Figure 1

The Digital Eye: Fine Art Archival Printing


The digital fine art archival print is frequently called a Giclée (pronounced zhee-klay)—a French noun that roughly translates as “spray or a spurt of liquid.” The word is derived from verb "gicler" (to squirt). In the lexicon of the print industry the term actually refers to the process of spraying minute quantities of colored ink through tiny nozzles onto a substrate. The term was coined in 1991 by Jack Duganne a print professional at Nash Editions of Manhattan Beach, California.

In the 1980s giclée printing was first pioneered as a four-color inkjet process by IRIS Graphics. Their commercial large format printer, the IRIS 3044 first shipped in 1985. It interfaced with digital prepress systems and was initially used as a CMYK proofing device for offset lithography. It printed to thin proofing papers mounted on a printing drum that rotated at 150 RPM (see Figure 1).

Nash Editions was founded by Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash rock fame) who was, and still is, a photographer. Nash was among the first to recognize the IRIS printer’s potential as a device for printing fine art reproductions on archival media. As a testament to the importance of these innovations, Nash’s original IRIS 3047 graphics printer now resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.


Technology Revolution

In the 1990s, giclée technology created a revolution in the printing industry. For the first time high-resolution digital scans could be processed to produce ultra-high-quality color images that resembled continuous tone photos. These images could be printed with archival quality inks onto a variety of archival substrates including canvas, silk, linen and other textiles, fine art and watercolor paper and photo paper. As the industry gathered steam and hardware and software refined, color accuracy and ink and paper stability improved but it took almost a decade for digital art to be taken seriously as a “real” art form by the art establishment of universities, galleries, and museums. This was due in part to reluctance by the institutions to accept a new medium and to the limitations of the technology to produce archival-quality output. “Archival” simply means that the inks won’t fade and the paper won’t deteriorate over time.


Ars Longa Vita Brevis

The giclée has emerged as the most popular, economical and convenient method for artists to reproduce their work. Giclées have almost (but not entirely) replaced the traditional photographic print. Today, giclée prints are output by professionals using eight- to 12-color inkjet printers—typically ranging in width from 19” to 72”. The most popular manufacturers of these printers today are vanguard companies including as Epson, Roland, Canon and Hewlett-Packard to name a few. The latest generation of printers is capable of producing incredibly detailed prints for both the fine art and photographic markets (see Figure 2).

Nowadays, many images that we see hanging on the walls of museums and galleries are produced by computers and although it took more than a decade to catch on, the giclée is the state of the art for fine art reproductions. The quality of the giclée print rivals traditional silver-halide and gelatin printing processes and is commonly found in museums, art galleries, and photographic galleries.

Numerous examples of giclée prints are on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Center for Creative Photography. As a measurement of their value, a 2004 auction of giclée prints fetched $10,800 for an Annie Leibovitz, photograph, and $9,600 for Chuck Close reproduction of a painting, and that was 11 years ago. By now the giclée print has status equal to that of copper plate etching, the stone lithograph or darkroom photographic prints.



Producing a quality archival fine art print requires a great degree of skill. The artist/technician must know the features of software, the capabilities of the printer, the characteristics of the substrate, the gamut of the ink set—and also must know how to correct and manage color. That being said, the advantages of giclée prints are significant. First of all, the image can be manipulated in software programs like Adobe Photoshop which can also extend aesthetic possibilities.

Artists who want to reproduce their work can produce prints on-demand. After the image is archived, multiple identical prints can be output inexpensively and with minimum effort. Up-front costs of mass production are eliminated as is extensive inventory. Archived files do not deteriorate over time as film negatives do so the artist can be confident of their consistency.

The artist is not limited by size considerations providing the original file is large enough to maintain the necessary resolution of 300 pixels per inch at 100 percent scale (see Figure 3). The artist can then produce images in a variety of sizes with very little effort and cater to a wider market.


Ink Sets

There are three types of ink technologies that fine art inkjet printers employ: pigment-based inks, water-based dye inks and water-based pigment inks.


