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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Inkjet Art Reproductions - Giclee

Summary: This is the story of how a good idea crashes into a dead end. It illustrates the complexity of what artists encounter if they start asking questions about the robustness of the materials they use. Inkjet printers used to reproduce an image of an original work of art opened the door to questioning the longevity of reproductions made using this method.

Over 15 years ago, our art materials subcommittee D0.57, part of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) pondered the creation of a potential standard that would be debated for several years. For as long as I can remember, our subcommittee dutifully met in person twice each year. For our January gathering, like a migratory bird species, we would fly to Fort Lauderdale, FL at the beginning of the 3rd week of January and meet along with the entire ASTM committee that discusses commercial paint standards. A vast majority of meeting attendees represent major commercial paint companies. We were the “oddballs” of the group who dealt with the tiny niche market related to the art materials industry.

We traditionally held a Sunday afternoon informal meeting to introduce new members and kick around ideas about standards for art materials. We would also wax philosophically about the changes in the art materials world that we believed were harbingers of the fall of civilization. We firmly believed that without art, society would crumble, and the world would return to its Neanderthal roots. Some of the Sunday topics discussed would have more formal treatment at our Monday, all-day, subcommittee meeting.

One idea that emerged related to the rise in the use of inkjet printing to reproduce works of art. Perhaps, the subcommittee should consider creating a light fastness standard for inkjet inks. Artists were starting to embrace inkjet printing to make copies of their paintings and watercolors to create a lower-cost alternative to purchasing original artwork. They even gave their “fine art” prints a fancy name. The prints were called “giclee.”

The word giclee is derived from the French term for “to spray” or “to squirt.” Given the etymology of the term, does it imply that squids and skunks are nature’s original giclee artists? Male dogs appear to practice this “art form” as well when marking their territory.

We discussed the durability of inkjet inks. It was well-documented that the source of many colors came from dyes. Dyes were used because they are fine enough to be electrostatically placed on a substrate in micro-dot quantities. We were aware that many dyes are highly fugitive. Some informal testing and anecdotal evidence indicated that even black inkjet ink faded. The inkjet industry was over a decade or more away from developing pigmented inks that could potentially withstand exposure to long-term light energy and not display significant signs of fading.

In my opinion, artists and their gallery dealers appeared to ignore the problems of fading inks. While not as expensive as the original work of art, they were no better in quality than a photocopy. A black-and-white photocopy stood a much better chance of maintaining its original appearance than an early inkjet print.

Art galleries sold tons of inkjet prints. I recall visiting galleries in southern California that only displayed inkjet prints. Not a single original work of art hung on their walls. The sales pitch by dealers attempted to use reasonable pricing as the motivation to purchase inkjet prints. However, many of the prints I saw were priced well over a few thousand dollars. The idea of uniqueness and originality was more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. A few rather well-known artists embraced inkjet printing so wholeheartedly that they oversaturation their market and caused their prices and reputation to plummet. It was the art world’s equivalent of the Dutch tulip market crash in the 17th century.

Understand that I don’t object to reproducing artwork using inkjet technology. I find it disingenuous when inkjet prints of original artwork are reproduced on textured canvas substrates with no labeling that they are inkjet prints. Fancy framing and, in some cases, acrylic gel texture enhancements, portray these reproductions as being nearly the equivalent in value and longevity as the original oil paintings or watercolors that were the image source. Signed “limited editions” are meaningless in the digital world. Who assures that the artist destroys the digital file that creates an edition?

A quick internet search yields result that suggests that inkjet prints are the same or better than traditional prints using etching, silkscreen, engraving, lithography, etc. Inkjet prints become mixed in with the same centuries-old techniques that define fine art printing.

So, you would think that our ASTM art materials subcommittee would have an easy time creating a test method and standard to determine if inkjet inks are as durable as other traditional art materials. That was not the case.

The first hurdle was determining how to test an ink. Another standards-making group, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), was ahead of us. However, the ISO subcommittee tasked with creating a light fastness standard was composed of leading manufacturers of inkjet printers/inks. So much of the time was spent arguing as to which company’s system performed better and should become the standard for light fastness.

The next big hurdle for our subcommittee was thinking about how to engineer test samples. The ISO subcommittee debated this subject extensively. I believed that various pure colors in different intensity levels would be adequate. Others stressed that mixing inks play a critical role in light fastness. This meant that samples would appear to look like neutral grey tones. (A homogenous mixing of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks – CMYK - in a fine-grain dot pattern.) The samples would need to contain various proportions of CMYK inks, and the ultimate number of samples that would be needed for testing would be outrageous.

