Giclee Print vs Digital Print: Which is Better?

What is a giclee print?

This is an excellent question. Nowadays, with advances in technology and digital printing it’s more important than ever to know the difference between a giclee print vs digital print, especially if you intend to purchase a fine art reproduction.

What is a Giclee?

Giclee is the first and only fine art print to be made with an ink jet printer. Pronounced, zhee’clay, the word comes from the French, meaning to spray, which is exactly what an ink jet printer does.

It was a major break through in the fine art community when giclee reproductions were introduced to the market in the late 1980s . The quality of a giclee print is far superior to all other forms of printing. It fact, when done correctly, it’s the closest an artist can get to matching their original 2-D artwork. For art lovers who wanted to collect fine art but couldn’t afford an original, giclee reproductions quickly became a popular alternative to purchase.

Before I go any further in my explanation, I must clarify what I mean when I use the words print and reproduction because I would never want to offend any printmakers and the amazing art they create with their pulled prints.

Block Print by Peter Nevins

The Difference Between a

Giclee Print and Hand Pulled Print

Giclee prints are not to be confused with or even put in the same category as a pulled print. It’s important to recognize a pulled print is an original piece of fine art and not a copy. Pulled prints are made by printmakers from a master image they create themselves. The master image is usually made in the form of a plate, block, or stone, also known as etchings, block prints, and lithographs. Printmaking can take years to master, and each pulled print created by the printmaker is a unique piece of handmade art to be valued and treasured as an original.

Giclee and hand pulled prints are sometimes grouped together due to the misinterpretation of the words print and reproduction. The meanings of these words are often confused when taken out of context. Some believe reproduction is a copy of an original, and print refers to a pulled print which is, as I stated above, an original.

I consider the words reproduction and print interchangeable when used to reference to a giclee. So, for the purpose of this post both these words refer to a copy of original art.

The Difference Between a

Giclee and Digital Print

Simply put, it all boils down to the longevity of the art.

Before the internet, it was common to decorate the walls of your home with original artwork. There really was no other way to decorate your house if you wanted art on your walls. Choosing between original art and a fine art print use to be the only option a buyer had to think about, and if they had printing and framing needs; then, they went to a trained professional.

That is not the case any more!

The explosion of smart phones, devices, and home office printers along with the internet has given the ability to print any image imaginable into the hands of everyone. A person can simply print an image from their phone or computer on their home printer. This type of printing is called digital printing. Digital printing may be convenient; unfortunately, it’s not designed to last. The qualities of the materials used to make these prints are not archival. Within weeks noticeable damage will occur to digital prints from the sun and the humidity.

It’s easy to waste a lot of money on art prints that won’t last these days, which is why it’s so important to make sure the fine art you purchase is made from archival materials, especial if you are collecting art from a professional artist.

The 4 Major Criteria Needed to Make a

Giclee Print

Giclee prints can be made to reproduce any form of 2-D artwork, such as oil, acrylic, and watercolor paintings. In order to create a giclee print, four major criteria must be met during the printing process:

Resolution- The original piece of art should be professionally scanned or photograph at 300 dpi or higher resolution.

Ink- The ink must be pigmented (not dye). There also needs to be 8 or more different colored pigmented inks used in the printer.

Paper- The paper must be 100% archival. With that said there are a wide variety of materials available for giclee printing (as long as it’s archival) such as: canvas, gloss paper, mat paper, velvet paper, watercolor textured paper, and specialty artisan paper.

Printer- The printer itself must be a wide format ink jet printer. (This is not your everyday household office printer)

In the early 90s almost all giclee prints were made at specialty fine art print shops. These shops had the means to scan or photograph the original art, the software and experience to color correct the image for printing, and all the proper tools and materials for creating museum quality giclee reproduction. The quality of these prints were exquisite but costly.

Then, in the early 2000 smaller wide format fine art printers entered the market from companies like Epson, and it was a game changer for full time artist like me because we could now invest in our own equipment and have greater control over the quality of our fine art prints.

