Fine Art Printing Of Digital Images

Before the author applies any special effects to a digital image he likes to make sure the photograph looks as good as it can. Here Extensis Intellihance Pro 4.0 is used to tweak the image.
Photos © 1999, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Giclee (pronounced "zhee-clay") is a French word meaning "to spray on" or "to sputter." Giclee reproductions were originally developed in 1989 as a plateless method for fine art printing using large format ink jet printers and watercolor with art quality papers, including canvas. Output from the giclee process can reproduce more than five million colors. It features vibrant color and fine detail, combined with the texture of the paper that's used.

The Iris ink jet printer is one of the most popular models used to produce fine art giclee prints. Large format printers are also offered by Encad, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Roland, and others. Information on some of these printers can be found in my PMA trade show report in the May issue. Iris Graphics manufactures ink jet printers that use controlled, variable-sized ink dots allowing them to produce output with the visual characteristics of a continuous-tone photograph. While printing at an addressable resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi), Iris printers produce images with an apparent or perceived resolution of 1500-1800dpi. That's because in order to achieve comparable resolutions, a printer creating images with uniform-sized dots needs to deposit them at 1500-1800dpi. That's why a typical giclee print has a higher visual resolution than prints produced using traditional 1200dpi lithographic methods.

The first step in creating a digital watercolor is to open an image file in Adobe Photoshop or your favorite image-editing program that has a "Watercolor" filter.

Why Giclee? In the world of fine art digital printing, giclee images are scanned, perhaps manipulated, and then stored in a computer before being sent to a high resolution, ink jet printer. Unlike other reproduction methods, each image is individually sent to the printer, which creates the kind of slight color variations from piece to piece that fine art buyers and gallery patrons look for in limited edition artwork. Most service bureaus that offer this let you order as many prints as needed without having to pay a large advance, then you have to deal with the storage problems associated with traditional lithography. This means you can test market a new image without committing to printing a large edition and paying for a great number of prints. Because they allow you to control your cash flow better, giclee reproductions are the perfect medium for aspiring fine art photographers. For example, you can order just one print to frame and use as a display piece. As orders roll in, you can have others printed in large or small quantities. To help save money, most service bureaus will let you print smaller images either two up or four up on one sheet for the single-sheet price.

In case you're worried, giclees are accepted by museums around the world including New York's Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Cor-coran Gallery in Washington, DC, and Atlanta's High Museum. Some original watercolor paintings will fade faster than a well-made giclee. The output media that are typically used for giclee prints are acid free. Prints made on Arches Cold Press paper, popular for fine arts prints when used with the Iris Graphics Equipoise Inkset, show a life of 32-36 years when displayed in a standard indoor condition of 450 Lux for 12 hours per day. Some service bureaus offer a UV protectant spray which is said to prevent fading and add protection from moisture. Because of the drying agents used in many sprays and lacquers I've always been skeptical about using sprays on any print and my suspicions have been verified by the research Wilhelm Research presented to the International Association of Fine Art Digital Printmakers in 1998. Their report stated that "print coatings tested to date (the original report was updated February 12, 1999) have shown little if any benefit in term of prolonging the display life of Iris ink jet prints." The report further states that "...the coatings have even proven to be harmful to image stability."

Photoshop's Watercolor filter has three sliders that you can use to creatively explore the possible effects. Don't be afraid to go overboard and use the program's Fade command to moderate the effect to suit your taste. Paper cut to letter size.

Preparing Files For Fine Art Printing. The best way to get quality results from a service bureau is to provide them with digital files in a format that they know will produce the best output. In discussing the production of fine art prints with various service bureaus, I obtained to the following suggestions. These are general guidelines and you should check with your specific service bureau before submitting any file for printing.

