Saturday, May 29, 2010

Baker's Dozen Blues

Figuring out 'dpi' turns out to be a big deal for a lot of people, at least that's what I've found in my digital imaging seminars at Vashon Island Imaging. Maybe I'm expecting too much. It took me a while to get it, truth be told.

I got in on digital imaging with PhotoShop® version three back in the last century. It's impossible to explain how 'simplistic' things were back then, and still are for many but for entirely different reasons. Back then there was no such thing as giclée. Things like resolution and dpi weren't on your mind as much as just getting enough RAM to run the program. Now, memory is cheap and machines are fast. The constant migration towards simple-to-use, automated algorithms eliminates the need to think of size in pixel terms. When I post by this blog, for example, I can upload any size picture and it will automatically be re-sized for my template... no math required. As a result of such automation some people don't understand dpi.

At Vashon Island Imaging, my fine arts printing and publishing company, a common problem is customers who prepared their pictures to the desired size but at screen resolution (72 dpi). It takes a lot of explaining to make them understand that the picture isn't the same size in the world of giclée.

What really boggles the 'pre-get-it mind' is that something can be one size one way and another size another way. It doesn't even read right when you write it. However, size matters when it comes to pixel perfect printing.

Pixel perfect printing is when you are in control and getting the results you are after. Control is when you make the decisions instead of the device(s).

There's nothing wrong with automation and algorithmic image making. Very likely automated systems take better pictures than some people ever will. I will grant you that. But 9 times out of 10 you are going to produce a much better giclée if you know how to turn the dials yourself. That involves knowing not only what the dials do, but why you are doing it.

There are many ways to 'darken' a picture, for example. Which one should you use and why? The answer might come from which varnish will be used to finish the giclée. Or using a This Old House metaphor, there are many ways to approach the restoration or salvage of image files that are in need of repair.

It is difficult for the average PhotoShop® expert to know what is necessary to make a good giclée print, unless they do a lot of their own printing. Apparently many of them don't because there are few other books on the subject of giclée prepress and other PhotoShop® manuals don't get into it prepress at all, really. That is why there is a disconnect between people and their printers.

The disconnect is an information gap about how to prepare pictures for the extremely high quality that giclée printers can deliver. People finish their picture in PhotoShop and expect that when they push the print button out will pop the perfect print. When it doesn't come out right, they don't know how to fix the problem because they don't know the cause. They see a result without knowing what produced it. That is why I wrote the book (and why I write this blog). You may have total control over PhotoShop®, but what about your printer? If you don't have a printer but instead take your pictures to a print shop, how do you get control of something you may not have? Aviation provides one example of how this can be done.

How do they train pilots? In simulators. What do pilots look at in the simulator? Screens... monitors. That is what your monitor is... a simulator. And that is what PhotoShop® is for a giclée prepress artist. The difference is that a giclée prepress artist knows what to look for on the monitor screen. That is what I go into detail about in Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée, my book on pixel-perfect printing ( But I digress. Let's get back to numbers.

When you avail yourself of the convenience offered by automation, your images will suffer because algorithms 'average'. Averaging is what the census people do with folks like you and I. Unless you are an Einstein or the village idiot, you're average. But what if you want above average results? In some cases you can tweak the algorithms with profiles to get the results you want. You may be happy with the picture(s) but wouldn't it be nice to know exactly why they got that way? After all. they don't let pilots fly real planes until they have control (we hope).

Let's assume you're like me, not Einstein. Even for you it probably makes sense that you cannot put thirteen eggs into a one-dozen box. That's why numbers are important in printing. If you send a 100-color printer 200 colors, something's gotta give. The question is, who makes the decisions about what stays and what goes? It's not about crop. It's about pixel density.

A giclée print is like a box. The bigger the giclée, the bigger the box. Each box holds a certain number of pixels when filled to capacity. If your print needs 1200 pixels and your image file has 1300, the printer algorithms will take your ingredients and make 1200 pixels out of them. If you have too few pixels, the algorithms will invent the number needed to fill every space in the box. In both cases, your pixel information changes because original pixels are combined with one another to create the re-sized result... like blending paint. Re-sampling is what people call that process. Purists hate it.

To some extent, re-sampling is unavoidable. You are going to make various sized versions of pictures. The question is, which software will do the re-sampling best and will the picture need any further adjustment after that?

Re-sampling is best done by the original artist on the same machine that built the original image file and seen on the same monitor during the picture's development. What you want to avoid is a different type of device re-sampling the image without any chance to make final pictorial adjustments to the re-sized version before output. In simple terms that means it is better for you to size the pictures than have the machine do it for you.

All this holds true in audiovisual work as well. In the AV world it is even more important to feed each display with images that fit within its native resolution. Sluggish performance and aberrations like 'tiling' are otherwise encountered as those devices must render 'on the fly' ... they don't have the luxury of time to do the calculations, like a giclée printer does.

Your giclée printing machine has enough work to do recalculating colors into its own gamut, adjusting for particular media and possibly changing schemes from RGB to CMYK. Don't exacerbate the complexity of calculations by introducing pixel density changes into the equation.

If you are printing your own work, you can find out the pixel density of your machine from its manufacturer. For example, my big Epson prints at 240dpi so the picture-size math is based on that number. To make a 10 X 10-inch giclée, 2400 X 2400 pixels are needed.