If you would like to learn what it take to make your own giclee prints check out my post: Equipment and Materials Needed to Make Archival Giclee Prints

The upside to this capability was it allowed us to cut out the middle man, and sell direct to our customers at a lower price, and the downside is it’s now harder then ever to detect if a fine art print is a true giclee because it’s so easy to substitute out any of the four criteria mentioned above.

Not All Artist Create Fine Art Prints

Because of the vast options of materials and tools that are now available for printing, I have notice an increase of artist creating prints that are not made from archival materials. There are a couple of reason digital printing is on the rise from professional fine artist, which is personally alarming to me.

  • 1st reason can be chalked up to the artist lack of experience and education of reproducing fine art.
  • 2nd reason is simply because the artist is looking to save money.

Some artist have discovered they can save money by substituting out the expensive pigmented inks for cheaper dye inks in their wide formatted printer.

Other artist also save money by not printing on archival paper.

I also see artist outsourcing their printing to companies online that are not specializing in reproducing fine art prints. They’re using print on demand services instead. These places are designed to handle high volume of digital printing needs, not giclee. Some of these companies can even drop ship directly to the customer, which means customers will not get a signed print from the artist. These companies are fantastic for individuals and businesses to use for their printing needs, but for a professional artist selling fine art it’s disingenuous.

NOTE: If the art is not considered “Fine Art” say for example a poster, stationary, decorative art, then print on demand companies are a wonderful resource!

I take great pride in knowing I create fine art archival giclee prints, so substituting materials will never be an option for me.

Unfortunately, not all artist share my beliefs.

IMPORTANT: If you’re shopping for a fine art reproduction it’s important to ask:

  • Where was the print made?
  • What kind of ink was used to make the print? (Remember it should be pigmented)
  • Is the paper or canvas 100% cotton? (That would mean it’s archival)
  • It’s also good to ask if the print has been signed and dated by the artist. (To learn more about signing a print click here.)

If the artist can’t answer these questions it’s likely they aren’t using archival materials, and are selling a digital prints instead of a giclee prints.

 

28 thoughts on “Giclee Print vs Digital Print: Which is Better?

  1. Thank you for explaining this all so well, Tracy! I’ve been curious about giclees recently, so perfect timing for seeing your work at Corn Hill and signing up for your newsletter. Your work is outstanding.

    1. Hi Stefani,

      I’m so happy to hear this post was helpful! Yeah! It was wonderful to meet you at Corn Hill too. Thank you so much for all your kind words here, and on my other soc site! Please let me know if I can help answer any questions you may have that may be in my wheelhouse. I love to help:)

  2. Giclee prints that have a UV acrylic coating. How does that affect the artwork. Is it save to assume that the process will leave a sheen on the print. Is this process commonly used.?
    Thank you,
    Marc

    1. Hi Marc,

      I make my reproductions on watercolor paper and would never coat them with any UV protectant. If you’re using the proper pigmented inks, (which are actually a powdered substance instead of a dye) it will have UV protectant already in it. I would imagine UV coating is something an oil or acrylic artist may do on their canvas? Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with anything printed on canvas. I have always specialized in traditional watercolors, and to protect those I would need to use special UV protectant glass.

      I wish I new more about UB acrylic coating. Sun is the number one destroyer of art, and this may be the perfect viable option for a person depending on the art they create! I would definitely look into it. If you wanted to use it I would see if they had it in different finishes such as matte, satin, or gloss which would at least give you some options if it leaves a sheen.

  3. Tracy
    I’m a new watercolor artist and am wondering if you would recommend “Giclee Today” as a company for custom Giclee reproduction of original artwork.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Grace,

      I just check out the site and the price you are getting for the quality of materials is pretty good! The materials are fantastic! You should get a really great giclee print from them. The mark up is roughly wholesale price, which I think is very reasonable. They are definitely worth trying.

      If you find you can sell the same print over and over again they are great to use.