Color Space. Photographers should submit files in either CMYK or Lab Color format. While most printers are capable of printing RGB images, the results may be predictable. Any printing process that involves ink on paper must ultimately be converted into a reflective color model such as CMYK, but many service bureaus have seen excellent results printing files produced in Lab Color. The CIELAB system, sometimes shortened to just LAB, was created by the Committee Internationale d'Eclairage to produce a color space that consists of all visible colors. It forms the basis for most color matching systems and lets you convert, for example, RGB images to LAB to CMYK in order to produce accurate color matching. Some users found that, depending on the version, Photoshop's RGB to Lab conversion doesn't always produce consistent results. You may have better luck converting your RGB files into CMYK for submission to a service bureau. Whatever you do, don't use both Lab and CMYK images in the same document created with an illustration or desktop publishing package such as Adobe's PageMaker or InDesign.

Keep It Simple. Files with extra channels and compression can cause problems during printing. They can be rejected by the RIP (Raster Image Processor) with PostScript printing errors. Files should not be compressed; the service bureau will have to uncompress them before printing, or they may not discover it in time, creating an expensive and ruined print. In addition, any extra channels should be removed before printing.

The Custom/Advance dialog box of Epson's printer driver includes sliders that let you experiment with brightness and saturation settings to get the exact effect you are trying to achieve with your desktop printed fine art prints.

Media. When submitting files, most services bureaus accept projects stored on Iomega Zip or Jaz, SyQuest 44/88/200/105/270 cartridges, floppy disks, 128M and 650M/1.3G Magneto-Optical (MO) cars, CD-ROM, Bern-oulli, and of course, via the Internet. I would not be surprised, given the popularity of the floppy-less Power Macintosh G3, that many service bureaus will also be accepting images saved on Imation's 120MB SuperDisk cartridges.

File Types Accepted. Most service bureaus accept a lot of different file types, including Adobe PageMaker, Illustrator, Photoshop, Macromedia Freehand, and others. If all they wish to print is an image, a TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) or EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) file will produce the best results.

Image Resolution. The resolution of your giclee file should be 300dpi. Since many large format ink jet printers are still 300dpi devices, creating images with higher resolution will accomplish nothing except produce a larger file size and under some circumstances result in visible pixelization.

Ink Jet Art On Your Desktop. If you would like to try your hand at making small fine art prints, you can experiment with the ink jet printer that's already sitting on your desktop. The first step is to visit an art supply store and ask to see their selection of watercolor papers. Take a look at their selection, but keep in mind that, unlike the typical giclee printer, a desktop ink jet printer has limited paper thickness capabilities. Most printers, such as the Epson Stylus Photo750, have a "thick paper" handling option. This feature is designed so you can print on envelopes or labels, but you can use this feature to your advantage when experimenting with fine art output. The heaviest watercolor paper I've found that works with Stylus Photo in envelope mode is 90 pound stock, but be wary of too heavily textured paper. The ink may not penetrate deep textures and you may not be happy with the results. Then again, given the artistic approaches possible, maybe you will. While at the art supply store try to get samples of some of the other watercolor papers they have in stock. Sometimes these sheets are only available in larger sizes that will be too large for the typical desktop printer. These large sheets can always be trimmed down to fit whatever size paper your printer can handle and many times the store will be happy to do the trimming for you.

The final watercolor image was printed on an Epson Stylus Photo 750 ink jet printer on Arches watercolor paper cut to letter size.

When running your initial test prints you should be aware that the printer driver decides how much ink to spray based on the kind of paper that you have selected. Since art and watercolor paper are not the normal choices, you're going to have to experiment with the available choices to find one that works. You may even find that none of them will work with the porous watercolor paper you have selected. Don't panic. If that's so, it's time to go deeper inside your driver and look for sliders that allow you to control the amount of ink or saturation that you can apply.

When making your first test prints, slice up the paper into 4x6" (or so) sized bits. It will take less time to make small test prints than large ones and will save time and money while you experiment. Don't reduce the size of your test image to 4x6". Instead, carve out a 4x6 section of your original photograph and just print that with your test strips. This way, you'll be able to better evaluate the grain structure of the paper when used with your photographs.

