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What is the difference between original prints and reproductions?

Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. Defining what qualifies as a reproduction is pretty straightforward. There is an original and from that there are replicas. You start with an original painting. It is photographed and then printed using a technology called 4-colour lithography. When you look closely, you can see the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots that combine to form the image. I’m oversimplifying the process here but you get the idea. It’s the same way that most everything in the commercial world, like magazines, and posters etc. are printed. In the end you’ve got a photographic reproduction of an original artwork.

There is much confusion surrounding the concept of an original print and the difference between that and a reproduction. When people come and see my work they see mostly paintings but also several editions of silkscreen prints. I often find myself having to explain that the prints are not a reproduction of an original. It strikes me as particularly odd given that silkscreen printing is one of the least likely methods that one would use to reproduce an image with any kind of fidelity.

The pervasive use of the word ‘print’ doesn’t help.

Many popular artists in the 1980s started to market ‘limited edition reproductions’ of their work. I particularly recall Robert Bateman, a very commercially successful wildlife artist in Canada who did just that. Each print was indeed signed and numbered. The editions were very large, often in the hundreds and even over the 1,000 mark. The editions were so large in number that it was frankly misleading to refer to them as limited at all. Artists like Bateman, and there were many, made loads of money for themselves and their dealers. 

To confuse the buying public even more, the images were printed on top quality, archival (acid-free) paper – the same sort of paper that a legitimate artist/print-maker would use. That is where the similarity ended. The printing was done on large, industrial grade printing presses. These were really high-quality reproductions but reproductions nonetheless. This practice, more than anything else, did huge harm to the market for original, limited edition prints.

Also, online art sites like Saatchionline.com sell digital prints that are reproductions of artists’ work. To the best of my knowledge there is no limit to the quantity they might produce of any given image. That sort of ‘print’ is a reproduction of an original and completely different than an original print that is part of a signed and numbered limited edition. ‘Giclee’ refers to a kind of inkjet digital reproduction. I don’t know much about them except that a lot of artists are using them to make money. These are really just a poster. They may be nice to look at but they have no intrinsic value.

How can a print be an original?

I recently reached out to the folks at Open Studio in Toronto to get their take on how to explain it all. Open Studio is an awesome place where artists can access printmaking equipment and workspace to make original prints. We’re talking about printing techniques like lithography, intaglio (e.g. etching), woodcut, and serigraphy as well as a few others. They also offer classes and workshops to artists and school groups. That’s not all they do but you get the picture. Anyway, they were nice enough to offer me their explanation:

“An original print is an image that has been conceived by the artist as a print and executed solely as a print, usually in a numbered edition, and signed by the artist. Each print in the edition is an original, printed from a plate, stone, screen, block or other matrix created for that purpose.”

It may be difficult for people to get their head around the idea of a print actually being an original. Essentially the original exists in multiple and that’s a little confusing, especially for the uninitiated. After all, there are usually a number of pretty much identical pieces of art on paper. That is what is called an ‘edition’. 

I suppose this means I have to briefly try and explain what the term ‘edition’ refers to. For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are a hundred identical impressions. Each one will be numbered sequentially (in this case 1/100 – 100/100), and signed. The total number in the set is 100. That’s the edition.

I like to make editions of silkscreen prints. There may be 50 or so in the edition and each would be pretty much identical to the others. Unlike commercial/industrial printing methods using machines, there are minor inconsistencies in any hand-done printing methods. After all, I’m using my two hands and as much as I try for consistency and precision, I am no machine.

Each colour is a separate printing. I typically do 2 colours because it suits the kind of images I like to make. I do a base colour printing and then follow that up with a black printing. The sheets of paper are hung separately and have to dry after each colour is applied.

It’s not all about the money, but it’s not, not about the money.

Selling limited edition prints can be a good way for artists to make their work more available to a wider audience. It’s a volume thing. Because they exist in multiple they are a much more economical option for purchase. A painting by any particular artist might be for sale for thousands and out of reach for many people. However, a limited-edition print by the same artist could be had for much, much less. It’s way easier for most people (to rationalize) a purchase decision to shell out a few bucks for a print instead of the bigger ticket items. Obviously, you have to sell many to make it financially worthwhile but it is often easier to sell a lot of prints versus a single painting. I sell most of my serigraphs for $75 and the number of multiples in each edition is relatively small, usually 50 – 75.

It’s also nice that people who like your work but aren’t in a position to spend a lot can walk away with a piece. It’s also a great way for people to start collecting quality, original work on a budget.

Anyway, I hope that I’ve made your understanding of this better and not worse. Thanks for reading. – L/C

Acknowledgment: Open Studio — one of Canada’s leading contemporary printmaking centres—offers affordable printmaking facilities for artists, and exhibitions, education programs and artwork sales for the general public.’

2 thoughts on “What is the difference between original prints and reproductions?

  1. Great article, I have a really hard time explaining this to people.

    1. I actually think it might be a lost cause. I recently had to try and explain it to a gallery owner. BTW. Did you get the instagram thing I sent you?

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