      If you are more like me and like to sell one of this print and one of another and so on, you might want to get your own epson printer in the future (a small one) so you can print on demand. But in the meantime this website is a great starting point!

      Let me know how it goes!

  4. Thank you for this explanation. I am wondering though, about the nomenclature for a gicleé print that is, in fact, and original, i.e. a digitally created work whose end result/final step in the process is to be printed. I’ve been calling my work “original gicleé prints,” but for those who associate printing entirely with reproduction, this may be a confusing description.
    All the best!

  5. Tracy
    Thanks for all your advice
    You talk of your art work
    I am looking for a giclee print of Rembrandt’s
    Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

    Can I get that from you?
    Thanks again for your advice

  6. As a hobbyist photographer who has quite a few people asking for prints, I was looking for a well explained definition of this important difference. I have professional photographer friends who had said Giclee was the only way to print. Now I see why.

    Thank you!
    Cari

    1. Hi Cari,

      As a photograph you also have so many option nowadays too on what you choose to print on. I hope you have fun with your art, while figuring out how best to make your prints!
      Best of Luck,

      Tracy

  7. Tracy, I just stumbled on to this post. I can provide some help on the use of UV coatings. I am a photographer who sells my work on several substrates including canvas. It is very true that pigment inks are the way to go regarding light-fastness, but one slight downside to pigment is that they can scuff/rub/scratch more easily than the oh so common dye inks, which are infused into the surface of paper. This is because the pigment particles sit on the surface of any substrate. You might not think this is true until you actually do “scuff” one. The pigment particles themselves don’t need any more protection from the light per se…BUT, the physical susceptibility to scuffing still remains.
    Now, for paper prints that are handled carefully and go behind glass, then of course, this would not generally be a concern. However, canvas is often displayed without glazing, not to mention it usually has to go through a “stretching” process, which can place extra stress on the surface, and sometimes results in “micro-cracking”, or scuffing/scratching as it is handled.
    SO, a standard practice in the canvas world is to coat (also called laminate, varnish) printed canvas to provide that protection. The UV protection is a feature also with these lamination products, but when we think of it as more of a physical protectorant, then one can see a sometimes overlooked benefit…given the nature of pigment inks. These lamination products are generally a liquid that is either rolled on or sprayed on, and come in various finishes, from matte to glossy.
    When I print in a “giclee” fashion on canvas, I use a media that is rated as “archival” to begin with, print with pigments, and then laminate with one of these products.
    I might add that for fine art paper prints, rather than a full-on varnish, I typically use a spray “coating” (PremierArt™ Print Shield) which adds a UV protective layer, but does not do so much for the physical barrier aspect. In fact, it doesn’t change the surface at all. It’s really easy to use and basically gives even more light-fastness than otherwise.
    Anyway, I hope that helps.
    Jon Holiday, photosbyjon®

    1. Hi Jon,
      Thank you so much for taking the time share such knowledgeable info! When it comes to canvas art and photography my knowledge is limited as to how to protect it, and what you shared will be very helpful for those out there looking for more info on protective coatings for their art. I always put mine behind glass, and call it good because that’s all a watercolor needs, lol.

      I also checked out your photography and it’s wonderful! I see you have a few from the Portland area – Love the lighthouses!

  8. I’m just starting an etsy shop and i was wondering if cardstock is a good paper to use for prints? (I do have a inkjet printer btw) Also if the my art was digitally made and then printed as a giclee is that considered a digital print? Hope that makes sense! I’m new to the world of making prints and selling my art so ive been researching a lot. This article was extremly helpful.

    1. Hi Breshae,
      You have excellent questions. What you choose to print on I think is a personal choice and what you start out with doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. You will evolve as time goes on. Cardstock can be nice depending on what you use. There are a lot of variations out there. It’s not going to be a fine art print, but if that’s not what you are going for I say try it out.