Most publications and publishing software suggests 300dpi. That density has become the default 'standard size', which is perfectly fine because that density exceeds the requirements of most output devices.

The web's audiovisual density standard of 72 dpi is where the real problems begin. Those super-small sized images don't have enough pixels to make large giclée prints of high quality. To scale up small web pictures into large size giclée prints there are many adjustments to improve the looks which are described in my book.

Whether too few or too many, it's not just a question of how you measure up, but who will do it. If you don't do it that leaves only two other possibilities... a giclée prepress artist or the printing machine. The choice is yours. At Vashon Island Imaging we'll give you first-class giclée prepress and/or teach you how at seminars on digital imaging. Or take a look at the book. There's a good-sized preview at

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Invisible Man

If you're a giclée printer like me, The Invisible Man has nothing on you. There are few professions where you can be as invisible as you can be when you are a giclée prepress artist. We are invisible in more ways than one. To begin with, we are out of people's minds, which fully qualifies as a form of 'invisible'. Then, our work is invisible if it is good. Thirdly, information about giclée prepress is largely invisible. Aside from this blog and my book, there is almost nothing else out there... which is why I started all this. To bring the subject of prepress to people's attention because it is important but overlooked by most picture professionals.

PhotoShop® is ubiquitous and so are good cameras and picture printers. Just yesterday I overheard a mother and her 7-year-old daughter looking at a book in a shop. The mom was explaining the cover picture to her daughter: '...they just PhotoShop'd that a little over here, see?' We've come a long way in digital imaging.

People know how to make good pictures, but they don't realize that prepress adjustments must be made to make those pictures print as well as they possibly can. Many people don't even know what 'prepress' means, let alone what to do. They don't realize that their prints could be improved at least 10-20% with proper prepress. This information gap has led to a consciousness gap making it all... invisible.

Giclée prepress is like the icing on the cake. It's something that improves something else that is already good. You don't need cake decorations to enjoy a good piece of cake. That is the Zen of patisserie as taught to me by Stefan Petterson when I apprenticed for his bakery at the NK department store in Stockholm back in the mid Eighties. Stefan, pictured above, is a world-class pattisseur with many international awards.

Giclée prepress is like that. Good pictures are fundamentally good in their own right and output on the average giclée printer will likely look just fine. If that weren't true we wouldn't be where we are right now and you wouldn't be reading this. The question is, what if you want more? Doesn't matter why, you just want more. I found myself in that position after a month of apprenticing at a bread bakery down the street from my studio on Hornsgatan in Stockholm. You can only go so far with bread. I wanted to move up to patisserie and so I was introduced to Stefan.

Besides patisserie Stefan taught me one of the many meanings of the Swedish word 'lagom'. Translated literally it means 'enough' which is a very fitting metaphor for both cake decorating and giclée prepress. How do you know when the decoration is 'just right'? The same way you know when the inks are printing 'lagom'.

Visibility is the big difference between cake decorating and giclée prepress work. The finishing touches of a good cake decorator 'make the cake' by giving it a 'look'. Giclée prepress, on the other hand, is supposed to be unseen to the extent that it requires a deft hand to keep the tone balances and contrasts lagom. We've all seen heavy-handed prepress work and it isn't a pretty picture.

Giclée prepress is like The Invisible Man for another reason. The character in H.G. Wells 1897 novelette was a scientist who believed that by adjusting the refraction of someone just so, that person would become invisible. Now I ask you, isn't that exactly what a good giclée prepress artist does? We try to make embellishments which bring out the rare tones in pictures but leave no trace of our work. Viewers should almost subconsciously realize that they are looking at a super-high-quality image. Only connoisseurs will appreciate the extended dynamic tone range developed by the prepress work, and take note of the lagom inking of dark tones and highlights.

Giclée prepress is also as invisible as Zen. It's a state of mind, for the artist and viewers. To achieve excellence in any field requires considerable perseverance. Perseverance develops one's 'Zen'. When artists have mastered the technique and craft of their disciplines, their minds are free to create anything. For the giclée prepress artist that means almost any 'problem' can be fixed... your giclée can be as close to perfect as possible (while you and your work remain totally invisible!). For the viewer extra 'Zen' derives from the added depth of tones and detail in a fine piece of giclée art.

A simple experiment can prove the point. Make two prints of the same picture after prepressing only one first. Show the pictures to people and ask them to choose. The results will be like the dog always choosing the structured water... the prepressed picture will win every time because people inherently sense visual quality. Whether they recognize it is another story.

The art of giclée is adding to a picture that special 'je ne sait quois' that separates any 'best of class'. Almost without exception, great pictures have copious tonal details and contrasts that give our eyes plenty to scan, and our minds much more to absorb. A picture made of a thousand colors is by nature much more complex than a picture made of only 100 colors.

Giclée prepress artists operate 'behind the curtain', supporting the artists whose work they will print. The average image file we get for giclée printing at Vashon Island Imaging (my fine-arts printing and publishing company) is deficient. Highlights are generally blown out and dark tones clogged up. This is a pity... not for our customers, but for those who take their work to the average digital print shop where very little or no prepress work is done to improve the picture. That is why it is important to try to do as much of the prepress work as you can before you take your files to the printer. Actually, that applies to any kind of printing, not just giclée.