As with all digital experiments, keep detailed records. Most printer drivers allow you to create custom setting so once you find a combination that you like, you can save it and make the effects repeatable. If you want to do more than print conventional digital images on artist's paper, take a look at the next section showing how to create a "digital watercolor."

Using A Watercolor Plug-In. When creating a digital image for printing on watercolor paper you may want to first give it a watercolor "look." One of the easiest ways to do that is with Adobe Photoshop and its built-in Watercolor filter.

Step One. Open any image in Adobe Photoshop. In this case I used a FlashPix file that was created from an image of Denver's lower downtown area that was originally shot on Kodak color negative film. This file was opened from a FlashPix CD, but any other source will work equally well including Photo CD or an image acquired from a digital camera or scanner.

Step Two. Before I apply any filter or plug-in to a digital image, I like to clean up the file so it looks the best that it can. I usually start with Photoshop's cropping tool to remove any dark or rough edges that might have been created during the original scan. In this case, there was a black edge near the top of the frame that I wanted to remove. Next, I used Extensis Intellihance Pro 3.0 plug-in to tweak the photograph. By analyzing each digital image individually, Intellihance Pro determines the optimal setting for enhancing and color correcting it. The plug-in consolidates all of your imaging options into a single large dialog box that includes preset enhancement settings for images produced by a scanner, Photo CD, digital camera or other sources.

Step Three. Next I applied Photo-shop's Watercolor filter, which is found in the Artistic submenu of the Filters menu. Take a few minutes to experiment with manipulating the three sliders in the plug-in's dialog box that are used to add a watercolor look to your photograph. When using the slider, you can go heavy or light. In this case, I used a middle of the road approach and you can always use the program's Fade command to moderate the effect--even after you've applied the filter.

Step Four. Since, the hard edges of the finished image seem out of place for a watercolor image, I like to use the Vignette Action to apply soft edges to the finished image. The Vignette Action, among with many others, can be found on the Photoshop CD-ROM on either Version 4.0 or 5.0. In this case the final print was made on Arches Watercolor paper that my art supply store cuts to letter size for me. The print was made using an Epson Stylus Photo 750 ink jet with all of the standard defaults--including "Plain Paper"--but with the Saturation slider set at -10.

Fine Art Digital Printing On The Web

Iris and other large format ink jet printers are far too expensive for many people to afford. Many service bureaus--some of which specialize in the creation of fine art images--offer services that allow the average photographer to take advantage of this technology. By no means are these service bureaus the only ones offering fine art imaging. To find one in your area, check your local Yellow Pages for commercial photo labs. You can also use the World Wide Web to search for giclee printers, which is how I found the companies listed here. The following list contains contact information on some companies I found while doing research for this article and their listing here does not qualify as an endorsement by me or Shutterbug. Visit the company's individual web sites to get information or call them about their policies and practices. Each one does business a little differently and what some include as standard others may offer as options.

Classic Editions (
Color Works (
Fine Print Custom Photo Lab (
Gamma One (
Staples Fine Art Reproductions, Ltd. (
Thunderbird Editions (
One World Art (


Adobe Systems Inc.
345 Park Ave.
San Jose, CA 95110
(408) 536-6000
fax: (408) 537-6000

6059 Cornerstone Court West
San Diego, CA 92121
(619) 452-0882
fax: 619-5618

Epson America, Inc.
20770 Madrona Ave.
Torrance, CA 90509
(800) 463-7766
(310) 782-0770
fax: (310) 782-5220

Extensis Corporation
1800 SW First, Suite. 500
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 274-2020
fax: (503) 274-0530

Hewlett-Packard Co.
3000 Hanover St.
Palo Alto, CA 94304
(800) 752-0900
(650) 857-1501
fax: (650) 857-5518

Iris Graphics
Six Crosby Dr.
Bedford, MA 01730
(781) 275-8777
fax: (781) 275-8590

Roland DGA Corporation
15271 Barranca Parkway
Irvine, CA 92618
(949) 727-2100
fax: (949) 727-2112