Updated: Jan 10
Originality, quality and making fine art more affordable.
You’d be amazed how much confusion abounds over one simple word: PRINT.
Any printmaker will be nodding by now, knowing what I’m about to say. And why? Because the word is used ubiquitously for both machine- and hand-made work. There’s a wealth of difference between a print from an Epson device in your home office, and a hand-inked original.
We try to get round this confusion by referring to the artisan version as "printmaking" and the digital process simply as "printing", but the products of both are often still referred to as "prints"! This can cause a few problems when buying and selling artwork.
There are many talented printmakers (the artisans) creating lino prints, lithographs, collagraphs, etchings and screen prints. For each of those techniques, the printmaker will ink the plate manually and repeatedly to produce an edition of original prints.
The value of an original print is higher than a digital copy, because it is handmade. The value of an original print is even higher again if the printmaker has produced a limited edition. The the smaller the edition size, the higher the price.
My collagraph plates are constructed with materials that can’t withstand too much rubbing and pressing (that's a very crude description of the intaglio inking method). Also, I don’t have the space to store hundreds of prints. So, I always just print ten to fifteen from each new plate.
A small, hand-inked collagraph from a limited edition of 15 is rarer and therefore more valuable than a larger mass-produced digital one - or so you'd think! Actually, we are conditioned in society to pay less for small things, so it's hard persuading someone to pay more for hand-made (A print's a print, right? That's unfair!).
So, as a printmaker, I think I can be forgiven for having a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with digital prints up till now. They have cost me many frustrating conversations; I have lost count how many times I’ve been asked at craft fairs or open studio events if I “print” my images on an Epson, Canon or HP! I would sometimes get a sore throat from staking my reputation on my artwork being “ORIGINALS ONLY”. I was very earnest about it!
So, am I saying that a digital print is a sub-standard phoney in comparison to its hand-inked counterpart?
Not necessarily! This is where it gets even more confusing. Enter “giclée”:
Not all digital prints are created equal. There is a whole world of difference in quality between a standard mass-produced digital print run from a four-colour offset lithography machine and the prints from a specialised inkjet printer. Standard offset printers aren’t able to reproduce all the nuances of colour visible in the original image. Offset prints are on coated wood-pulp papers which are not lightfast. In their favour though, they are very economical to produce.
Giclée prints, however, from those specialist high-resolution inkjet printers which spray lightfast pigment inks onto the paper rotating on a drum, use the CYMK colours with additional colour cartridges to attain a much broader gamut and a smoother gradient transition. With giclée prints, the colours can be matched so closely to the original image that it would be hard to tell them apart, and there is a wider choice of high-quality papers available for use as the printing surface. The overall quality is far superior.
A giclée's a high quality, accurate reproduction of the original which still embodies the quality standards demanded by the maker. The recipe for giclée is use of authentic and original artist's media, light-fast pigment ink, exceptional resolution, colour gamut, and accuracy.
Mike Shepherd, Photosynthesis Fine Art Photography and Printing, Lancaster.
What does giclée mean, and where does it come from?
This word was coined in the 1990s by a printmaker called Jack Duganne to differentiate quality fine art prints from regular mass-produced commercial prints. Giclée is a French noun meaning a spurt of some liquid. “Gicleur” in French is the technical term for a jet or nozzle. Duganne’s neologism refers to a relatively modern printing technique used to produce higher quality prints which, since the 1990s, artists now offer as an affordable alternative for those art lovers for whom an original piece is out of budget. By limiting the number of copies, extra value is added because it is now a "limited edition" (digital) print too.
As a printmaker, I have been slow to accept giclée into my portfolio. I have always felt that people may get too confused by the idea of buying something that is essentially a print from a print! Collagraphs, by nature of their textural appearance and the way the paper is embossed by the raised textures of the hand-built plate, may not photograph well enough for a digital reproduction. Also, collagraph plates are made to be editioned and it seems counter-intuitive to have a digital edition running alongside a hand-inked one. I can just imagine the confusion amongst customers if I try to explain that one!
However, during the first Covid lockdown I created several series of monoprints in my studio. I immersed myself in the spontaneous, experimental and painterly art of them. Each single monoprint is a unique one-off. At some point in the future I would love to frame and exhibit these larger originals, but for now I have asked Mike Shepherd, an expert in fine art printing and all things giclée, to help me produce a limited edition of A3 giclée reproductions instead. This seems like a good way to incorporate giclée without too much confusion for buyers. Whatever happens, I promise to be clear and upfront about any artwork I sell; I will always tell you if you are buying original, limited edition, original limited edition, or giclée reproduction limited edition.
I am nearly ready to launch my online shop on Big Cartel. I have three series of giclée to offer. There are four in each series:
Lines - a daily forest walk near my home in Dorset inspired a series celebrating trees and greens;
Rock Pool - nostalgia for my childhood days on Charmouth Beach in Dorset, looking for crabs and draping myself in seaweed;
Shanghai Garden - a journey of discovery in the art of bonsai (Pengjing) in Shanghai's Botanical Garden, and the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou, in May 2019.
I hope you'll enjoy looking at them. Thank you for reading.