Ok, you say, I get it. But what is 'prepress' and how do I learn it? Up until now, real information about giclée prepress has been invisible too. That is why I teach digital imaging and prepress at Vashon Island Imaging. There are seminars and private instruction, which some prefer. It's very inexpensive because my goal is to teach people as much as I can about prepress work... that saves me time and energy for better things... the real finishing touches, rather than the fundamentals. If people know how to prepress their pictures for printing, the results they get will be better. Then we will all be happier.

Don't want to come to Vashon Island for a seminar? Then read about it in my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée ( It's a 'thriller' written for professional giclée prepress artists and all those who aspire to pixel-perfect printing. There you will find complete instructions about how to make your work -- and possibly yourself -- invisible!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"...The Shadow Knows"

What the 1937 Orson Welles character knows is 'what lies in the hearts of men'. What a giclée prepress artist knows is that their shadows know what lies in the 'heart' of the picture.

'Shadows' is a catch phrase for dark tones in PhotoShop® parlance. Having rich darks filled with 'rare tones' brings a giclée to life and gives it 'character'. Deep colors are 'trademarks' of giclée prints, as are 'highlight' details.

Shadow detail is also a traditional problem for printers of all sorts. Keeping life in dark tones is like a razor thin line between over-inking and pale shadows. The secret to getting a good black is to have enough 'rare tones' to define what black is. Rarely do you see giclées in which the dark tones have been fully developed to advantage, which is why I call them 'rare tones'.

The eye can easily differentiate between millions of colors and can see a much wider dynamic tone range than a giclée printer can produce, even though the giclée printing process has the widest dynamic tone range of any other. When you look at a picture your eye scans it, quite thoroughly. Complex and detailed pieces are more 'engaging'. Complex 'rare' tones in a giclée command attention (and appreciation) that goes beyond words for many people.

People have an innate attraction to quality. Nobody knowingly shops for inferior quality... or at least I haven't met any. Everyone wants the best. That is one reason I am so surprised at how 'underground' giclée prepress is. So few people realize that their pictures need to be adjusted for giclée printing output on specific media with specific types of finishes (ie., gloss, satin, matte, etc.).

Virtually all camera and digital-darkroom algorithms involve some sort of averaging. They have to, to be as 'automatic' as people are deemed to want them to be by those who develop the tools. There is nothing wrong with averaging and in fact people take really good pictures these days, compared to the days of film-based imaging. However, the image files we print for artists and photographers at Vashon Island Imaging, and my experiences teaching digital imaging seminars there, have taught me that there is a disconnect between people and their printers.

Most of the disconnect comes from working with PhotoShop®. There's nothing wrong with the program. The problem is that you perfect the picture on an RGB monitor, likely an LCD 'slim' type. You can't easily see 'rare tones' in your pictures because the dynamic tone range of your monitor is narrower than that of a good giclée printer. If you have a CRT monitor you will be able to see much more.

Not being able to see all the colors is not necessarily a bad thing and I know many artists who work in sRGB just to get a punchier set of colors. So be it. However, if you are a professional giclée prepress artist, as I am, you encounter just about everything. (If you're interested, I turned my adventures into a giclée 'thriller' called Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée. It's the perfect bedtime book for the printing geek in your life and you can find out more about it at

A lot of my own illustration work involves scenes that take place at night. To accomplish my illustrative goals, I had to tackle head-on the printers' two worst nightmares: dark tones and shadows. In the book I go into great detail about how to work up extra rare tones in the shadow areas of your pictures. Here I'll share with you one really easy way to add detail in the dark-tone areas. I call it a 'shadow mask'.

Shadow Masks are made by first copying the layer and separating out everything except the dark tones to be worked on. Invert that layer, desaturate it, set the layer blending for 'lighten' and reduce the layer opacity to something like 2-5%. As you futz with the layer opacity, observe how the mask fills the dark tones, opening them up. This gives you a starting point for a whole range of decision making for which to retain, which to keep working on... etc. When you get it the way you want, duplicate both the original layer and the shadow-mask layer(s) for a new sub-master. You can make colored shadow masks... textured ones... there are many possibilities that are explained in the book.

Another quick tip: after separating the dark tones onto their own layer, use brightness and contrast and way 'overexpose' the layer. Then set the blending options for the lightened layer(s) to 'lighten', erase away the parts you don't want and reduce the layer opacity until it is 'lagom'.

Lagom is one of my favorite Swedish words. It is more a concept than a mere word. Translated literally it means 'enough'. That can be interpreted in just about any way you want... and only you know how much is 'lagom' for the giclée you are preparing to print.

How much you work up the dark tones and the nature of those extra rare tones must be determined by the media your are printing on... how can you best take advantage of -- or compensate for -- the 'total look' offered by the media and it's coating. For example, if dark tones are important to the picture, you'd want to avoid matte finishes as they produce scatter light which 'dilutes' dark tones and moves the black point into the gray zone. Shadows need punch and punch means black. But what is black?

'...the Shadow knows!'

Monday, May 24, 2010

No Denying Denial

'You can lead people to knowledge, but you can't make them think'. That's my new favorite quote. I am clueless about who is credited with it. My father used to say, 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink'. But this is better.

Certainly, if you are into education you can relate. If you are into prepress for giclée printing it's an even more fitting quote. Your biggest problem is that other people don't even know they have a problem. Actually, maybe that's a good thing... job security of a sort. But I hate seeing the same problems with picture files over and over again. Boring.

