Arts 101: What’s in a Name?

While the market for buying and selling art tends to be the domain of the cultural elite, many of us have picked up a favorite wall-hanging at a local gallery or art fair. For those of us on a budget, it’s just as important to know the value of what we’re getting, and that can vary drastically depending on whether we’re buying an “original,” a “limited-edition print” or a “giclée.” To better understand the differences myself, I consulted some experts around town.

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Megan Bell with her painting, “It Was All About Compromise.” (photo courtesy the artist)

I started with painter Megan Bell in Minneapolis. Over the past 18 years, Bell has sold many of her original oil paintings. Although originals may retain or even increase in value over time, Bell says it’s not always practical or affordable for people to purchase original art. That’s why she and many other artists order reproductions of their work that they then sell for much less than the original. A popular technique for creating reproductions is called giclée.

That brought me to Terry Schopper, co-owner of Vongsouvan Fine Art Printers in northeast Minneapolis, a company that specializes in giclée printing. Schopper says that giclée actually just means inkjet. “You have a giclée printer on your desktop; it’s the type of inks that we use that make a difference,” he says.

Most conventional printing–including on desktop inkjet printers–creates colors using CMYK inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. “But an artist’s palette doesn’t have cyan, magenta, yellow and black,” Schopper says. “It has crimson. It has cobalt blue. It has sunflower yellow. It has aqua. It has burnt umber. So we developed a printing method that has those colors in it.”

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Terry Schopper of Vongsouvan Fine Art Printers with the Roland da Vinci inkjet printer.

Schopper says a high-quality inkjet gives artists an affordable way to make long-lasting, saleable copies of their work. He showed me an example giclée print, a reproduction of a painting by artist Mark Keller, and how the print bears minute details such as the wispy trails of blended colors Keller made with his brush.

“We’ve kind of backed away from the word ‘giclée’,” Schopper admits. “We like to call ourselves ‘master fine art reproduction printers’ because ‘giclée’ is offensive to a few art people out there.”

Cole Rogers is of those people. Rogers is the artistic director at the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis, which champions traditional print methods such as etching and lithography. Rogers makes it clear Highpoint does not reproduce existing art, and he has reservations about the way some artists use the word giclée to sell copies of their work. “I feel like often times ‘giclée’ is used as a term to obfuscate that it’s an inkjet and to try to convince people that it has some added value,” he says.

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Cole Rogers, artistic director at Highpoint Center for Printmaking.

Rogers thinks limited-edition giclées are particularly problematic. “That artist made a painting–probably a different size, a completely different medium–and the fact that [the giclée is] signed and numbered gives it no intrinsic value,” he says. “So if the buyer turns around and tries to sell it, they’ll probably find out that it’s basically worthless. They’re paying for a poster, and the signing and numbering doesn’t bring any value, much like a limited-edition Beanie Baby. The only value really should be in how much [the buyer] loves it.”

Rogers advises art collectors to know what they’re buying. “If people know that [a giclée is] an inkjet and that what they’re buying is probably a reproduction of something,” Rogers says, “then that’s great.”

But in today’s high-tech art world sometimes a giclée is an original. Tom Rassieur, head curator of prints and drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, points out that inkjet prints are originals for digital artists (i.e. people who create their work using computers). “That’s the physical form that the ideas ultimately take,” he says.

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Minneapolis digital artist Richard Bonk, with some of his original giclées.

For “limited-edition giclées,” Rassieur says he’s obliged to trust a publisher stopped making them.

Essential to a true limited-edition print is the artist’s hand in the work. Rassieur describes how painter Susan Rothenberg might produce an edition of 20 or 30 prints, but intentionally make each print unique by inking them differently. Cole Rogers, walking through a gallery of 18 prints made at Highpoint by artist Chloe Piene, explains how every print is an original because each one comes from a drawing Piene made on a plate.

Ultimately it’s an art buyer’s duty to educate him- or herself. There’s no dishonesty in a giclée; they’re printed using archival inks, often on canvas or fine art paper. It’s the way some artists choose to market such prints — neglecting to clearly state that they are actually reproductions of an original work — that can mislead buyers to overestimate the value of the work.

Back in her studio, Megan Bell has copies of her paintings for sale, but she doesn’t call them “giclée” or “limited edition”. “I think reproductions serve their purpose and can be perfectly nice,” Bell says. “However, I will always be somewhat partial to original works. There is something very humbling to me about the experience of standing in front of an original painting, be it a Van Gogh or a Pollock, knowing the artist once stood in front of a blank canvas and created that painting.”

Is there something in the arts that you’d like to know more about? Share your thought below, and it could become a future Arts 101.

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