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October 06, 2005

Giclée OK?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I blush to admit that I hadn't heard of Giclée (French for "squirt," pronounced zhee-clay) reproduction until about two years ago.

My flimsy excuse is that I only paid casual attention to fine arts during the years I was focusing on demography, software systems programming, my business and other practical matters. A byproduct of that inattention was that I hadn't been to an art gallery in years.

Anyway, a while back The Fiancée and I were in a gallery in Carmel-by-the Sea and I hesitated by a painting that interested me. Of course, the sales lady pounced.

I managed to leave the place with my checking account intact and my mind buzzing with new information.

It seems that the painting wasn't a real painting at all, but a Giclée reproduction -- a reproduction that looked just like the real thing. The "support" (as they say in the painting trade) was canvas, and there were impasto (thick paint) brush strokes. This convincing imitation sold for something like 2,500 bucks.

Those impasto brush strokes, by the way, likely weren't Giclée, but probably were added later by hand using some sort of thick, transparent goo that makes the Giclée coloring look like heavy brushwork. But technology advances, and if it hasn't happened already, don't be surprised if impasto simulation can be automated as well as the color bits.

What is Giclée?

This explanation is going to be sketchy because I've never seen a Giclée being produced. I simply Googled on "giclee" and other permutations such as "giclee+impact" and "giclee+market" to get a rough idea what it was all about. Many of the sites Google turned up on their first display page were those of Giclée printing outfits, so you might have to dig deeper to get information from other sources. An example of a site with useful background material is here.

At its core, Giclée is inkjet printing on steroids -- well, make that on archival paper or canvas. A Giclée printer uses more than the basic four colors used in ordinary printing, which helps account for the color-fidelity of the reproductions. The original work (painting, photograph, whatever source) is scanned and the data saved to a hard drive or (more likely) a CD. Later the support material is run through a Giclée printer where jets of ink or perhaps some other colored material are squirted at high speed onto the surface in the form of tiny dots. Finally the reproduction is numbered, framed, and shipped off to a dealer or customer.

Giclée has been around since the late 1980s and an early complaint was that the inks would begin to fade after two or three years. Nowadays it's claimed that inks are good for 60 or even 100 years. Actually, no one knows for sure how long the inks will remain true; those lifetime claims are probably based on laboratory tests using exposure to intense lights and other forms of torture. (Keep in mind that original fine art and not only Giclée is subject to color deterioration. In my tours of European palaces and museums I found it rare to see a tapestry that wasn't badly faded. And I'm sure that you're aware of the prohibition of flash photography of paintings in museums -- we're told that the flash, like sunlight, will fade the paintings' pigments.)

The Economics of Giclée

How does Giclée affect the market for original paintings? From what I've found so far, there's no definitive answer yet: it seems to depend on whether one's ox is being fed or gored.

My impression is that gallery owners seem to like Giclée because it opens a new and growing source of income for a business that's likely to have an annual turnover of $250,000 or so. (Quite a few galleries scrape by on $100,000 or less; I hope these are owned by bored spouses of rich doctors or lawyers. For some survey info on gallery sales, see the October 15, 2001 issue of Art Business News.)

Artists often like Giclée because it leverages their effort in terms of income-per-painting-day. For instance, one source mentions a guideline for pricing a Giclée of 20 to 50 percent of the price of the original painting. (Based on one artist I'm familiar with, 15-20 percent might be more like it.) This can really help finance their kids' college educations if the Giclée printer run is 75 or 100 copies. Better yet, if the Giclée is "enhanced" (the term of art in the art biz) with a few extra dabs of paint by the artist, its price can be raised by 20-30 percent over a basic Giclée; I plan to return to this matter in a future posting.

Less likely to be amused by Giclée is the investor-collector. The Wall Street Journal published an article on this a few months ago; it's behind their Web pay-firewall, so I'll have to pass along the points made as best I can along with my own speculations.

I don't buy any art to speak of. If I did, I'd buy what I wanted to hang on my wall, and the thought of selling the item at a profit would not be a consideration at the time of purchase. Other buyers look at art strictly as an investment proposition, hoping that their painting portfolio will out-perform the Dow or the S&P 500. The remaining buyers (perhaps the majority purchasing in the $3,000-$10,000 range?) have mixed motives; they buy what pleases them, but they also weigh re-sale considerations.

