Lies, Damn Lies, and Giclée Prints

What is giclee?

Many websites include a document which says "giclee means to spray". Well, "giclee" doesn't mean "to spray". "Giclee" isn't an infinitive. "Giclee" is the feminine of a past participle. (Nothing wrong with using it as a substantive, of course.) Is that important, or is that pedantic nitpicking? For understanding how a giclee print is made, or deciding whether you should buy one, the grammar of the word has no direct importance. But it might be useful to know that the person who is supplying your information is probably not very well educated, and probably doesn't really know much about the product he is selling on his website. That doesn't prove that he's going to cheat you, but before you spend a moderate sum on an artwork, you should talk to someone who really knows something about the subject, or start systematically learning something about the subject yourself.

So what is giclee printing, really?

Just as they will tell you, giclee printing is ink-jet printing, the same process used by the ink-jet printer hooked up to your computer right now. The cheapest computer printers commonly used today. Does that mean that giclee printing is bad? Not necessarily. Fine art lithography uses essentially the same process as the cheapest mass production printing machines, and fine art etchings and engravings are made by a process which was used until very recently for the cheapest book illustrations. But again, before you buy an artwork, you should understand both what it is and what it isn't, and what the salesman who is trying to sell it to you is really doing.

If giclee and ink-jet printing are the same thing, why do people strain to use the more obscure and foreign-sounding name?

For the same reason that they would rather sell you lingerie in a boutique than underwear in a store. They are convinced that they can get you to pay more for lingerie and giclees than for underwear and ink-jet reproductions.

They're probably right. As one artist (Ow, September, 2004) put it: "I used to make silk screen prints (using the same process used to make t-shirts, or even throwaway paper supermarket banners).... But when I began calling them 'serigraphs,' my prices tripled."

How long will a giclee print last?

Many of the giclee sites claim that a giclee print will last for thirty-five years. Giclee technology hasn't existed for nearly thirty-five years, so that there's no way to test such statements directly. Some of the more candid sites explain that these estimates are based on laboratory simulations of aging. Since you don't have their data, you have to take their word both for the fact that they are presenting their results objectively, despite their financial interest in presenting only one side of the question, and for the fact that their simulations give good information about an untestable reality. In other words, maybe your print will last that long, maybe not.

Should I care?

Probably not.
People buy "serious" art mainly for two reasons, for pleasure and for investment. For pleasure, longevity in scales of tens of years is irrelevant. Who says I'll want the thing on my wall 30 years from now, if I'm still alive? As to investment value, art history is full of middlebrow almost-fine-artworks produced in small runs by mass production techniques. (I have a lovely art nouveau statuette in bronze in my living room right now. Does it bother anyone today that art nouveau was middlebrow, and produced by what were in effect mass production techniques?) Except for occasional fads, like Japanese prints, nobody ever gets rich from them.
In other words, if you're thinking of buying a giclee for pleasure, what do you care about longevity? If you're thinking of buying a giclee as an investment, don't.

Who are you?

I'm certainly no authority figure, and anything I've written will have to stand purely on its own merits, or on comparison with the reader's own examination of the facts from other sources. I have no qualifications for writing about art - or anything else - except for an accidental but good BA in art history from a cow college.

Anyone who wants personal information about me - and there's no reason anyone should - can start with this site's privacy statement. It will lead you on a wild goose chase, but you will eventually get there. Or you can email me and ask.

What do you gain by telling us all of this?

Probably nothing, but I can still afford to do some things occasionally without calculating the short-term profits.

The responses to this page have spawned another note on giclees, from a different point of view, and some genuine FAQs. And here is an email which I thought you might like to see.

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