Art is an often elastic and subjective term, but there is one fact that artists tend to agree on—they know good reproductions when they see them. They also know bad ones. And they’re not afraid to be vocal about it.
"Artists are the most challenging clients you could have—they know color," says Mark Leftoff, owner of Atlanta-based Gallery Street.
Thankfully, according to fine art reproducers, the technology has advanced to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to distinguish a digitally reproduced piece of artwork from the original.
"They pretty well fool the eye," is how MD-based artist Richard Harryman describes the giclée reprints he commissions from Staples Fine Art, Inc.
Giclée is derived from the French verb, gicler, meaning to squirt or spray. The spraying in this equation is, of course, ink from an inkjet print head. Giclée is now a catch-all term to describe the reproduction of fine art with high resolution inkjet printers. Indeed, the fine art reproduction market embodies the well-worn business trope that new technologies create new markets. In the case of giclée, it was more accurately a case of the improvement of existing inkjet and imaging technology revitalizing an existing market of art reproduction. This was previously the domain of offset lithographers and screen printers.
It was the combination of long-lasting pigmented inks, high resolution digital cameras and camera backs, and high resolution wide format inkjet printers that provided print makers with a way to appeal to artists who wished to side-step the inventory concerns associated with offset printing. Giclée has introduced the concept of on demand printing to the art world. It has also empowered artists to reproduce their work on their own, an avenue that often leads them into a larger business.
"I have been in the large format print business for 12 years and art reproduction was always challenging," Leftoff states. "Once pigment inks reached the color gamut of dye inks, we had more confidence in the technology."
"Artists are aware of the quality we can achieve, they’re blown away by it," says Ken Macky Valentine, owner, Giclée Print Net, Inc.
Artist TJ Rose recalls how her father, who was in the printing business, encouraged her to digitally print her own artwork. "I opened a gallery and for a while only reproduced my own work or sold my originals," says Rose. That business soon expanded to include reproductions for fellow artists and is today a full blown giclée shop—TJ Rose Fine Art. "Giclée is well received in the artistic community," Rose adds. "It makes a lot more sense than lithography."
For artists like Harryman, giclée printing is a good solution for the independent-minded. "When you work with a publisher, inventory is their problem, but then they want you to paint what they want. When you’re on your own, inventory is your problem. But I paint what I want to paint," states Harryman.
Fine art reproduction technology did not advance on its own. It was shepherded by path-breaking fine art printers who worked closely with hardware and software vendors to fine-tune their fine art solutions. According to Mark Staples, the genesis of giclée was almost serendipitous. "I bought one of the first Roland Hi-Fi Jets," he says. "This was supposed to be a printer for the sign shops, but the resolution was so high that they were too slow for the sign market and people caught on that you could do fine art printing with them."
Staples, an artist himself, says he was initially interested in digital reproduction as a means to make copies of his and his family’s artwork. "I guess I embody the ying and the yang of this market, I have an artistic background and a technical background," Staples continues.
That technical background led him to work with Scanvec Amiable—now SA International—to develop a RIP for fine art use and with Clearstar Coatings Corp. to develop a coating for canvas prints.
Similarly, Rose notes how she worked hand-in-glove with Roland and Ergosoft to develop a RIP for 12-color printing using Roland’s Symphony print solution.
Digital fine art reproduction is an aqueous-based business, says Patti Williams, consulting partner, I.T. Strategies. Giclée printers typically employ wide format machines from Epson, HP, MacDermaid ColorSpan, and Roland, among others. The front end is as important, if not more so, than the back-end, Leftoff says. "Your print is only as good as your file."
Artwork is typically digitized using camera and scan backs from Phase One and Better Light mounted on medium format cameras. Rose says that even a high-end Canon digital SLR with a 100mm macro lens and proper lighting will capture enough detail for a brilliant reproduction. "The proof of that is in my prints," she adds.
Media is sourced from a wide array of vendors. "We’re always looking for niche papers," Leftoff says. "We have a box of samples and whenever we have downtime, we’ll test some."
"Artists are really intrigued by new media," Valentine adds.
When the print is complete, it’s typically coated to improve longevity or for added artistic effect. Opinions vary on the best coating method—some use liquid laminators, some brush it on. Staples uses an industrial sprayer used to apply automotive finishes in a dedicated spray room.
While giclée printers marvel at the leaps the technology has made since the mid 1990s, the fine tuning continues, particularly when it comes to color matching.
"I would really like to see cadmium red and metallic inks," Rose admits. "All the other colors we can hit, but artists love that red. Just one cartridge we could pop in!"
"In the five years I’ve been doing this we only had two colors we couldn’t match," Leftoff says. Artists who employ day-glo or neon colors in their work present the toughest color matching challenge, he adds.
The market for fine art reproduction is growing steadily, according to Williams. The retail value of digitally reproduced fine art will top off at $900 million worldwide or roughly $360 million in the U.S., Williams notes. The firm expects the worldwide market to hit $1.7 billion in 2010, a CAGR of 17 percent.
"In relation to other indoor digital applications it’s a small niche—about four percent of the total dollar value—but it is growing," states Williams. The growth is being driven by two factors, she adds. New digital technology has opened the door for artists to reproduce their own work, which has delivered incremental gains. Also, digital reproductions are cannibalizing the older methods of offset lithography and screen printing.
For Ken Valentine, the market was enticing enough to jump in. With a partner he purchased the ten-year-old firm Giclée Print Net over a year and a half ago. "I do think this is a very healthy market, particularly for high-end photo printing." In fact, while both giclée and professional photo printing are growing, the latter is growing faster, he says.
When Mark Staples began ten years ago, only a handful of printers were producing giclées. Today, he finds the market much more fragmented and competitive. "Demand is becoming regionalized," he says. Some regions of the country are more comfortable with digital reproductions than others, he adds, singling out southern CA and NY as the leading locations Rose notes that the entire art market is slowly recovering from its post 9/11 hangover, but that it hasn’t yet return to the boom days.
Fine art printers sell to a variety of markets, principally galleries, brokers, hospitality, retail, museums, and of course, individual artists. Some, like Gallery Street, are both a gallery and a printer, contracting with artists to sell their work on a variety of substrates—like shower curtains—to average consumers online. Indeed, the Web is a very powerful business tool for giclée printers, taking what is traditionally a word-of-mouth and regional business and making it national.
Valentine created a spin-off site dedicated to high-end art photographers—terajet.com—which he describes as a, "Shutterfly for pro photographers," where they can upload their high resolution images and have them professionally printed. "Photographers are savvy and are able to send us high quality files that don’t need a lot of work done to them," states Valentine.
Since giclée is growing in popularity, managing customer expectations is important. Artists, particularly those unfamiliar with the digital printing process, often assume that any and all colors can be splashed down on canvas. It’s also a very relationship-oriented business, as the artistic community frequently commingles at galleries and events. "We get a very strong word-of-mouth business," Leftoff says.
While artists appreciate the level of quality attainable with digital equipment, the perception spreads that, "there’s nothing more to it than a printer and PC, so they shop for printers solely on price," Staples says. Communicating the value of experience and color accuracy is a key challenge as the market matures, providers observe.
While I.T. Strategies predicts strong growth for fine art reproductions, the estimates could be too conservative if artists are willing to stretch the boundaries of reproduction, Williams says. Once the painting is digitized, it can be turned into a number of items. Leftoff’s Gallery Street sells artwork on an array of media including pillows, scarves, handbags, and note cards.
The trick, Williams adds, is convincing artists to embrace these novel avenues. "Once the art becomes digital, it’s a whole new world."