People think that when they push the print button the resulting print will be just like what they saw in PhotoShop®. Wrong, for a lot of reasons... enough reasons to fill up a 272-page book (Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée, (ISBN 9780-986575112 available at

There's an information gap. At the most fundamental level, when you finish the picture in PhotoShop® you are half-way there. After that the picture needs to be prepressed for the specific device and media you are outputting to.

Denial is part of the equation too. It is hard for people to admit that their work isn't the best, that it may be lacking in some way. It's the same sort of problem faced by companies like Jenny Craig's... the customer has to admit to a problem. Did you ever try to get an artist to admit to a problem? You get some very interesting answers which usually center around 'creativity' or 'it's what I was looking for'.

The only way to get people to understand is to show side-by-side comparisons. It's something beauticians have done forever... 'before & after'. Prepress artists are like beauticians for pictures, eh? We should take a page out of their book, when it comes to promoting ourselves. What was it Vidal said... 'If you don't look good, I don't look good'. (Hmmmm... maybe that's my favorite quote.)

At my fine arts printing company, Vashon Island Imaging, we get a lot of repeat business for our giclée work from artists and photographers who have come to appreciate our prepress work. We always make it a point to leave a copy of their original file as the bottom layer of the prepressed image file, to show them the before and after. Those who may have started by insisting we print their file are usually surprised to see a visible difference when we produce our own prepressed version. The differences are so easy to see... the prepressed picture will always have a better tone range and 'character'.

There's no denying that people will deny their pictures have problems. All you can do is demo your prepress advantage with a before and after comparison of an entire picture, a half-size print, are at least a good-sized test strip. Don't worry, the cost of that print is an investment in a customer who will likely be back for more of your good service.

To stand apart from the rest, prepress is your key to success. At least, it has been the key to our success at the printing company and the reason I wrote the book. My goal is that all my clients should be so happy with their pictures that they keep on coming back for more and more. If their pictures look good, we look good. And if they know how to do prepress, that saves me time because their pictures will come in 'nearly ready' for great output. That is why I teach digital imaging seminars at Vashon Island Imaging and also tutor people privately for an 'honorarium' of $15 for a two-to-three hour session.

At the digital imaging seminars and tutorials, I work with the client's own pictures and I make it a point for them to bring me their most problematic ones. Then I prepress the picture as they watch while explaining what I am doing and why. The more they know, the less work it is for me to make their giclées to the high standards for which we are known.

If you take your files to a printing company like Vashon Island Imaging then your results are going to be as good as their prepress, or your own. Many printing shops don't do any real prepress at all... they just print what you give them. In those cases you've got to do your own prepress. Do you know how? Be sure to always ask the printing shop about their prepress, what they do and why. If you already know what to look for, you'll have an advantage in that conversation... like speaking French in France. (You can learn about pixel-perfect printing and giclée prepress reading my book.)

Then there are shops like Vashon Island Imaging that are total service shops, where we take care of everything related to giclée art under one roof... (and now also art-quality laser printing, but that's another story). Here we pride ourselves on our printing quality and our quality derives from expert prepress.

Photographers have a similar problem with photo labs. There aren't too many custom printers but there are an awful lot of places that make prints. To find a master photo printer you've got to look far and wide. And so it goes in giclée... it is hard to find a good prepress artist.

You can't deny denial, but you also can't deny that prepress means success when it comes to fine quality giclée and laser printing.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Difference Is In The Dots

People ask me why giclée printing so much better I explain that it is the dots that make the difference. Simply put, the sprayed dots of the giclée printing process produce a wider dynamic tone range than conventional dots.

All printing is done with dots. Dots are how many colors are produced from the four 'process' colors (CMYK). If the dots are fine enough your eyes can't see them. For example, stand back from your computer monitor and look at the picture above and the eye will appear more distinct.

Conventional printing dots have hard edges, variable sizes and are arranged on a grid, like a checkerboard. For example, look at the top row of dots in the picture below. This arrangement leaves a lot of 'white space' between the dots, while the dots themselves are quite large (compared to giclée 'dots').

Conventional printing dots are 'stamped' onto paper or other substrates, like a rubber stamp. That is, the ink is transferred during a physical contact between the substrate and the printing plate. The physicality of this transfer puts limits on how small the dots can be. If you use a pin to print a dot it will puncture the paper.

However giclée 'dots' are sprayed (see second row of dots in the picture above). By spraying the dots the giclée process accomplishes three advantages:

First, one dot is replaced by (up to) 2880 microdots (the spray pattern). Such tiny microdots facilitate the printing of very fine details.

Second, the 'white space' between dots is filled with color. which means much better color saturation overall because white dillutes colors making them less pure. The white space around conventional dots acts like 'white dots' which reduces color saturation.

Third, where the sprayed dots overlap additional color tones are generated which are blends of all the overlapping hues. It is these 'rare tones' that add the tonal richness that giclée prints are famous for.

That's the large and the small of what makes giclée the finest printing method and the one preferred for fine arts and superior graphics.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Start With the Finish

If you like to read magazines backwards, this may be of special interest to you because working backwards is the best way to make giclée art.