      If you made your art on the computer then yes it’s considered digital art (nothing wrong with that) If you print your digital art out on fine art paper (or canvas) then it would be called a digital fine art print or digital archival print. You can even call it digitally designed giclee print. Then your customer will ask: Oh, what does that mean? This is a good thing because then you get to explain your process, and they can hear how much work you put into making your art! Then you make a sale:-)

      Here’s a paper you can try out: https://amzn.to/2LkbbU2
      you can also pick it up at Staples. It has a special powder coated surface that makes the print color pop. It’s much nicer then cardstock and is affordable way to start. You just need to start experimenting on different papers and also see what your customers like. Bottomline you have to feel good about the product you are selling because your customers will know.

      Best of Luck!
      Tracy

      1. Thank you so much for the reply! This has been extremely helpful and I’ll definitely check out the paper you suggested.

  9. I’m curious about your thoughts on having prints done on photo paper – numbered and signed in the border? Photo paper is acid free and archival.
    I’d also like to know what you think about canvas prints that can be hand embellished and signed before selling? I have seen other artists do this and it seems to be popular.

    1. Hi Jen,

      All the materials you mentions are wonderful, and it really depends on what your art is, and how it will look on the different materials. It doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is what you think! How do you want your art to represent yourself? What will you be proud to sell. I would make samples of everything your mentioned, and even try selling it, and see what you like best. Then start building collections of art with the material you like to print on. You can’t go wrong. Your customers will buy what you are enthusiastic to sell them. (most customers aren’t picky on the materials and typically want art they connect with)

  10. That is a great explanation. As a fine art photographer and someone who prints, mats, and signs his own giclee pieces. I would like to ask your permission to copy this post and add it to my blog to educate my clients and viewers. I will of course credit you and provide a backlink.

    1. Hi Thomas,
      Yes, go right ahead. Thank you for asking! I really appreciate you crediting and back linking to my post.

      I also checked out your photography and it’s gorgeous! I love all the nature.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! I’m the mom of a teenage artist who loves pen & ink and we are trying to figure out the best way to print some of her sketches and then package them for sale at a fair. It is important to us to do it right but I am totally new to this and it’s confusing! Been reading a ton. I found your post trying to understand our best options for printing pen & ink drawings professionally (I only have a Brother inkjet). You confirmed for me that pigment printing/archival paper is best. Question though – for black and white ink, is glicee still best in your opinion. I ask because I do see some art printers offering pigment inkjet prints on matte paper (smooth or textured) that are not glicee. Is that also a respectable option for pen/ink as well as long as long as it’s archival and pigment inkjet. I hope this makes sense. Definitely want to be sure she can feel good about her prints being of art quality since we are selling them. We are making cards as well, and I am thinking of doing those “in house” on the inkjet (currently researching quality paper and I found compostable bags) as it seems these are more “consumable” and not as necessary for archival. My respect to all the artists. I had no idea all that was involved in reproducing art in a respectable way, and appreciate the kindness already shown my child as she explores her craft.

    1. Hi Michele,

      What a great mom you are helping your daughter out! In the beginning I would just use what you have and just don’t call them giclee. They may not be of fine art quality, but before you start sinking your money into equipment or print services, just get her art out there and try selling it. If she likes the whole printing and selling process and can make money, then you can decide if you want to invest in giclee. Giclee is best not only because you can call it fine art worth collecting from the artist, but it’s also archival. You want your prints to be archival so that the sun doesn’t fade the art. Sun damage sets in, in just a matter of a few weeks. If you want your art to last you need to use both archival paper or canvas, and inks. If you want it to be conceded giclee then you need pigmented inks that have 7 or more color options for mixing colors.

      When choosing how to make reproductions it’s a matter of personal preference from the artist. These days a lot of people are find with framing stationary or a poster that probably won’t last long but was cheap and easy to decorate their house with. If you want to be an artist that sell fine art quality reproductions then you need to market and price accordingly, and make your art stand out from the rest. You guys can do this! The best way to figure out what will work best for you is to jump in and try things:D

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