Have you ever seen an original artwork that you would love to see hanging on your wall only to find that the price was out of your reach?  You wouldn’t be alone — the gap between a budget and a beautiful piece has stopped many aspiring art buyers from starting their collections. 

But, if finding an original work of art seems like a pipe dream, there are affordable and elegant alternatives at every price point. Enter the giclée print. Produced through a sophisticated process using professional-grade large format printers, specialized papers, and archival pigment inks to create a high-quality reproduction, many artists offer giclée prints as more affordable alternatives to original works. 

The combination of pigment inks and archival papers ensures that a giclée print will look as beautiful as the day it was created, for many years to come. To better understand what makes giclée prints so special, let’s look at how they are created.

 
How Giclée Printers Work

Giclée is a French term meaning “to spray,” which is derived from how a Giclée printer works. Giclée printers are essentially a high-quality version of an inkjet printer that you might have in your home. Prints are created by spraying droplets of ink onto the paper through small nozzles, just like a home printer. The difference is the spray nozzles on a giclée printer are much finer, able to deposit millions of ink droplets on every square inch of paper.

Giclée printers also have a wide range of printable colors due to their expanded set of ink cartridges. While most home printers have only four colors of ink (also known as CMYK, which stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) or up to eight colors when it comes to some photo-quality printers, giclée printers have 11 or more color cartridges. This gives them the ability to provide fine tonal gradations, subtle tones, and smooth shadows. Reproducing accurate tonal quality requires billions of colors so having more ink cartridges with varying shades makes a dramatic difference.

 

What does archival mean and how is it achieved? 

At its simplest, archival means that the artwork will last for a long time, without degradation or fading. Archival prints, including giclée prints, have two critical elements that determine the relative archival properties: ink and paper.

Giclée printers use pigment-based inks, which hold fine particles suspended in liquid. They have excellent inherent archival qualities, such as being weather-resistant, scratch-resistant, water-resistant, and fade-proof, as well as being more vivid and opaque than other types of inks. These inks are rated to maintain their vibrancy for up to 200 years.

A giclée print also requires archival paper specifically designed for durability. Giclée fine art papers, including printable canvas, are made with cotton, not wood as you might find in traditional printing paper or newspaper.  These cotton-based papers have coatings specifically developed for pigment-based inks with a texture and finish that give giclée prints a true “museum quality” feel and appearance.

Paper made from wood, like newsprint, also contains lignin, which is the chemical that holds the cellulose fibers together. Lignin also oxidizes and breaks down the paper easily. Newsprint paper, for example, contains 30% lignin and will darken and tear easily, and after a short time become hard and crumbly. That may be good for newspapers or other disposable papers that will likely find their way to a landfill or recycling center, but not for artwork you want to hang on your wall for a long time.

Giclée archival paper is also acid-free. Standard paper made from wood pulp is usually acidic and becomes increasingly so the older it gets.  It’s the acid that often turns paper yellow and causes it to become brittle over time. Acid can also leach onto other items in contact with the paper so if you are storing a non-archival print on top of an archival print, the acid from the non-archival print could end up damaging the archival print as well.  

UV light and heat can also speed up the acidic chemical process that causes the degradation of paper. You’ll often see the edges of old book pages that have been sitting on bookshelves exposed to light appear darker in color than the rest of the page. For a paper to be called archival, it must have a pH value between 7.5 and 10 so that acidity won’t break down the fibers. 

Archival papers also use optical brightening agents, or OBAs, that make them look radiantly white. OBAs absorb UV light and then bounce it back as visible light in the blue spectrum, which gives the appearance to the human eye of extra brightness, making a print look truly amazing.

 

How to inspect quality when buying Giclée prints online

While any image can be printed on a giclée printer, how close the image comes to the original artwork depends on how the image was prepared or captured into its digital form for printing.

Capturing the detail and texture of the original and ensuring that the digital image has the color accuracy, tone, and gradations of the original requires more than just a quick snapshot with an iPhone camera. It requires high-resolution cameras, and a proper lighting setup to ensure that all the details such as brushstrokes and texture are properly captured. The image must also be free from glare, which can be particularly difficult when photographing oil paintings, where the hot spots of shine coming off the painting can overwhelm the digital sensor. Poor lighting can also make the image seem uneven in shading and brightness or may even change the colors captured by the digital sensor. 

More problematic is using a camera that doesn’t have the resolution to capture an artwork at its original size. For example, assume the original artwork is 24×32 inches. To print an image that size on a giclée printer, the image would have to be around 60 megapixels. An iPhone 13 camera is only 12 megapixels. While you can increase the size of the photo with software, blowing up an image too large will create pixelation and blurriness as can be seen in the detail of the image below. 

Is Original Art Too Expensive? Try a Giclée Print Instead - Art Guide by Artrepreneur

Blowing up a low-resolution image can end up being blurry and pixelated

Unfortunately, when buying giclée prints online, assessing quality is often not possible by looking at the low-resolution images generally shown.

At sites like Artrepreneur, curators review each work before accepting the piece into the Giclée Print Shop. Potential buyers can also view a watermarked version of the high-resolution file we use to produce each giclée print so you assess the quality for yourself. 

So, if you are unable to hold the print in your hand prior to purchasing, be sure that the work is from a respected site so you can be confident that the quality of the giclée meets the museum-quality standard. 

Once you hold your giclée print in your hand and see it up close, you’ll know you have purchased something special. The prints have beautiful highlights, extended mid-tones, and rich shadows. The colors are rich and vibrant with crisp details, amazing color accuracy, and a wide tonal range that makes it feel like an original work of art, not merely a picture of one. Giclées are an excellent alternative to the original work and well worth the price.

Have you ever bought a giclée print?  Let us know what you think about them. 

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art, law, and business. He is currently serving as the Chief Product Officer at Artrepreneur. You can find his photography at artrepreneur.com or through Fremin Gallery in NYC.

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