What Is Giclee Printing?

collage of large prints


by Michael McCarty

Founder, Tribeca Printworks

Welcome to the Tribeca Printworks Learning Center! We wanted to create a destination with useful information for artists, photographers, and everyone else who may be thinking about utilizing the giclee printing process. As we thought about a good introductory topic, we settled on one of the most commonly asked questions that we seem to get: “what is giclee, how do I say it, and what does it actually mean?” While we give some quick answers to this in our FAQ section, as well as on our Fine Art Prints description page, we wanted to dive a little deeper into the history of the technology and the word itself.

So, why giclee you may be asking? As a starting point, the word itself is pronounced “gee clay,” and while the word is French in origin, it’s use in the world of fine art printing is definitely an American construct. Loosely translated, it means “to spray.” Printmaker Jack Duganne of Duganne Editions in Santa Monica coined the phrase in the mid-nineties as a way of easily referring to prints made with the emerging technology. The digital printers in use at that time, Iris printers, did indeed spray the ink onto the surface of the paper, deflecting away the droplets that weren’t needed for the image. The name caught on even though Iris printers were later replaced by the Piezo drop-on-demand printers utilized today, which technically use a very different process. Piezo drop-on-demand print technology often features eight or nine ink cartridges feeding into a print head that has tiny charged crystals within the chamber of each color. The crystals vibrate to release the appropriate amount of ink “on-demand” via electrostatic charge, to produce your print.

Why not just call these prints “digital” or “inkjet?” The early digital printmakers wanted to avoid using these labels as they carried a negative connotation at the time; in other words that the quality was somehow less than that of more traditional printing processes. That negative association has certainly changed over time and digital prints are now widely accepted in museums and galleries. 

One problem with the label “giclee” however, is that it isn’t really a standardized word, or process. When you go to a gallery, museum or art fair you can find these prints referred to in many different ways. For example you may see “archival pigment print,” “digital pigment print,” “archival inkjet print,” and a number of other combinations of the terminology. Generally speaking, these terms may all be referring to a very similar thing; typically an inkjet print produced on a fine art paper or canvas substrate. It is important to note, however, that there can be an enormous amount of variation between the papers and often between the printers themselves. There are also printers that use latex inks, solvent based inks and UV curable inks that may all be called “giclee” even if they are not as archival, or as detailed.

Full disclosure, at Tribeca Printworks we resisted using the term giclee for some time. It’s hard to pronounce and it doesn’t tell you much about what the print actually is, however we had to accept that the giclee moniker is quite commonly used in the world of fine art printing. Therefore, we began to use it interchangeably with other phrases such as “archival pigment print” which concisely describes what the print is. So although the term “giclee” is widely used and accepted in many sectors of the art world, it may not always be the most appropriate or comprehensive descriptor for your audience. We are always happy to give our advice on what you should call the prints you are producing or selling. Feel free to contact us for a consultation and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

What makes our prints giclee? At Tribeca Printworks we use large format Epson 11880 printers with Epson Ultrachrome K3 pigmented inks. You have the option to print on a curated selection of Hahmnemuhle and Epson Fine Art papers and Breathing Color Canvas substrates. It is important to remember that in addition to the technical aspects of the actual printer, inks and paper there are many other factors that go into making an acceptable fine art print. You must also consider how the print is profiled, the print speed and settings, the inspection and handling process, and more.

Wherever you decide to have your images printed and framed, it’s our philosophy to arm you with as much information as possible to help you make the best decisions!

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