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Original Prints, Limited Editions and Giclées

Prints, Original Prints, Limited Editions and Giclées. There is a turbulent flow of terminology at work here, and it sometimes is not used very precisely, accurately (or even ethically). Yet it is important to understand the lay of the land before you go to purchase a print or you might not be able to ask the right questions.

I am going to divide the world into two categories here: Original Prints and Reproductions.

An original print is just that, original. It is conceived and executed directly in the print medium of choice by the hand of the artist (possibly with the help of a printer). There are a number of professional print studios around the country who are engaged in the creation of original prints. Usually they specialize around one of the processes. For example, Crown Point Press in San Francisco specializes in intaglio techniques (line etch, aquatint, drypoint, engraving, etc). The Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque is strictly a lithography house. These professional studios bring in well known artists and work with them to create original works directly in the print medium. The artists draw on the stones, scratch through the resists, apply tusche, scrape at plates, select colors, etc. The printers mix ink, process plates, advise on process and print the edition, comparing each to an artist approved proof. Individual printmakers, like myself, may combine the role of artist and printer. In either case, while the result is a multiple, each is considered an original work of art. The size of the edition is typically rather restricted, with 20-50 being most common.

A reproduction is just that, it reproduces a work concieved and created in another medium. The work is photographed, digitally separated and printed, all without the direct involvement of the artist. The only problem is it may not be called a reproduction.

A Limited Edition is the most common term. Strictly that means that the total number of exact copies is limited. By itself it doesn’t say how limited. Editions of 2500 are not uncommon. This is the logical equivalent of having a copy of a book signed by the author. Nice, perhaps, but not particularly unique.

A giclée (pronounced zee-clay) is simply an ink jet print. Probably printed on watercolor paper with archival inks, but there are no guarantees. These are also sometimes called iris prints after the brand of printer that was used for the earliest examples of these reproductions. The editions are usually smaller here, but this is still a printed photograph of a painting or drawing or whatever.

I won’t go into variations and exceptions (for example, digital artists) since they are many. The key is this: ask questions! Is this a reproduction?

About the Author:

Dean Russell Thompson is an Artist and Printmaker working in Loveland, CO.


  1. Sallyann Paschall January 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I am also a printmaker but I also do encaustics, paintings and mixed media work too. I do three to four major outdoor shows per year and, where permitted, I have a bin of giclee’s alongside original prints. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give a mini printmaking 101 course on the spot.

  2. Amie Roman January 12, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Great post Dean, three cheers! I’m not rabidly anti-reproduction: there is a time and place for them, and certainly a purchasing audience. I am rabidly anti-overpriced-reproduction; something that is 2500 is not “limited edition”, is not the equivalent of an original, and does not deserve to be valued as equivalent.

    I have been cogitating my interpretation of the concept of “slow art”, and like to consider anything hand-created by an artist to qualify under my parameters for such. Printmakers especially fall under that term, because we require time not only to create, but to develop the skills, knowledge, and most importantly I believe, craftsmanship, to produce master works using our media. (I’m not excluding other artists; they too require the time to develop their skills and knowledge).

    Thanks for emphasizing the distinction; our biggest challenge as printmakers is not only educating the purchasing public, but other artists as well. Kudos again for the post!

  3. Dean Russell Thompson January 13, 2009 at 12:26 am

    I don’t want to give the impression that I am anti-reproduction either. I do think that there are those who try to deceive, and then there are those who simply do not have all the information. Clearly articulating the differences makes sure that the buyer knows what they are getting.

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