When Artists and Art Dealers Deceive

As an artist and art collector, I am often annoyed at the willful dishonesty of many artists, art dealers and the art media. Dishonesty in the arts has gone on for so long much of it is systemic causing honest artists and dealers to unknowingly spread the disinformation. This isn’t true of the media which has never been honest about anything.

Most people are familiar with the term “artistic license”. The most common example of which is what an artist chooses to leave in a work of art and what they choose to leave out. In essence, this is the act of an artist editing his work.

However artistic license goes well beyond editing to include the tools and processes used to create a work of art. The Dutch artist Vermeer used a mirror and lenses to create his famously realistic paintings. This fact was greatly disputed when it was put forth by London architecture professor Philip Steadman and the artist David Hockney in 2000. (You can read about it here.)

Vermeer’s process of using a mirror and lenses was reproduced by wealthy tech titan, Tim Jenison, and documented on film in Tim’s Vermeer which may still be available on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, the film is enlightening and enjoyable even with no car chases, shootouts, or fancy special effects.

Vermeer was not alone in using optical devices to help him produce his masterpieces. Artists have always used whatever tools and materials were available to them; grids, tracing, measuring devices, optical tools and other devices and techniques to create their work. When manufactured oil paints became available they were quickly taken up by artists of the time. Being able to buy paint off the shelf in the colors needed meant an artist could spend more time doing what they loved – painting! The same is true of using electric lights, and indoor plumbing, photographs for reference photos, plastics, resins and glues, metal welding, projectors, computers to create digital art, and digital printing to create fine art prints.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. Progress has made it easier and affordable for more people to create art than at any other time. Today, art is everywhere and it is a commodity. What I do have a problem with is when artists, dealers, and the media try to deceive us about the art and the processes used to create it.

The term “giclee” is one of the most abused “words” used by artists to deceive people. Artists use “giclee print” to disguise the fact that what they are selling is in ink jet print. The word itself was concocted to hide a new printing process from competitors with the added benefit of sounding like a French word. It isn’t a French word, it isn’t even a real word. It is totally made up and has no meaning at all, just like Exxon, Mobil, and chipotle (rhymes with “bottle”).

Some people claim giclee is pronounced “gee-clay”, but it is a phony word and you  can pronounce it any way you want. I pronounce it, “jick-lee”. (“Jick” rhymes with “sick” which is probably appropriate.)

Giclee was coined by a commercial printer, Jack Duganne, in the early 90’s to keep his competitors from learning that his company was using a commercial pre-press ink-jet printer to create production art prints. Pre-press printers were used to create “proofs” for review and approval of work scheduled for printing on lithography presses before committing to the expensive process of creating lithograph plates. Duganne’s innovation was to use the pre-press inkjet printer to go straight to production.Office inkjet printers were just becoming available in the 1990s and had too low a resolution to produce high-quality prints back then, but high-quality commercial ink-jet printing has been around since the early 1950s.

Duganne’s company made it possible for artists to create small print editions using inkjet printing at a much lower cost than going to a lithographic process. This was a great innovation for artists. The continued use of “giclee” as if it is something special is not.

Artists and dealers like to tell customers that a “giclee print” is somehow different than any other high-resolution inkjet print. It isn’t. This is not the 1990s anymore when production quality inkjet prints could only be created on commercial printers. Today’s state of the art small format inkjet printer technology creates photographic-quality prints using lightfast dye and pigment-based inks.

As an example here is a typical inkjet printer from Canon, the Pixma MG3620. This printer costs under $50, uses pigment ink, has over 1700 nozzles and can print in color at up to 4800 x 1200 DPI.

Artists and dealers like to claim that a giclee print is better than an inkjet print even though there is no difference and both are inkjet prints. They will tell you a giclee printer has more heads, they use only pigment ink, the scan resolution is better, the paper is a better quality, etc. If they wanted to be honest, they would just describe the print as a fine-art print on high-quality paper which would be the truth.

The only difference between the print produced on a regular inkjet printer and the inkjet printer an artist or their printer may use it the size and type (roll or sheet) of the paper it will print on. Many of them can create inkjet prints larger than 8 1/2 x 11 inches and some can even feed from paper rolls. Larger format printers are more expensive due to the larger carriage size, not the inkjet printing technology.

Trust me when I tell you that artists are creative people and their lies are creative too. The paper is whatever the artist chooses to print on and there are many reasons for choosing one particular paper over another. As for the ink – I’ve already covered that and there is no discernible difference. Any artist that scans at less than 600 DPI is an idiot, and your eye cannot tell the difference between current high-resolution inkjet prints and photographs. The number of ink heads used to be for color control, but as technology advances that requirement goes away as well. Nothing is static in the technology market because laggards get killed by the competition.

So what does scanning DPI have to do with printing DPI? Nothing – the two are not the same. The important part you need to know is that an image scanned at 600DPI is already high resolution. Couple that with a high-resolution printer setting and you will produce a beautiful high-quality print.

So how to protect yourself from a giclee scam artist? The only thing you really need to know is that your print is on a 100% acid-free medium. Typically that is an all-cotton rag paper. That’s it – that is all you need to know. Any good photo-quality inkjet printer will produce high-quality prints. Your eyes will tell you the rest – if the print is good quality and if your desire to own it is worth the price. You can use all the psycho-babble about “giclees” to determine the honesty of the seller and if you want to deal with someone hellbent on deceiving you.

Now there are artists out there who actually believe there is a difference between a giclee print and an inkjet print because they have been duped just as others have. Yes, some artists became artists because they couldn’t do the math it takes to become engineers and scientists.

While “giclee” is used for out-right fraud, my other issues deal with artist snobbery.

You will often see and hear the phrase, “en plein aire” used about painting or drawing, but the phrase has become ubiquitous that some manufacturers even use it to describe their frames and art materials. “En plein aire” simply means “in the open air” or “outdoors”. So why don’t artists just say they painted outdoors? Snobbery and to make the process seem like more than it really is. Why is opera in the US sung in foreign languages? Snobbery, and some might add marketing stupidity which is why almost no one goes to the opera and opera theaters always have to have public funding to survive. En plein aire is the same thing and artists who use it are doing the business of art a disfavor.

If an artist tells you that a particular work was done en plein aire ask them why they don’t use plain English? I’ve seen websites where the artist uses the phrase and then translates it into English for the reader where no translation would have been necessary if they’d just used English in the first place.

Recently, I read an article about painting outdoors by a French artist who now lives in the US with her husband. She didn’t use the phrase “en plein aire” a single time in her article which was well written and needed no translation.

My last peeve, for now, is the French phrase “all prima” which means wet-in-wet, a technique where the artist does not wait for the paint to dry before applying more paint, but applies the fresh paint right into the still-wet paint that has already been laid down.

Why artists go out of their way to use a foreign phrase to describe a process that is more easily understood if it didn’t also need translation is beyond me and so I can only put it down to the desire to seem to be more than it truly is, to deceive, or if it is the simple snobbery of feeling superior to their audience.

In my opinion, artists are not doing themselves any favors by these acts of deception. Lying and being deceptive is not the way to go about creating a business, and creating and selling art is a business. I prefer to deal with honest people and honest businesses, I think you may prefer that as well.

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