about Giclée or digital printing

January 29, 2010

With the advent of the digital revolution, the “giclée” or digitally produced ink-jet art print is an upscale and promising venue of digital imaging technology.  Images can be easily created, shared and printed the world over.  It is clear that inks, paper and techology will consistently improve to offer high resolution, archival prints which can qualitatively equal or even surpass traditional lithography for only a fraction of the cost.  As a new medium it promises to be an art in itself, because the tools are back in the hands of the artist. 

But as a new medium, it is also important to distinguish a few basic elements of the larger printing world to which it belongs.  Printing, be it digital or lithographic, occurs in the world of CMYK, or subtractive light and refers to multiple identical reproductions.  It is to be differentiated from the world of painting which usually (but not always) occurs in the world of subtractive light and whose pallette is greatly expanded beyond four basic colors.  Additionally, the act of painting refers to a unique product.

What can be confusing for consumers/collectors is the term “limited edition print”.  Traditionally this term referred to a run of prints which were created from a means that became dissipated through the action of printing.  For example, etching plates whose fine lines grew softer after repeated use.  More often, the term “limited edition print” simply referred to the amount of prints generated at any one particular time for economic reasons, not necessarily technical.

In the current world of printing, whether lithographic or digital, the term “limited edition print” refers to economic factors and not physical dissipation, that is the number of copies generated at any one time is determined by how much the artist can spend to produce the images he/she hopes to sell rather than the dissipation of digital pixels (which is absurd) or lithographic plates, which do in fact dissipate in extremely large runs.

In this regard, the Giclée print is directly advantageous to the artist:  no huge lithographic print run to manage, pay for and inventory.  Artists can now “print on demand” and even sign their work, completely bypassing the “limited edition print” run event, potentially rendering the term altogether meaningless  (buyer beware). 

Technically, the Giclée print may also be superior to traditional lithography since the ink jets do not require the intervention of tiny lithographic dots to hold the ink.  Finer gradations and subtler details can be rendered.  For example, the current top range digital printers includes two levels of jets for the cyan and magenta inks (one for the normal range of values and one particularly sensitized to reproduce highlight detail).   The archival qualities of the inks are consistently being improved (but still do not retain the longevity of a well executed oil painting) while the substrate is whatever quality technology or ecomomics allow.

The drawback of the Giclée print is the same as it ever was for lithography: CMYK cannot reproduce certain secondary colors, as well as even certain pigments of yellow, red and blue; what is visible on the LED monitor in RGB may not be reproducible in CMYK.  Additionally, importantly, and in contrast to painting, a print surface offers extremely little refraction of light through its micro millimetered surface-depth.  So the play of light through its surface remains predictably (mechanically) stable, unlike the subtle differences that can be experienced when viewing an original painting.  So although the Giclée or digiprint offers many possibilities, a print is still a print…

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