Basically, you start with the finish. That is, how will the giclée be presented? Will it be on paper, or canvas? Will it have a coating? Appear under glass? Be specially lit? All these factors play into the prepress you do before printing the picture, because they all impact the dynamic tone range and the 'character' of the giclée as it will be seen.

I am reminded of a movie called 'Leave Her To Heaven' by John M. Stahl that I saw on PBS last night. It was filmed in Technicolor® and for that reason had a distinct and particular 'look' that I recognized, being a nearly-senior citizen. It's a look shared by Kodachrome® slides... strong saturated hues and contrast with lots of shadow. We are not used to seeing that look anymore because entire industries have been built to solve the 'problem' of a limited dynamic tone range. Filmmakers and photographers now use light balancing and HDR (high dynamic range) to extend the dynamic tone range and gamut to near perfection. But what is perfect if beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

From the perspective of a giclée printer, perfection is in the details (together with the Devil). From afar, a picture can have a 'look', for example strong graphics versus pastels. But as you get closer, you should be able to see into the shadows and catch detail in the highlights. Exceptions to that are found in specific styles and techniques that are more monotone like 'line art'.

The pictures compared above show the restoration of color into the highlights of a sunset sky. These kinds of subtleties are lost in most pictures. You must recreate picture tones where none exist because they are 'blown out'. There are a lot of reasons why highlights get blown out, and there are ways to restore them that are all described in my book, under 'Highlight Control' - one of the thirteen steps to prepress success when making giclée art prints.

More tone detail is only possible with a wide dynamic tone range. The more colors you have available, the more detailed your tone separation can be come. Gradients open up and become wider, meaning less banding.

People choose giclée printing because it offers the highest dynamic tone range of any printing process, and the greatest detail (made possible by sprayed microdots versus the grids of hard-edge dots used in conventional printing). However, much of the effect can be lost - or at least substantially changed - by how the giclée is finished and presented.

A Jackson Pollock painting or a Yousuf Karsh portrait given a matte surface would kill the look of those artists' work. Their pictures require strong black. However, matte-finishes create scatter light which 'fogs' the dark tones. It's like moving the black point off the scale of the histogram. But suppose that is what the client wants... a matte finish for a Karsh? Then your prepress work must work up a notch, developing stronger tone separations in the dark-tone regions, which are going to become lighter to the eye in the finished presentation than they appear to you on your monitor screen.

To simulate what will happen, look at your prepress work through a 'white net' filter and observe the effects of scatter light in a 'simulated' manner. The white-net filter is simply a top layer in PhotoShop®, filled with white and then opacity-adjusted to whatever percent... something between 2 and 11% usually. Watch what happens to the interrelationship of dark tones to each other and to the light tones. The same 'loss' occurs in all tones but is especially noticeable in the darks.

By observing your prepress adjustments through the filter, you'll be more likely to use the heavy hand needed in this case. When you remove the filter, your work will appear exaggerated, which is what the giclée needs to compensate for the low-contrast matte finish it will have.

Of course the opposite also holds... a pastel to be giclée'd onto a high-gloss finish needs to possibly have the a 'white-net mask'. A 'mask' is the same as a 'filter' except it is applied to the image when it is printed, to lift the blacks away from 'pure' black into the 'dark gray' blacks you see in pastel originals, which themselves lack true black.

Techniques like these are described in great detail in Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée my new book about pixel-perfect printing. (

That is why you should 'start with the finish' when doing prepress work for giclée printing. Consider the dynamic tone range and gamut that will be seen by the viewer, and adjust the image file to compensate for the 'character' and 'look' of the finished giclée.

Speaking of finishes, at Vashon Island Imaging, my fine-arts printing and publishing company, we experiment a lot with finishes. In fact we sell certain types of 'artisan' finishes for premium prices. For example, we offer 'iridescent' varnish that sparkles. 'Antique' varnish is another favorite, giving giclée prints a very old and slightly distressed look that can add value to appropriate limited editions. These are also described in the book.

Going back a few years, our varnishing specialties grew from the fact that aside from varnish there weren't too many other finishes out there for giclée prints. There were those spray-can fixatives and the like, but I hate those because it is nearly impossible to get an even coating. That said, we now prefer sprayed coatings of liquid laminate at Vashon Island Imaging. We use a huge set-up involving a spray gun that I once used to paint my car(s). Without such 'industrial' scale spray gear, however, I don't recommend sprays for giclées. There are many reasons, which are explained in the book along with spraying instructions.

The varnish we continue to use is Golden® MSP Gloss Varnish ( That is applied with brushes. However, unless a customer requests varnish we have switched to liquid laminates because they are more 'user friendly' for most of our customers at Vashon Island Imaging.

Varnishes never really dry... which is why archivists prefer them. Even years later, varnishes can be removed. Maybe that's good for a Mona Lisa but for the average collector varnish is more of a pain. That is because two varnished pieces will eventually stick together and when you try to separate them, the giclée on one or the other will let go. Both pieces will be marred and require retouching with oil paints. The extent of the damage may require that the old varnish be stripped off and the piece refinished. For the giclée print shop it's a hell of a way to make money. I hate to see such damage and frankly it is nearly impossible to avoid when you have dozens of giclées all over the place as we do here at the Vashon Island Imaging studio. So now we like liquid lamination because all those problems go away.

