Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

What’s a “Zhee-clay”, anyway?


The term “giclee” gets used a lot in reference to art these days. It’s one of those words that’s been around a while, but is hard to pin down. I read a post today by fellow photographer Alison Thomas, who was attempting to define the term and having a tough time with it. You can read her notes here.

After I read the article, I started thinking about why giclees have come to be a dirty word to so many photographers. Aside from over-use and marketing hype, the term is used by different groups in different ways. It has come to mean any of the following:

  1. A reproduction of an original work of art, printed by an ink-jet printer, on a fine-art substrate, with some sort of quality control
  2. Any ink-jet print printed on canvas and watercolor paper
  3. A cheap knock-off print, not an original

No wonder there is confusion! The truth is, a giclee is any print made using an inkjet printer. It’s simple. Everything else is marketing spin — quality, ink, paper, cost — it doesn’t matter. If it’s made with an inkjet, it’s a giclee. Standards not included. So yes, prints made on an Epson 2200 with archival pigment inks, can be called giclees. Prints made on an Epson 11880 are also giclees, as are prints made in the 90’s on Iris printers, which used dye ink.

In gallery circles, the term has come to mean a reproduction of an original, made using an ink-jet, presumably by a professional on professional equipment. Since the terms are not well-defined, it confuses people. It’s become more hype than an accurate description of a type of print. Defining work as a “giclee” doesn’t really help describe what it is you hold in your hand when you buy a fine-art photograph. It is the image that you are purchasing, not the paper it is printed on, or the way it was printed. There are exceptions to this rule (if you collect platinum or palladium prints, for example) but most people are just looking for a nice picture to hang over the sofa. Of course it’s important that the print not fade away when you hang it on your wall — photographs from my studio come with a guarantee. (And you do need some sort of substrate to hold the ink.)

Many photographers shy away from the term because it is so ambiguous. Since photographs cannot be viewed until the image is transferred onto a substrate, photographs are classed as “multiple originals”, rather than reproductions. Because the term giclee implies reproduction in some circles, I prefer not to refer to my photographs as giclees. To me, they are simply photographs.

If asked, I describe my printing process as pigment prints, which I print myself with great care and attention to detail, prepared on professional grade printers, three of them: an Epson 7800, an Epson 4800 and an older Epson 2200. I started out using the 13″ Epson 2200, and learned the process, and from there, graduated to using the bigger professional machines, with UltraChrome K3 inks, different fine-art papers and even canvas. The 2200 is mostly retired now, and I predict that the two others will replaced one day with even more capable printers. Folks can’t buy the digital file to hang on the wall — they would prefer an iteration of the image, a photographic print. Just like other print-makers, I limit my editions, and keep track of each print in the edition.

I do like to experiment, however, and I like to work with different types of paper. For me, the beauty of technology is not the button-press, but the infinite possibilities. Computers and technology allow me to follow many different paths in my work, most of which would have just been impossible twenty years ago. I can choose to work in color, or in toned black and white, on watercolor paper, or on high-gloss photographic stock, or all of the above. Now if there was only a machine that could slow down time, so I’d have more time to work!

May 7, 2008

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1 Comment

  1. I used to love it when visiting Chase Galleries in Chicago. They sold “art”prints—mostly lithographs. I recall one of a painting of Albert Einstein. A numbered lithographic print: 1300 of 5000. At the time at Robinson’s we thought a really good run of a Black Velvet display was 3000. Oh, and we didn’t number them.

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