Also, at that period in time, an autonomous group related to digital imaging in the workplace setting generated a great deal of literature about how light fastness should be tested. Much of what they wrote was slanted heavily toward the belief that inkjet inks were amazingly durable, citing 100 years of color fidelity under “normal” office lighting conditions. But the definition of “normal” lighting conditions appeared either vague or was far below in intensity what anyone would consider normal.

Another digital imaging consortium strayed away from solid single color or mixed CMYL grey tones for testing purposes. They advocated creating pairs of images of people, indoor and outdoor settings, landscapes, etc., and exposing one of the pair to light energy and the other left unexposed. Comparing the two images after exposure would determine the light fastness of the inks. Unfortunately, this is a very subjective system. It does not rely on spectral measurements before and after exposure to determine any color change. Further, an image of people or landscapes does not have any large areas of a single color that could be measured with a spectrophotometer.

If the ISO could have agreed on an easy-to-prepare sample testing method, our ASTM subcommittee might have adopted it. The underlying problem with the proposed ISO method is that a complex algorithm would have to be created to tell the printer how to create the right proposition of inks and in what pattern the inks should be applied. Further, each printer company and each ink formulation would need its own algorithm. What was thought of as “complicated” became impossible, especially because our subcommittee did not have anyone who was an inkjet technical specialist.

My reasoning for proposing an inkjet standard was to address artists who wanted to sell inkjet prints as long-lasting artwork. The buyer should expect the inkjet materials selected to be as durable as the oil paints or watercolors that were used to create the original. This was especially the case when prices for inkjet prints were gaining momentum in galleries. It stands to reason that spending considerable money on an inkjet print implies that the product should have considerable longevity. It was abundantly clear that early inkjet inks did NOT have adequate light fastness. They were no better than simple offset printing that used several of the same CMYK colorants. Offset printing exposed to light shows signs of fading after a few months of exposure to moderate levels of light typical in many households.

Designing a standard that mirrored the one we created for traditional art materials was going to be a way of leveling the playing field. If artists want to incorporate inkjet artwork into their portfolio of work, the end consumer should have a level of expectation that inkjet materials perform much the same as the paints artists employ.

Unfortunately, the technical difficulties described above thwarted any efforts to create samples that could be relied upon to act as surrogates for what exists in the real world. It would have taken a tremendous effort to attract technical participants from the inkjet world. So, after a few years of periodic discussion, the proposal to create an inkjet standard was scrapped.

The bright side of this story is that the inkjet printer manufacturers recognized the longevity issue of their inks. They had to overcome the problem of creating ink colorant particles small enough in size to mix with the fluid media and to be uniformly and predictably sprayed as micro-dots from tiny nozzles that distribute ink to whatever substrate the end user selects. They also had to assure that the substrate coating capturing the ink was stable and did not influence an ink’s longevity.

The inkjet industry eventually started to advertise pigmented inks. Ink color ranges expanded to provide more control over the fidelity of the final print. Grey inks, light and dark magenta, and yellow inks, along with other positive developments in the technology occurred.

A far greater level of confidence exists that modern pigmented inkjet inks have light fastness properties that outperform systems that were first developed in this industry. Unfortunately, none of them have, and perhaps never will, be subjected to the same rigorous testing that artists’ paints are put through to prove they are robust. Despite the hype related to an amazing array of fine art papers, ink systems, and wide body printers capable of creating large reproductions, when all is said and done, inkjet technology is a commercial product that has been appropriated by the art community, no more or no less than when an artist indicates that they employ a commercial house paint primer or colors as their medium of choice when creating a painting.

The story of the history of inkjet printing is a good reason to go forward cautiously when incorporating commercial products for use in the fine arts arena. While many commercial products have proven to be suitable and sometimes superior, in the end, an artist must evaluate and potentially test the materials they are using to determine if they provide the longevity that is expected from works of art.

Syntax of Color

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Apr 20, 2023

My very first shocking experience with fading colors happened when I gifted an art print to a friend. I printed it on a very expensive HP "Vivera" 6-ink system (replacing those cartridges was such a money drain). HP claimed "108 years of photo light fade resistance" in their promo literature and packaging, so I was feeling pretty confident about giving away and selling those prints for a few bucks.

My friend hung the print on a wall opposite of a south-facing window, and within months the image looked like a photograph from the 19th century – a ghost of the original vibrant print. I was embarrassed when I saw it and gave her a new copy, and recommended she pu…

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