We discovered liquid laminates the same time we added Epson® matte canvas to our media list. Coating matte canvas with gloss varnish was counter-intuitive. But when we switched to matte varnish the problems began. You cannot get a streak-free finish with matte varnish without an 'industrial' spray rig... which is why I built just such a rig at the Vashon Island studio, where we have plenty of space. But it's a conundrum because you don't really want to spray varnish either (because so much of that thinner will be pumped into the atmosphere... nasty).

In the quest for a better matte coating, we happened upon Clear Shield® ( This stuff is water based... like that a lot. We first used it with little rollers and it worked well, leveling nicely and leaving a flat, even surface just like you want. The roller applied a good thick coat, too. This is all described in the book in more detail. Anyway, as happy as we are with the roller applications, the stuff dries too fast to be able to get across a big giclée in one go, like you can with slow-drying varnish. Nor can you sufficiently dilute the liquid lam to prevent fast drying without jeopardizing it's integrity (or so says the manufacturer). We split it 1:4 (one part water to four parts Clear Shield) for rolling and spraying. When it sets up, which is quick, it turns out like Saran Wrap bonded to your giclée... perfect!

The best part is that the liquid laminate finish is rugged and totally dry. The giclées don't stick together at all, which makes handling at the gallery or collector level so much easier (and for us too).

I'll 'finish' up by saying that, I feel much more at ease not releasing so many solvents into the atmosphere any more. It is ironic that to be more 'Green' we're using a synthetic coating system. Considering our intention to be more Eco friendly, I guess you'd say that we 'finished' where we started.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Launch Event on Vashon Island

On Friday, June 4th at Books By The Way on Vashon Island I will appear at a launch event for my new book Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée (ISBN 9780-9865-75112, 272 pages, 477 pictures).

At the event I will make a 30-minute presentation each hour between 6:00pm and 9:00pm about prepress for fine-arts giclée printing - the book's subject. This includes a Q&A session and book signings.

Books By The Way is located at 9928 Southwest Bank Road in the heart of Vashon town. Their phone number is 206-463-2696.

Here's what it says in the press release about the book:

Mesney's book targets the 'disconnect' between people and printing. People know how to make good pictures in PhotoShop® but they don't know that prepress adjustments are needed to make good prints of those pictures, or even what "prepress" is. Mesney's presentation explains prepress and how to take advantage of the fine quality that the giclée printing process offers. "Giclée prints the finest detail and wide dynamic tone range of any printing process, which is why it is preferred for fine arts reproductions and museum quality photographs," he says.

Fine quality prints are made with a two-step process, the author explains. "When the picture looks good in PhotoShop® you are half-way there. The second step is adjusting the image file for specific printing machines or other output like audiovisual shows or the web. That work is called 'prepress'".

Prepress modifies a picture's dynamic tone range to fit in the gamut of the output device, be it a printer or a display (monitor, screen or projector). If an output device can only show 100 colors it is senseless to send it 200, and vice versa. Yet, most people are unfamiliar with this challenge and often blame bad printing results on the machine.

Whether you print your own work or take it to a digital print shop your pictures will be noticeably better if you understand what prepress is all about, according to the author. "Many print shops don't do any significant prepress work at all... they just print what you give them. However, if you prepress your images correctly, almost anyone can print them correctly.

"Remember the old saying, 'garbage in - garbage out'? is just like that," he continues. "That is why Vashon Island Imaging includes thorough prepress in all print jobs and offers seminars on the subject that are very affordable. My objective is to help people make the best possible prints of their pictures. If they like their pictures, they will be back for more," Mesney concludes.

The author is the proprietor of Vashon Island Imaging, a fine-arts printing and publishing company, and is himself an artist illustrator. The book was inspired by his experiences teaching the company's digital imaging seminars.

"Teaching digital imaging seminars at Vashon Island Imaging made me aware that there is a 'disconnect' between people and their printers," explains the author.
"It is a knowledge gap. The missing information is what other books don't tell you... that your basic images must be adjusted for specific output devices if they are to look their very best."

Giclée Prepress is the ultimate source book for anyone interested in making superior quality giclée prints. The book has been written for picture professionals and giclée prepress artists, but is of equal value to advanced amateur photographers, other artists, and anyone trying to make quality prints.

Mesney's audiovisual illustration work and choreography has garnered 150 international awards. He has also taught PhotoShop® at BCIT in Vancouver, BC (British Columbia Institute of Technology). The author's biography is presented in the new book's Epilogue.

Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée is being printed and distributed by Vashon Island Imaging. The company offers art-quality laser printing in addition to fine-arts giclée printing and finishing. Pamela Swanson, the author's wife and a Canadian national, is handling international sales for the new book.

Vashon Island Imaging is a dba of Incredible Images LLC, the author's audiovisual consultation company. Douglas Mesney Art produces and sells his illustration work from offices in Vancouver, BC.

More information about the book is at
More information about Douglas Mesney is at and Facebook

Alone In The Wilderness

There's a show on PBS called 'Alone In The Wilderness'. You must have seen it since they've been playing it since it was made sometime back in the last century... way back. So far back that the color had already faded from the 16mm movie film before it was transferred to video... and that was a long time ago, too. Anyway...