Those who buy original paintings with future sale as a prime or secondary consideration are likely to feel uneasy about Giclée reproductions. Certainly the fact that their work is an original probably will ensure its continued value in the face of 50 or 100 reproductions floating around -- provided the artist remains fashionable. But who's to say that all those Giclées might not depress the price of the original just a little?

Far more financially problematical is buying a Giclée for investment purposes; this was the focus of the WSJ article. Most Giclées I've noticed sell for less than $5,000. Still, any outlay of say $2,000-5,000 is serious money even for upper-middle class households, so it's likely that buyers think about possible re-sale.

We know that original-run posters by Jules Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha are rare and aren't cheap. Does this mean Giclées will appreciate as well? The problem with this analogy is that the posters were art that was intended from its conception to be reproduced and exists (in most cases) only in the form of reproduction, whereas the painting comes first and the Giclée is supposedly an afterthought (though doubtless some paintings are conceived with Giclée and enhancement in mind nowadays).

As I said, it's probably too soon to tell what sort of investment a Giclée represents; let me know if I got this wrong.



posted by Michael at October 6, 2005


I'm no art collector or historian, but printmaking has been around for a while (durer, etc).

And quite frankly, even the masters made near-perfect copies of their best known works/styles for selling. A lot of the Magritte/Picasso/Ingres/Titian/Warhol I've seen at museums have basically been the same image painted and repainted with minor variations. I'm not sure if these versions (often just sketches) were intended for sale. A lot of times repainting an image can just be a formal exercise for a painter, and a way to make more money off a winning concept.

I think art consumers are reasonably tolerant of reproductions; at college, I loved the fact I could buy posters of the great masters for 10-15$.

The preservation issue, as you put it, sounds scary. A painter friend of mine does giclees, as I recall. The ones I saw looked great!

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 6, 2005 1:33 PM

I'd rather have an obviously printed reproduction than a giclee on my wall, but that probably just illustrates my reactionary aesthetics, or something. The first time I came across a giglee masquerading for a real painting I was creeped out.

Fascinated to know that most galleries sell only $250,000 a year in paintings. What does that amount to, 2-4 paintings a month? Maybe if they reduced their prices, they could move more product...Perhaps painters should get used to cranking out multiple copies of their work (quickly); as Mr. Nagle points out, the practice was by no means unknown (especially with studio assistant involvement) many centuries ago.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 6, 2005 1:55 PM

Since the things are digital files they do not have the same limiters on how many can be made in a given print run or for that matter no limit on the number of print runs unlike other traditional print methods.You are relying on someone to not cheat when they say only 30 number prints have been done to demand such high prices. The value of prints is in there being limited numbers avaible all numbered and signed. I worked in print and art framing, our in store insurance for art left in our care refused to value them for more than a poster print,50-200$sice they can be easiley reprinted to replace a damaged one.

Posted by: Adela on October 6, 2005 3:39 PM

Your opening is ambiguous. When I read the words "Giclée (French for "squirt," . . .) reproduction", I thought you were describing some new kind of artificial insemination with a deplorably vivid French name.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on October 6, 2005 3:53 PM

What a huge and serendipitous service you have done in providing me with all this excellent research!

I've been knocking about looking for a way to get a computer doodle supersized and arty looking, kept seeing "giclée print" on my way from The BF's to my pad and couldn't...put it...together.

Speaking as an occasional (very) fine art buyer, I cannot imagine buying an artist giclée (unless, of course, said artist was making some sort of meta-statement on aaaaht). For two grand, I can head over to the local art gallery and load 'em on up...

Posted by: Colleen on October 6, 2005 10:24 PM

Robert-- Recall that the lifetime for inks is much improved. One article, perhaps the one I linked to, suggests that even 20-30 years is longer than many owners would want to display a piece of art. So the 60+ year lifetime would more than work.

Friedrich -- I dunno about the print versus the Giclee on the wall. Setting aside the matter of cost, I think I'd opt for quality of reproduction.

Adela -- According to what I read, Giclee can be cheaper and more flexible that printmaking techniques that use quite a few colors. And as you noted, this, and the capability to create more copies almost at will does make cheating easier. On the other hand, there's nothing to prevent an artist from mis-numbering silkscreen prints, say -- printing 200 and having two numbered 1/100, 2/100 etc. (And both scams risk getting caught should any dealers or owners compare numbers.)

Dr. Weevil -- Sigh. If only my mind were dirtier I might have caught that while proofing. Alas.

