What Is An Original Print?

Article Index September 22,2011 Comments

An original print is a work of art created by hand and printed by hand, either by the artist or by a professional assistant (often called an artisan), from a plate, block, stone, or stencil that has been hand created by the artist for the sole purpose of producing the desired image. The plates or stencils it is printed from bear no resemblance to the finished work of art, which means it is not a copy or a reproduction of anything. In fact, in all print media but two, the image on the matrix (what the print is produced from) is mirror image or backwards from what the finished work will be. The image reverses in the printing process so the artist has to think and draw backwards. Each print produced is technically a unique work although produced as a signed and numbered multiple. The technical term for this is monoprint. The original print is usually produced as a limited number of impressions, another word for print. The term for this group of prints is the edition. Although there are many of the same image in an edition, each print is an individual part of the whole, the whole being the edition. An original print is actually one piece of a multiple original work of art.

Original prints are traditionally signed in pencil by the artist. They are numbered to indicate how many prints there are in the edition and to identify the individual print. This number appears written as a fraction, for example: 34 / 75. This is called the edition number. The number to the right of the slash (in this example, 75) indicates the size of the edition: 75 prints have been produced. The number to the left is the actual number of the print. This number is read: "print number thirty four of seventy five". There are other types of identifying marks as well. The artist traditionally keeps a separate group of prints aside from the edition marked as artist's proofs, normally about ten or less. These are marked A / P, sometimes with an edition number after (such as: A / P  2 / 5) to indicate how many A / P's there are. During the course of developing the image an artist may pull many experimental images before modifying the plates to achieve the finished product. These are referred to as state proofs, trial proofs, or color proofs. When the image is finally perfected the printer's proof or bon-a'-tirer (signed B.A.T.) is pulled. This is the image that the rest of the edition is matched to and there is only one of these. The artisan printer traditionally gets to keep the printer's proof.

What Is A Limited Edition Print?
Many print collectors are confused by the terms "original print" and "limited edition print". The two are not synonymous. The term "original print" is a specific term; "limited edition" is a general term. An original print is almost always a limited edition print simply because the edition is limited to the actual number of prints that can be safely "pulled" or printed from the plates before the plates begin to wear out and break down from the physical wear and tear of the printing process. But a limited edition print may or may not be an original work of art. It might be just a photo-mechanical reproduction of a painting, photograph, drawing, etc., in other words no more than a poster. The edition may be limited to an arbitrary number of 500, 1000, often more, and is sometimes even signed in pencil by the artist. It is not, however, actually printed by the artist.

The term "limited edition" is vague. When purchasing a work of art it's a good idea to know whether or not you're buying the real thing, if you truly want the "real thing". There is a reason for reproductions and posters in the print collectors' market; a reproduction sells for hundreds or even thousands of dollars less than an original work by the same artist.

What's the Difference Between Them?
There are new technologies in printmaking that are blurring the differences between Original Prints and reproductions, the Mylar Transfer process in lithography for one, and Giclee's for another.  Technically speaking, Mylar prints are drawn by hand by the artist, which in one sense classifies them as original prints, but then they are photographically copied onto the plate or screen and at that point can potentially be mass produced on mechanical presses.   Some artists are producing hand drawn offset lithographs in small, limited editions and other artists are experimenting with hand manipulated and modified color copies as original prints.  Giclee's are digital ink jet prints of a digital image file on a computer or CD.  Technically, they are copies, though some artists use this process to produce beautiful one-of-a-kind images on paper.

In this ongoing debate one school of thought contends that an Original Print must be entirely produced by hand by the artist, which combines a considerable degree of skill, artistic ability, and technical knowledge.  Another group states that the choice of whatever type of press,  process, or medium is used is just an artistic tool.  Some purists don't always agree that the above techniques are acceptable for producing original prints since there is far less physical work and, sometimes, no technical knowledge involved in producing an edition. The image my be hand drawn, but it may not be hand printed.

There are just as many printmaker purists out there as there are experimenters and the element of the artist's direct control and manipulation of the medium is probably the key as to whether a print is an Original Print or not.  So the debate goes on.

The Difference Between Monoprints and Monotypes:
These two terms are often confused with each other. A monoprint is the term for any individual original print that is part of a limited edition as opposed to a reproduction which is a copy of something else, such as a poster print of a painting. A monoprint can also be any of a number of prints pulled from a single plate, but with no attempt to print any two the same way. A monotype however is a unique work of art usually printed from a smooth flat surface such as a sheet of plastic. The artist paints by hand the image to be printed directly on this smooth surface and then places a sheet of paper over the freshly painted surface, cranks it through a press, and so creates a one-of-a-kind work of art. Monotypes, by their nature, cannot be produced as an edition. If they are numbered at all they are numbered as 1/1 (read as "one of one"... an edition of one, in other words).

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