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Is a print a painting by another name?

Written by: Peter Goodhall

There are many types of prints available to collectors today and so many descriptions of prints too. With so many descriptions it can be difficult to know just what you are about to buy.

So, as briefly as possible here is a glossary of some of those definitions.

Firstly it is necessary to know whether it is a reproduction print or what is popularly known as an original print. In simple terms, a reproduction print is a copy of an image that already exists, usually a painting and then there are all the other prints – none of which are copies of a painting. They are a work of art in their own right.

Just to add a point here, some of the information about the various prints available to the collector, such as ‘limited edition’, ‘artist signed’ and ‘numbered’ are shared and over time some of these terms have crossed from one sort of print to another.

Reproduction prints

Reproduction prints do sometimes have the title ‘fine art prints’ and were introduced to enable people to own a copy of an original painting, sometimes a famous painting.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. The original painting resides in the Art Institute of Chicago

Before the days of colour printing specialist engravers would copy artists’ paintings and both the engraver’s name and the painter’s name would be credited on the prints.

By the mid-nineteenth century, there was a ‘print-sellers’ association’ set up to regulate this trade. This later became the Fine Art Trade Guild, which still exists today and colour printing became the norm.

Technology and methods of printing have changed and developed over the centuries and today it is possible to create reproduction prints that are virtually indistinguishable from the original painting and are available on all sorts of surfaces.

The actual painting is scanned and mechanical processes are used to create the reproduction and often involve the skills of specialist printers using high spec. printing machinery. There are different methods of producing reproduction prints e.g. collotype, off-set litho, colour gravure and giclée (zhee-klay), which is the most common method used today.

Realist painting of a shoreline with water and pebbles.
Limited Edition giclée print by Peter Goodhall

Handmade Prints

Often the term ‘original print’ is used to describe the prints that are not copies of an already existing painting and it’s perhaps rather ironic that there is no original that exists!

Etchings, engravings, linocuts, woodblocks, screen prints and lithographs (not to be confused with off-set litho) are just some of this type. What is common to all of them is that the artist doesn’t get to see what their image will look like until it is printed.

So there is a creative skill here to know how it will finally look whilst still doing all the preparation. When more than one colour is being used the whole process has to be repeated separately for each colour. Additionally, the resulting print will appear in reverse. These prints are created by hand from start to finish using methods and tools unchanged for centuries. So it is best to call these prints ‘hand made’.

Suffice to say that the creation of any of these hand made prints is extremely labour intensive.

Inking up a brayer (roller) ready to apply to the block

These prints are usually produced from what is known as the plate, which with an etching can be a sheet of metal, often copper, where a sharp tool is used to draw the design into the metal, then with ink spread across the metal a sheet of paper can be pressed against it using a printing press. The design of these presses hasn’t changed for centuries. For wood block and linocut the material has to be removed where the design needs no ink.

Carving an image into a linoleum (lino) block

Screen prints involve careful preparation too before even beginning to use ink with separate stencils cut out for each colour and then each sheet of paper going through all the different colours one at a time.

Silkscreen printing technique

Digital Prints

With the digital computer age today prints known as ‘digital prints’ are being created. Again in common with hand made prints no original painting exists. The artist has used a computer screen and digital tools to create the image and giclee prints are then printed from a digital file.

Digital art by Peter Walters

Limited Edition

The term ‘limited edition’ is sometimes used for both ‘reproduction prints’ and ‘hand made prints’ and is used to show how many other prints of the same design exist. It is shown as a fraction with the bottom number being the edition size.

With reproduction prints every print is going to be identical however there are likely to be some variations between hand made prints from the same edition. So each one is unique. For instance a minor variation in how much ink is applied can create a subtle difference and as each print is taken the master surface will begin to wear down. This is how the preference for a low number within the edition became favourable but in reality the life span of the master surface will always determine how many prints there can be. So in reality hand made prints are always going to be limited by the process.

So to sum up, always expect to see the artist’s signature, a number written as a fraction and a certificate of authenticity, which should describe the printing method used for your print.

Special thanks to Peter Goodhall for this post and Humph Hack for the main image