Colleen -- I also read that one can Giclee computer-generated art. Actually it is simpler because the scanning step is eliminated.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 7, 2005 10:03 AM

Yeah, I've run into artists who've started doing their art "originals" via Photoshop and Painter, because what was really working out for them was selling giclees, and working directly with the pixels gave them more direct control of the art.

Funny, I love the mental musings that get prompted by questions of "originals" and "reproductions" and "fakes" and such. For instance, if an artist is creating his/her art in Photoshop intially, where's the "original"? Or: if we learned that someone not-Rembrandt had painted "The Night Watch," would that make it a less-great painting? Or: if even an expert can't tell the diff between a "real" Vermeer and some brilliant copy of it, which painting is "better"? I know one watercolor artist who actually prefers the giclees of her art to her own originals. What to make of that? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I love sucking on 'em anyway.

As for giclees, isn't it great the way the word combines sex and art?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 7, 2005 10:56 AM

"Or: if we learned that someone not-Rembrandt had painted "The Night Watch," would that make it a less-great painting?"

Let's just say that I'm not much of a signature collector.


Posted by: Doug Sundseth on October 7, 2005 11:39 AM

"I've been knocking about looking for a way to get a computer doodle supersized and arty looking, kept seeing "giclée print" on my way from The BF's to my pad and couldn't...put it...together."

I don't know about the quality (resolution, color?, etc) of your original doodle, but if you call around to a couple places, there are places that will make a color slide of the image for you. Then if you take it a photo place (a professional one, not CVS), they can make a color print of the slide. It's costly depending on the size of the image you want, but assuming the original image is of good quality (and they didn't f*ck up the slide when they made it--accidently pixelate it or anything), it should be perfect quality. This looks awful with black and white images although a simple black and white line drawing might look ok.

Posted by: lindenen on October 7, 2005 12:00 PM

Giclee' isn't conceptually unique. It's merely the current state-of-the art printing technology for larger images. For example, if I bring a negative or digital file to my photo lab and order a poster-sized print, the lab will make a giclee' print.

Fading aside, the "investment" question is separate from the issue of printing technology. Investment potential is a function of 1) future demand (or expectations thereof) and 2) the uniqueness of the art. The problem, from the prospective collector's POV, is (2). Not only is it easy nowadays for the artist to make unlimited identical copies from a digital master, it is not even very difficult for someone to make endless high-quality digital reproductions from a copy of the master. All you need is a good scan or photograph of a print. Obviously, copying of both types is likely to become more frequent as the price of a work appreciates. Caveat investor.

Posted by: Jonathan on October 7, 2005 12:12 PM

Another sexy French term to throw around is "eglomise" (should have 2 accents on the e's).
Means reverse-painted--here is an illustrative site:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 8, 2005 10:04 PM

'Giclee' is to inkjet as 'serigraph' is to silkscreen, ie a phancy name for something that is very common. 'Giclee' was invented at the beginning of the digital revolution to make it sound more arty. It did, at that time, represent a specific technology, the Iris print, but has come to cover all inkjet since Iris no longer makes the state of the art printer.

Just like real musicians calling it a fiddle, never a violin, real artist call it an inkjet print. When you got the goods, you don't need BS.

Posted by: Tim Quinn on October 19, 2005 1:28 PM

Your post was referenced on arts journal - where I came across it. I'm an artist who works partly with digital media and I'd like to add a little more to the discussion. There are a number of artists working with digital tools these days - and please don't call it "computer generated art" -the computer is a tool and the artist still is the one making the art. Those of us working directly in Photoshop or Painter are more than likely to do our own printing and to produce limited edition prints -- most states have laws governing what can be sold as limited edition - there may be no "strike plate" but one cannot legally keep cranking them out if they are labeled as an edition of say 25. Large format archival printers often have 6 or 7 colors and the colorfastness is now rated between 60 and 200 years. Yes, these are artificial numbers based on accelerated aging but as you said, all art fades. No work of art should be hung in direct sunlight and there are framing techniques to help protect artwork from UV light.

So to sum up - yeah, there are plenty of artists selling fancy poster reproductions labelled giclee but there are also quite a few serious artists working digitally. We're more likely to label the output as a digital print or archival inkjet and the edition size will be smaller. sorry if this got too long - you pushed a button for me!

Posted by: leslie on October 25, 2005 9:39 AM

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