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Commercial Vs Fine Art Inkjet Printing: What's the Difference?

Art isn’t just about the art anymore

Digital printmaking has ‘leveled the playing field’ as the saying goes, giving novice and professional printmaker a fantastic opportunity to contribute to the world of visual communications. With today’s computers and technological advancements in printers at affordable prices, we’re seeing more people adventuring into the world of printmaking. I know because I AM one, I’m an artist and writer and now can gladly say hobbyist printmaker.

I’ve bought a 13”x19” Canon iP8700 and printed a lot of things at home for myself, my wife, and our hobbies! I don’t do this as a commercial printmaker but I’m sure I could given a few changes in my workflow and a much larger printer. I think understanding what I’m getting into and the differences between what I can do as a fine art printer vs. being a commercial business will save a lot of time and frustration. I like to do my research before I tread into a new business space and investing $500 in a printer and supplies didn’t come easy.

Let’s talk about what it looks like to be a Fine Art Printmaker vs. a Commercial Printmaker specifically with inkjet printing.


Commercial Printing

The two key elements of commercial printing are: volume and speed. The ability to output many prints very quickly is the ideal metric for most commercial printer models. The printing process refers to the transferring of artworks, designs, patterns, or colors from a digital file to a physical medium at a mass scale. The most common example is a canvas artwork one might typically find at Target or Walmart. Those have been mass-printed on a high-volume printer, hundreds at a time.

Commercial Printing

This type of printing is widely used to produce point-of-sale marketing materials, brochures, flyers, stationery, packaging, and many other applications.

Fine Art Printing

Often referred to as “giclée printing”, fine art printing is a printing process that is ideal for artists and galleries alike. Opposite to commercial printing where speed and volume of print output are the goals, fine art printmakers seek to achieve the maximum level of detail, quality, and archival longevity in a print to ensure the closest reproduction of the artist’s work as faithfully as possible.

Some galleries will take this a step further and embellish the printed image with acrylics or oils to add some painterly touches to simulate the look of the original art piece.

High-quality media, archival inks, acid-free framing bars and materials are all required to guarantee the final product comes as close to the original artwork as possible. The printer models used are able to reproduce the images at a higher resolution than a commercial printer might, which takes much longer but allows the detail and sharpness to shine through.

Now that we have an appreciation for these two different types of printing methodologies, let’s break them down further by analyzing these topics below:

Process and Technology

Commercial Printing

I had mentioned my small 13”x19” home printer but it’s definitely limited in what it can do. Most notably is the process to get high volume printing done, it just can’t do it. Remember that speed and volume of print output are two key elements of commercial printing, and at my fastest settings this little printer can only do about three to five 13”x19” sheets in a minute. Imagine trying to print several hundred orders at that speed; you’d be there all night and a lot of small business printmakers do this! By contrast, large format commercial printers are 60” wide (or wider!) and can print many 13”x19” images all at the same time, on the same roll of material. This is where a business running a large format printer makes great sense. They’ll have a higher output and reasonable quality without wasting time.

The processes by which large format commercial printers can achieve this speed is by using one of two methods: First, due to how long the technology has been available, is using heat-bonded solvent-based inks in a wave pattern running through heat rollers before and after printing. The solvent dries quickly and helps set the inks into the substrate with a permanent bond. Second, relatively newer technology when compared to solvent, are large format archival inkjet aqueous printers like the Epson P10000 or P20000 that print at the same size and capabilities of solvent large format printers. All large format printers generally take up a lot of space and cost thousands so it's important to understand what investment you're making when choosing a large format printer that's suitable for your business. The largest printshops can afford to have one of each to accomplish their different goals such as marketing and producing fine art prints.

The technologies that enable this are threefold: Nesting, RIP Printing, and Image Manipulation software. The best software will include all three features in one, but there are thousands of software suites that might focus just on image manipulation such as Adobe's Photoshop or LightRoom products, or only factor print nesting such as ImageNest. While this article won't go into the specific details of each piece of software, it's important for a printmaker to educate themselves on the various features they might be looking for and what they hope to accomplish in their prints. Generally speaking, you want to have as much color management control and image nesting capability to maximize your print time and color quality without re-adjusting settings each time.

For those unfamiliar, 'nesting' refers to the process of software that calculates how multiple images are 'nested' and mapped digitally on-screen so they can be printed on a single piece of material with the maximum amount of coverage and least amount of waste. The software will allow the printmaker to flip, rotate, and size the images so the printed output meets their desired results. This level of control varies by software, but the general idea is that the printmaker will be able to produce great prints the same exact way, every time.

Fine Art Printing

“Giclée” is just a fancy French word for “ink spraying or squirting of archival inks” and unlike the solvent high-speed commercial printers, these printers use water-based inkjet nozzles. The definition means that the printer sprays tiny dots of water-based archival pigmented inks onto a substrate that will then require some sort of protective coating, lamination, or framing to avoid ink smears or environmental damage.