The program is a series about a guy who heads out into the woods to carves himself a simple life, close to Nature. Maybe this is the very first 'reality' show, albeit a primitive one. The interesting thing is that the guy filmed himself... there was no crew. He must have lugged 25 miles of movie film in his backpack, because there are hours of episodes. In each one we watch the guy handily craft a log cabin and all the accouterments out of the natural resources around him... this accompanied by some good old country philosophizing. It's amazing how so little can be made into so much.

Being a giclée aficionado is sort of like being that guy. There aren't many of us. Oh, there are a lot of printers, that's for sure. But not too many are really into the Zen of giclée. Probably that's because for most printing is a job. It's a job for me, too... but not in the sense that I have to do it. Well, I do have to do it... we all need to make a buck. But for me it's not a 'job' because I like doing it so much. Each picture is a challenge. How can I maximize the quality of the giclée print? Although not as thrilling as squeezing another mile-per-hour out of a race car, seeing the perfect print emerge from the printer brings its own excitement.

I could liken giclée to darkroom printing... but then how many of you have done that? Talk about showing my age! Those who have darkroom experience know that a big part of darkroom printing is manipulating the light and 'painting' the image in ways that balance the tones. There is always some trial and error working out the best procedures to print any given negative... and all negatives require some manipulation if the resulting print is to be any good.

Prints made without manipulation are called 'one-light' prints because there is just one exposure. One-light prints are usually made by machines which contact-printed negatives into 'glossies'. Back in the day, 'machine prints' quickly made large quantities of economical prints, usually for distibution to magazines and newspapers as part of press kits, or for models' head shots. This was how pictures were distributed before electronic imaging and communications.

You might ask, if all negatives require exposure manipulation then how could you get a high quality machine print with a 'one-light' exposure and no manipulation? That feat was accomplished by making a 'copy print'... a print made for the purpose of being copied to make a 'copy negative'. The copy print was normally an over sized print -- to make 8 X 10's you'd usually make an 11 X 14 or 16 X20 copy print made to low contrast standards. To your eye a good copy print would look dull and flat, with no richness. The large copy print would be retouched to remove all flaws and then re-photographed using a large camera. An 8 X 10 copy camera was used to make an 8 X 10 copy negative for making '8 X 10 glossies' with an 8 X 10 contact-printing machine.

Making a good print for copying is a black art because photo-mechanical duplication and reproduction work involves contrast build-up every step of the way. The darkroom artist making the print to be copied must plan ahead for the added contrast by reducing the contrast of the original an appropriate amount, to balance the tones. The same is true for the dark tones. A good original for copying will have no black... black areas will instead be 95% gray or thereabouts. So as I say, a great print for copying looks like a crappy faded print but isn't.

If you have read this far, here is the payoff: today's giclée situation is almost exactly the same... but nobody knows it (unless you are a giclée geek). What people don't realize is that to make a good print with a giclée printing machine, you start with a picture that looks 'bad' on your monitor screen. Bad means dull and lifeless. If the picture looks great on your monitor, it probably won't print that well. The highlights will be ink-less and the dark tones clogged up and lifeless. But will anyone notice?

In my book, Giclée Prepress - The Art of Giclée ( I devote two chapters just to the control of light and dark tones in order to maximize giclée print quality. Highlight and shadow area tones are the two biggest problem areas for giclée prepress artists because they are the two biggest failures of most imaging devices. It's deja vue all over again because highlights and dark tones have always been the nemeses of printers.

No imaging device can capture all the tones in an average scene because the exposure latitude is too wide for the film or CCD/CMOS sensors. They aim for midtones and average what they 'see' and as a result color tones on the extreme ends of light and dark suffer or are lost. You see that as burned out highlights and clogged shadows... or do you?

Many people (dare I say most) don't even know what a good print looks like. It's true. If you were in the printing business, like I am, you'd understand. How many times have I had to gently remind clients that test prints are just that, tests, no matter how good they look. They say, 'don't throw them out... they're good enough for me!' (but I still won't let them out of the shop... I have a reputation to protect).

The point is that people's expectations are lower today when it comes to image quality. In the old days people had beautifully printed books and magazines as their standard of comparison. Now, how long has it been since you looked at an actual picture book or magazine instead of an electronic one? Most people don't even come into contact with fine quality printing any more. Of course, they appreciate it when they see it but that is so rarely that when it comes time to have one of their own pictures printed they don't know the difference between a Costco print and one made by a custom shop like Vashon Island Imaging (www.vashonislandimaging). That is why I am on this 'crusade' to educate people about the extraordinary printing possibilities available with giclée and how to take advantage of them. When it comes to that crusade, then I really feel 'alone in the wilderness'.

Giclée is so new that the 'industry' hasn't matured yet. By that I mean in terms of its 'coagulation'. In the galaxy, planets and stellar bodies form as gravity draws random bits and pieces together. Gradually the individual parts coalesce into a heavenly body. And so it goes with arts and crafts and other occupations. As more and more people do something, like is attracted to like and organizations are born. The organizations create networks of communication and commerce. Soon, everything you need is under one roof. Voila... Wallmarts. 'Wallmartization' is about as far as you can get from 'Alone In The Wilderness', eh?

Being so new, giclée supplies and knowledge aren't readily available. There are very few single sources for knowledge, in particular. It took me ten years to find and learn the stuff I have gathered together in the book. The book and this blog are my own attempt to provide a knowledge base and resource for those who are interested in pixel-perfect printing... who want to produce the finest quality prints that they can. If you are like me in that quest, you are invited to join the parade. As 'fun' as it is writing books and blogs, it sometimes feels a bit like the movie 'Contact'. You send this stuff out into the universe, but does anyone really hear it or see it? Does it register anywhere? Is there a 'sympathetic' vibration...?