Pigment inks are composed of tiny, encapsulated particles that sit on top of the paper, instead of being absorbed into a paper’s fibers, which is what happens with dyes. The particles of pigment inks don’t dissolve in their liquid vehicle and tend to be large enough to embed into the receiving substrate making them water-resistant. Pigment inks are less susceptible to environmental stresses and deterioration than water-based dye inks.

Archival dye-based inks exhibit excellent color gamut and saturation but they are susceptible to fading and color shifts whereas pigment inks excel in permanence. Tests have proven that they can last in excess of 200 years on some paper types under ideal museum-based lighting, framing and temperature-controlled conditions.

The most recent innovations are aqueous-based pigmented inks, such as Epson’s UltraChrome K3 inks. They too have increased color vibrancy and durability resulting in prints that retain their original color and intensity for many years in typical interior display conditions. Aqueous-based pigment inks are more widely used nowadays because they combine the properties of pigment and dye-based inks and are stable and durable.



Many printing papers are coated to produce a glossy surface and enhance the color gamut. These delicate surfaces can scuff or scratch and reduce the archival qualities of the print. Coated substrates are not considered true archival digital pigment prints. Some papers have optical brightening agents that degrade over time. Optical brighteners should be avoided in archival fine art printing.

Fine art prints are typically output to uncoated, natural fiber substrates with pigment inks assuring their longevity and stability. They are composed of wood pulp or cotton rags and are completely acid and cellulose free. Many of these papers are available on rolls and are treated to be compatible with the specific kind of inks used.

The most popular manufacturers of archival inkjet print papers include Epson, Canon, Fuji, Hahnemühle and St Cuthberts Mill (Somerset).

A giclée can also be printed on several different grades of cotton or cotton-poly blended canvases that provide a variety of textural surfaces. Canvas prints are usually stretched and the edges are wrapped around the wooden stretcher bars (see Figure 4) or framed in wood or metal. Paper prints are hung on archival board with acid-free tape at the top edge, then matted and framed with glass. Most substrates can also be mounted on foam board with commercial adhesive and edged with wood or metal frame molding.


Digital Capture

Creating a fine art print from a work of art usually requires photographing the original artwork at very high resolution in a highly controlled environment. A professional four by five camera with a high-end digital back, like a Mamiya Leaf Credo, is standard. The digital backs range from 50 to 80 megapixels and cost anywhere from $15,000 to $35,000. Special color and temperature controlled (5500 Kelvin) photo lights are also necessary to assure consistent color accuracy. A copy stand is necessary where the artwork can be centered perpendicular to the camera so that it is perfectly straight and square in the frame. An extremely stable tripod for the camera is required. Some shops mount their cameras on a weighted base and a rolling track attached to the floor to provide stability at any distance. A remote shutter release is essential to avoid movement and maintain razor sharp focus. A computer with lots of hard disk space and plenty of RAM is also essential in that the file sizes of these images can be enormous.



Once photographed, a calibrated and color managed workflow must be maintained in order to perfectly match colors from the original artwork to the archived file. Most professional shops make custom profiles and don’t rely on the canned ICC profiles provided by the printer’s manufacturer.

A custom profile—be made periodically for each substrate and ink set that the shop provides—will assure color accuracy. Undoubtedly some color-correction such as brightness, contrast and saturation adjustments are necessary. The goal is to match the color of the archived file as closely as possible to the original artwork.


The Proof

A full-sized strip of the artwork containing key colors—or if the client prefers, a smaller version of the image—is printed on the intended substrate and used as a proof for comparison against the original artwork (see Figure 5). The client signs off on this sample as final approval before the first print is run.


Fine Art Print Shops

Many professional shops that produce giclée prints provide a complete line of services for fine art printing from photography to final output, in a highly controlled color managed environment. Their websites enable clients to access service like downloading profiles, submitting files, choosing substrates and viewing pricelists online. Many shops provide finishing services such as matting, framing and canvas stretching.