos, photo-lithos, and original watercolors. Oil and acrylic paintings still looked pretty good. So did hand-screened serigraphs. I live on the 49th Parallel and my studio roof is partly shaded with trees. These are not Mexico, Hawaii, or indeed Spanish conditions. It might be noted that while lots of Giclées are sold in Hawaii, many of them end up in Minnesota.


Color modes

Computers display color with a mixture of red, green and blue light. Yet Iris prints (and many other printing methods) use cyan, magenta, yellow and black to produce color. RGB is a transmissive method and CMYK is a reflective method. As they differ in method, so do they in colors they can achieve (the color range). RGB mode of course can display intense colors that are just not printable with CMYK inks. Likewise, cyan and yellow are nearly impossible to display with RGB as they can when printed. So which mode is preferable?

It is inevitable that an RGB image will have to be converted to CMYK prior to printing. Working in CMYK mode does limit the palette of color to that which is printable, so is therefore preferable.




Ron Ling at proofing station

There are a few limitations of the CMYK system to print certain colors e.g. Ultramarine blue and Cobalt blue — which tend to become either too warm or too cool. Another example is Cadmium orange, a color with a chroma too intense to be duplicated with yellow and magenta. So there is a certain amount of give and take in reproducing original art or transparencies as many colors cannot be reproduced exactly as the original.


Image archiving

Once the proofing is complete the image is stored on a CD. This is an exciting feature of this type of printing in which an edition can be printed on demand. Further, only a portion of an edition need be printed. However there is the misconception that results can be duplicated exactly at any time. The factors that contribute to repeatability are numerous and include paper, inks, and weather. Many fine art papers are made in Europe in old mills and the spring water used in the production is an integral part of the process. Winter paper is more consistent than spring and summer paper. Also the inks that are used are subject to variation. When a gain in longevity is established by the introduction of new dyes, operators always want to utilize them. This almost always produces a slightly different color gamut from the previous set. So it isn’t expected that an image stored on a CD can be repeated exactly in a year. The print will be very similar but not exactly the same as a print printed previously.



Costs vary from shop to shop and depend on what sort of stock or substrate the prints are to be done on. ZheeClay Arts charges about Can$200 (US$120) for a scan and colour proof. If one wanted the print reproduced on canvas the material is Can$240 (US$145) per sheet. The sheet size is 36 x 48 inches. 140 lb paper is Can$190 (US$116) per sheet — about the same size as the canvas sheet — so you could get about four 16 x 20 images with decent margins from a sheet. 300 lb paper is about Can$215 (US$130) per sheet. A nice feature is that they keep the disc at the ready and all the artist or dealer has to do is phone the shop and request that a certain number of a certain print be produced.

Apart from quality considerations, the Giclée process is most cost effective for lower edition runs. Cost effectiveness for the competition — photo litho reproduction — kicks in at about 200 copies — but costs of photo-litho work also varies greatly in different areas. In a recent Giclée application for Ducks Unlimited, we produced 180 copies (all at once) on archival paper, image size 18″ x 32″, which, together with a custom certificate of authenticity came to almost Can$20,000 (US$12,000) (about Can$110 per print, including taxes) This was higher than the equivalent run in photo-litho because the printer was only able to get two out of a sheet. But the better quality justified the price as these prints will achieve between $1000 and $2500 each at the notoriously enthusiastic Ducks Unlimited fundraisers — distributed one per club across the country. The framing will be a larger cost than the print.

Some Giclée operators charge by the square foot. On checking around we found prices varied between $7 and $45 per square foot. A big factor in higher prices is the paper.

Material compiled by Carol Ann Prokop, Andrew Niculescu, and Robert Genn.

(RG note) Thanks to Ron Ling for help with this information. His company is ZheeClay Arts Ltd.


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