Stay 'tuned' to find out...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Welcome to the Zen of Giclée

Just about everyone I've told about this new blog is saying, "'s about time!" That's because there aren't too many places you can go to get the full story about how to make giclée art. Now there is at least one, and you are there.

You will discover that this blog is like hearing about sailing from a guy who has sailed around the world. The wrinkles around a sailor's eyes are from squinting at the sun. Mine are also from squinting ... first spotting photo prints with extra-fine brushes for 35 years, and now perfecting giclée prints and peering at microdots through 10X loupes.

Making pictures has been the focus of my life for a half a century. I teach giclée printing at Vashon Island Imaging, a fine-arts printing company that I own and operate from Vashon Island, Washington (you can see full details at I've also taught PhotoShop® at BCIT in Vancouver (British Columbia Institute of Technology).

My experiences teaching others taught me that there is a disconnect between people and printing. People know how to make great pictures in PhotoShop®, but many don't realize that is just the beginning of a two-step process.

The first step is perfecting the picture and the second step is doing 'prepress' work to adapt the image for specific output devices, be those devices giclée printers, audiovisual screens or anything in between.

Prepress is the name given to a wide range of adjustments that bring an image's dynamic tone range and "look" in line with the gamut and "character" of the output device. Prepress can make or break a picture in the same way that darkroom wizards make the best photo prints. There's a lot to it... enough to fill a 272-page book.

There are many levels of prepress. On the basic side there's what I call "technical prepress" that includes the minimum necessary to correctly output a client's image. At the other end of the spectrum there's 'creative prepress' which is interpretive and can be considered a 'black art'.

This blog (and my book) are for those who pursue 'creative prepress'... the Zen of Giclée. If you are passionate about making the perfect giclée, welcome aboard. This blog is for you.

In the book I have broken down the process of making giclée art into thirteen steps. Starting with the concept of the picture, through prepress work and printing, to finishing and display lighting. It is a single-source reference book for 'everything about giclée'.

The purpose of this blog is to become an extension of the book and an online 'forum' about Giclée Zen in general. If you have read the book we'll both be speaking the same language. But even if you haven't read it the stuff in this blog will be edifying if you know anything about PhotoShop® and/or printing. That said, I assume that you have a working knowledge of PhotoShop® and if you don't some of this might be over your head.

My mission is to help people make better prints of their pictures. The happier people are with their pictures, the more pictures they will make. So I don't think I am putting myself out of business by telling everyone my 'trade secrets' of giclée prepress. Au contraire, if your pictures look good, you look good. I like it when people look at the prints of their pictures and say 'that's incredible'. (Besides, the more prepress you do, the less I have to do...!)

Some of you are 'do-it-yourselfers' and the rest bring their images to professional giclée shops like Vashon Island Imaging. If you're a 'DIY' (do-it-yourselfer) then you are in control and have no one else to blame for a bad print. If you outsource your printing, then you are at the mercy of their prepress artist... if they even have one (and many places don't). Print shop quality runs the gamut (pun intended). On the one hand there's the 'Walmart®' or 'Costco®' service and at the other end of the spectrum are custom shops like Vashon Island Imaging.

Many printing outfits only do technical prepress and are focused on faithfully reproducing your image based on the file you gave them. They are not going to improve the image, even though it might well be possible to make a substantially better print with a little 'creative prepress'. It's like Walmart® vs 'The Wizards' and generally you get what you pay for.

Take Ansel Adam's work as an example. Only certified darkroom wizards are allowed to print the master's negatives because they are so complicated in terms of burning and dodging. Those dramatic skies and extended dynamic tone range that are his signature style are not easily reproduced in the photographic prints. And so it goes in giclée printing.

People attending the Digital Imaging Seminars that I conduct at Vashon Island Imaging are astounded to see how their own pictures can be 'developed' for an extended dynamic tone range and then further modified to take into consideration the type of media being printed upon and the coating applied to the final print. A single image file cannot look its best on both glossy and matte-finish media... one or both will need adjustment to match the image contrast with the contrast of the media surface (ie., matte surfaces produce scatter light which 'fogs' the dark tones and move the black point right off the histogram). Matte prints have no real black, and all tones appear more 'pastel'.

When I refer to extending the dynamic tone range, part of that is the 'development' of highlight and shadow details in the picture -- which are exactly the same kind of modifications made by photographic darkroom printers. It's a question of balancing the tones by working up the 'rare tones' that were in the original scene but which were obliterated by the averaging algorithms that the image has likely encountered on it's way to you, for printing.

90% of the the images that come to Vashon Island Imaging have clogged-up dark tones and burned out light tones. Most of these problems are the result of 1.) averaging algorithms and 2.) people working on light-emitting RGB monitors to make pictures that will be output with CMYK inks onto reflective media. The pictures may look good on your RGB monitor in PhotoShop®, but that file will not print very well without prepress adjustments to control the light and dark tones. Burned out areas can be restored with color tones and details can be pulled out of the shadows. And that's just the beginning.

Stay tuned... there's more to come.

Thanks for reading so far.