The process for fine art printing is a lot more varied than commercial printing, in that printmakers such as myself can achieve some level of “fine art” even with smaller format printers and with a variety of substrates like fine art paper, canvas, or even metal! Today’s technology for water-based inkjet printing has gotten advanced enough and affordable enough that a printmaker can spend less than a thousand dollars and get a great result from the printer.

As mentioned before, it’s becoming increasingly popular for fine art printmakers to then embellish their prints with acrylic or oil-based paints to further enhance the image and express the look and feel of the original art piece.

Materials and Substrates

Commercial Printing

For the purposes of our article, we’re focusing on materials that can be printed on a solvent-based ink printer or a water-based ink printer. There are a broad range of materials used for commercial printing that include papers, canvas, and synthetic materials such as latex and vinyl for weather-resistant applications like banners and signage. Adhesive materials are widely used for labels and products like stickers, packaging, and product marketing.

Materials and Substrates

Heavyweight cardstock fiber papers are used for business cards while lightweight cotton rag papers can be used for brochures, flyers, and signage. The possibilities are truly endless with the wide range of options in today’s commercial printing market.

Fine Art Printing

Similar to commercial printing, fine art printmakers in today’s market have a lot of flexibility in the materials they can use. Even vinyl that can be printed on a small format inkjet printer making durable and weather-resistant stickers for easily sellable merchandise. A quick search online will show you the millions of artists taking advantage of this method on popular websites like Etsy, Pinterest, and Instagram.

As the title of the article states: art isn’t just about the art anymore. The possible options for small business owners have helped maximize their voice and skillset and extend their art beyond the originals they’re used to selling. Archival canvases and papers that are made to last at least 100 years are common choices for artists, especially when seeking to reproduce the look of their paintings.

Quality and Color Reproduction

This topic requires a look into understanding DPI and PPI and their differences. Thankfully we have an entire article discussing this. Additionally, for the purposes of this printmaking article, we’re discussing color reproduction in regard to ICC profiles and both the CMYK and RGB color spaces.

Both commercial and fine art printing require thoughtful execution of printing software to make best use of these color spaces, and though ICC profiles are considered optional for fine art printing; they maximize the color accuracy of a print reproduction. Print resolutions vary greatly from one printer to another, but we’ll discuss the broad concept of inkjet printing to give our readers a better idea.

Let’s take a look at how commercial and fine art printing differ in these methods.

Commercial Printing

Managing colors accurately is critical in ensuring a perfect print reproduction, as well as ensuring that this managed color can be repeated every time the same art piece is reproduced.

Remember when we mentioned “RIP Printing” earlier in the article; commercial printing utilizes this special RIP printing software to enable control over colors all the way down to ink percentages by color. RIP printing software can vary greatly by company or intended purpose but the common themes among all of them can be summarized as such:

  • Color channel control - Usually done in CMYK with four-color process printers, the software allows the printmaker to truly dial in each color for the most accurate print possible. This is where ICC profiles matter most, when a printmaker has created a custom color space to ensure accuracy of the same print each time.
  • Print nesting - A benefit of using RIP technology is the ability to calculate the maximum print space on any specific media such as archival canvas with multiple copies of one image or a variety of different images. The RIP software calculates the size of each image and will flip it horizontally or vertically on the media based on the size of the media, for example calculating how many 13”x19” prints will fit side by side on a 60” wide canvas roll. The best RIP software will do this automatically, the worst won’t do this at all.
  • Print queue management - Large commercial operations can’t afford to have a printmaker just sitting at a computer hitting “print” all day, therefore RIP software is used to setup and execute multiple print jobs on the same media.

Fine Art Printing

Where commercial printing focuses on fast and accurate reproduction of colors across a multitude of images, it can be argued that fine art printmakers focus even more on absolute color accuracy and texture of the printed images to get as close as possible to the look and feel of the original work of art. Through the use of archival pigment inks and archival media, a fine art print will provide excellent color rendering as well as resist fading and color shifts for many years. Breathing Color is proud to partner with The Fine Art Trade Guild that administers an archival benchmark test called “The Blue Wool Test” to support our claim of 100+ years of archival value in our fine art papers.

Fine art printmakers will typically offer artwork in limited editions with a numbered set of prints, signed, and with a certificate of authenticity. This further enhances the value of each of the prints and makes them appealing to fine art collectors.

Some fine art printmakers will go a step further and embellish their fine art prints with acrylic or oil-based paints to enhance the look and feel of the digital print and make it look more like the original. This has become a trend in the fine art printing industry as more and more artists enjoy the ability and flexibility of enhancing each print in different ways which then makes them more of an original collector’s item themselves.

