The history of printing goes back to wood-block printing in AD 200, through movable type and the printing press in the Middle Ages. However, the idea of producing acceptable copies of artwork did not get off the ground until the invention of lithography in 1796.
Since then, reproducing artwork has evolved into the high quality process known as giclee printing, which began in the late 1980s and has developed into a method of producing long-lasting, exceptionally high-quality prints.
Through wood-block or engraved printing, an image is cut into a flat surface causing cavities that hold the printing ink. Lithography, on the other hand, uses basic chemistry to produce an image by creating areas on the printing plate (originally made from stone) that are either water attracting or repelling. These areas then either attract or repel the printing ink to produce the artwork.
In the modern lithographic process, the stone plate has been replaced by a flexible plate – usually thin aluminium, Mylar or polyester – that is covered with a light sensitive emulsion. A photographic process is then used to transfer a negative image to the plate, which leaves a copy of the image in the emulsion.
The plate is then placed on a roller that interacts with a second roller covered by rubber. The image is transferred to the rubber-covered roller, which then prints the image on paper fed through the rollers. Because the image is transferred from the printing plate via the rubber roller, the process is often known as offset printing.
Now, artists are turning to the modern giclee process instead of using plates and rollers. The giclee process uses a digital image and an inkjet printer. The name itself comes from the French verb “gicler” – to squirt or spray – and refers to the application of the printing inks by the inkjet printer.
Modern giclee printers use fade-resistant inks that result in a long-lasting, perfectly clear reproduction of the original master. Unlike lithographic printing, where each image requires a print plate for each of the four colour inks used in the process – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – and requires that the four separate colour images be perfectly aligned, the giclee process produces the image in one hit.
Apart from the improvement in quality, giclee prints are also cheaper to produce and can be produced in low volumes on demand. The artist and printer can also cut costs without the need to store four master plates. Also, as the cost of giclee inkjet printers falls, it is becoming economical for individual artists to acquire their own printer, allowing total control of the reproduction process.