Original Prints vs. Reproductions

There is a continuing dialog about printmaking misconceptions… basically, what is a print and what is a “print”, and how do you tell the difference?

Think about Walmart, IKEA, and the internet. You can find images galore that you can buy already framed and ready to hang in your home or office. So why are we all concerned with reproduction prints? Because too many misunderstood reproductions affects the ability of many artists to sell their original artworks.

With the improvements in ink jet color printers it is possible to make a copy of almost anything that looks almost exactly like the original source of the image. Photographers have had to face the extinction of film and photo paper for their darkroom creations due to the increasing prevalence of high quality digital cameras, many of them at very affordable prices. So now, almost anyone can shoot a picture and make “prints” of it, therefore contemporary photographs seen in galleries and art shows are probably shot with digital cameras or cell phones and ink jet printed. No one thinks twice about it anymore, it’s simply a fact.

Now, take an artist who has spent many months making an exceptional oil painting. The artist wants/hopes for a decent price for that painting, but there may be few buyers who can afford a price that compensates the artist for the blood, sweat, tears and years it took to make that painting. The artist decides to have a high quality digital photograph or scan made of the painting. (That’s a new area of revenue for many photographers, shooting and color correcting art works of this type.)

Once the digital image has been made the artist, or the photographer, whoever owns the best color ink jet printer, can choose from many different papers or canvas substitutes to print a copy of that painting. It may cost a tenth, or less, of what the artist wants for the original painting. So now the artist can sell 10, 20, 30, ? more copies of the painting at a price many people can afford. Therefore, is it a print or a “print” or a reproduction? Just because it wasn’t made in a factory and shipped to IKEA by boat doesn’t make it special. It’s not an original piece of art, it’s a copy, it’s a reproduction. The ink jet printer that was used may be the exact same one the photographer used to print original photographs, but the ‘once-removed’ nature of having the digital image made of the painting and then printing it mechanically turns it into a reproduction, it’s not a “print”. It’s a reproduction, and millions of copies can be made from that one digital file.

Now consider the “print”. A “print” is an original image made by an artist-printmaker, from a printing plate that a printmaker, and only a printmaker, made by hand. Depending on the technique chosen by the printmaker it may be possible to make several “copies” of the image, or it might be a one-of-a-kind that cannot be duplicated. “Prints” are all originals, even if there are “multiple originals” because the artist may re-ink and run the plate through a press several times, attempting to make more than one “print” look exactly like the first one. To keep track of how many impressions are made from a plate there is a tradition of numbering each one. The convention is to use fractions representing the total number of prints in the series and the individual print within that total, i.e., 4/45 means print number 4 out of 45 finished prints in an “edition”. In the future, if the printmaker decides to print that plate again then the numbering system reflects that, by using the fraction but also indicating it’s from a 2nd edition. If the printmaker simply changes to a different kind of paper or ink color it becomes a whole new edition as well. If the printmaker decides that no more copies will/should be made from that plate they may scratch an X over the image and pull a final print to prove it has been canceled permanently, that no one can make more prints from it.

By following these numbering customs a buyer understands that their original print belongs to an intentional series of prints, and how many matching prints might be hanging on someone else’s wall. This is not true of the painter we first talked about. Their digital image could live forever on a disk somewhere and untold numbers of copies could be printed, year after year, in every conceivable size, from wallet to wall mural, coffee mugs to calendars. These images should not be numbered in any way as there is truly no such thing as a “limited edition”, even if the painter doesn’t initially intend to make lots of copies. Making too many copies begins to cheapen each one. Some painters are starting to realize that fewer buyers are interested in purchasing the original painting, at whatever price, because they can have a cheaper version in any size they want.

A printmaker could spend an equal amount of time making 50 prints as the painter took to paint one painting, and therefore have more opportunities to sell their images for a lesser price per print, and each one is still an original. It was common practice for Raphael and other Renaissance painters to have printmakers make “Etchings” of their best paintings, expanding their fame and sales possibilities. Rembrant and Goya made their own etched plates and prints and surviving copies are awesome to look at. No digital copies for them!

If there are any special subjects you’d like to discuss, vis a vis printmaking, just weigh in and we’ll enjoy the dialog.

Fall is here! Feel the nip in the air? Get the rakes out. I’m busy making prints and our leaves can wait!

Yours in ink,

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