Usage and Purpose

In a lot of ways, the line between commercial and fine art printing can be blurred as technology and software continues to improve by the day. The reality is that a commercial printmaker can most likely print fine art as well as vice versa, but the determining factors have more to do with the intended usage and market of any specific business.

I’ve seen commercial printmakers switch to exclusive fine art printing with minor changes, and small business owners who previously focused on small fine art prints invest in a massive 60” commercial quality printer. It really depends on the choices the business owner wants to make.

Let’s take a generalized look at the difference:

Commercial Printing

As mentioned before, commercial printing answers many practical needs for business, retail, or marketing. Large format printers can be used to produce a range of marketing materials at great speed and good quality. Marketing such as brochures, flyers, banners, and point-of-sale signage. Packaging, stationery, business cards, letterhead, and even printing magazines of all kinds fall under the commercial printing definition.

Printing Packaging

Have you ever tried to print a magazine on a small home printer that doesn’t print on both sides? Or without software that can smartly assemble the pages in a booklet sequence for stapling or binding? It’s nearly impossible to be productive as it can take hours to complete just a handful of those magazines. I know because I’ve tried on that same Canon IP8700 13” wide printer.

It prints beautifully for single prints or a handful of prints, but not so easy when you need complex functions such as duplex printing, stapling, binding, or book finishing. All of which can be done on specialized commercial printers designed just for that.

Fine Art Printing

Here is where fine art printing really stands apart from commercial printing, in that the intended usage and purpose is completely focused on the creation and sale of art. It’s now common to see digital print reproductions in art exhibitions, galleries, museums, or conventions where original works are displayed and sold.

The quality of digital printmaking has enabled artists to offer incredibly detailed digital prints in the same spaces as originals, which further enables their reach as a small business owner. Imagine trying to create a a hundred original pieces of art for a single trade show, and then having to do that again and again and again.

It’s not as sustainable as offering numbered exclusive digital prints of those first hundred originals in a variety of collector’s editions.

Price and Turnaround Time

This is another topic that is widely open to personal interpretation as price for fine art prints varies on so many factors that aren’t related to the print media, technology, or time it takes to create them. Some big-name artists can make their entire year’s living on one trade show, while others must maintain full-time jobs as they enjoy their craft with the extra time they have. Commercial printing is less subjective, but still has to follow best business practices. Let’s take a look.

Commercial Printing

“Business is business” as the saying goes, and the same is true for commercial printmakers where pricing is based on several necessary factors every business must consider: time, labor, quantity, and quality of materials. On top of these factors, the complexity of the print project (such as a gigantic 6’ panorama) and the specific printing methods and framing used can further increase costs for each print. To stay competitive, a lot of businesses can choose less expensive materials, offer to print in bulk for a quantity discount, or reduce their print offerings such as not offering a varnishing/finishing process on their canvas prints.

Turnaround time is expected to be relatively fast when working with a commercial printer, where volume and speed of printing are their strengths. It’s generally true that a larger printshop with multiple specialized printers can turn around a print job much faster than a small printshop with just one. Specialized materials, higher resolution images, and the volume of customers all play a part in this productivity. Ultimately, it’s up to each print shop to determine what they promise to their customers but with the sheer volume of online print shops available; it behooves each business to operate quickly and efficiently, or they risk losing the project to the next website that might be a bit cheaper and faster.

Fine Art Printing

Fine art printing can be more expensive than commercial printing, in that the subject matter is considered higher value from the outset: printing art vs. printing marketing or brochures or signage; therefore, it’s not as straight forward in cost.

Like commercial printmaking: time, labor, quantity, and quality of materials should all play a role in pricing fine art. The added benefit of printing fine art is the value of the artist’s name, number of limited editions available, and the exclusivity of availability of each print, for example an artist offering specific prints “at this trade show only.”

Turnaround time is also typically assumed to be longer than a commercial printmaker as a higher level of care, attention to detail, and additional features can add time to the fine art print project. For example, embellishment of the digital print can be a service offered which then requires a studio artist’s time and careful execution of the embellishing process.


Choosing the appropriate printing method based on the purpose and objectives of your project is crucial. Both commercial and fine art printing have their unique set of benefits and limitations.

Commercial printing offers affordability, a wide range of materials, and speedy production times—making it suitable for business and marketing needs. In contrast, fine art printing delivers superior quality and longevity, making it the preferred choice for artists and galleries.

Regardless of the process selected, the key lies in understanding your specific requirements and aligning them with the best-suited printing solution.

Finally, discover the power of vibrant, lasting, and professional-quality printing with Breathing Color. Our top-tier fine art and photo papers, canvases, and print varnishes are designed to meet the needs of artists, photographers, and printing professionals. Uncover a world of detail and color today!


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