Recently I encountered a work of art that made me wonder whether it was an original watercolor or a gicle print of a watercolor. I was curious how an expert would approach questions of authenticity so I made a call to the Chazen Museum (formerly the Elvehjem Museum) and reached Drew Stevens who is curator of prints. He gave me the following advice in distinguishing a gicle from a watercolor. His comments focused on the differences in the processes which result in differences in the appearance of the product. A gicle print is created by a print head shooting very small blobs of ink at the paper. Stevens said that the blobs of ink on a gicle are visible under strong magnification such as a 30X loop. The areas where this would be most apparent would be in areas that are tonally light such as a light yellow wash. In dark areas the blobs of ink overlap and are not easily distinguished. Another difference is that unlike a watercolor the paper on a gicle does not get wet. Watercolor will cause the paper to bow and gicle will not. Typically gicles are printed on stiffer paper that has more sizing and is less absorbent. Most watercolor artists stretch their paper and the results of that stretching process are often visible if one has an opportunity to see the edge of the paper underneath the mat. Other indicators would be a tidy edge and possibly off registration among the four colors. The effect of off registration would be a halo of color in the dark areas of the image.
While I was not able to inspect the work that lead me to this question in the first place, Katherine Ralph of the Nicolet Gallery in Rhinelander did a thorough examination of the work I was curious about and found it to be authentic. I am grateful for her patience and generosity. Thanks also to Drew Stevens for sharing his expertise.