The art of printmaking has a long and celebrated history. Woodcut is probably the oldest printmaking method haveing been practiced in China in the 15th century, although it was in Japan in the later 1800’s that this subtle print form became most widely known. Albrect Durer, an Austrian, was making etchings and engravings in the early 1500’s. One hundred years later, in Holland, Rembrandt would become a prolific printmaker, producing hundreds of exquisite etchings during his career. Lithography was developed as a process in the early 1800’s and various artists embraced the directness of the mark making that it made possible. Whistler, Renoir, and Degas all made stone lithographs and etchings. More recently, Picasso worked in a variety of print mediums including etchings, lithographs and linocuts. Contemporary practitioners include Helen Frankenthaller, Edward Hopper, Chuck Close and Jim Dine.
Prints, Original Prints and Limited Editions
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) and exists in no other form. 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. An original print should always come with a certificate of authenticity which details, among other things, the size of the edition and the disposition of the various plates used to create it.
A reproduction on the other hand, reproduces a work conceived 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 and the hand of the artist remains somewhat distant.
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?