by Fred Edwards

If Printmakers are concerned about the frequent misuse of the term “print,” and the consequent misleading of unwary buyers,

A fine-art print is the direct end product of an artist’s work. It is an original piece of art, as distinguished from a “reproduction.” It may be a single, or “unique,” print, or it may be one of a series of identical prints as part of an edition, but each individual print is an “original.” There are many types of prints. Lithographs are printed from a stone onto paper. Serigraphs are printed by ink squeegeed through a silk screen onto paper. Etchings are printed from an acid-etched metal plate. There are other kinds of intaglio prints from designs on metal, and there are various sorts of block prints, wood cuts, linoleum block prints, and others, but the resulting prints are the direct product of the artist.

Prints are signed by the artist in pencil and, if parts of an edition, are numbered consecutively in the order that they are printed. There are usually two numbers on a print separated by a slash mark. ‘The first number refers to the individual print, and its order in the edition. The total number of prints that have or will be printed is indicated by the second number. Thus 25/100, refers to print number 25 in an edition of 100. The pencil signature and number by the artist is the authentication of the print. None other is necessary.

Reputable artists use the best quality paper and inks, which ensure the best lasting qualities. Handmade prints will usually outlast their owners. Some colors can fade if exposed to intense daylight, but most will not.

Is it best to get a low number, or even an artist’s proof?


For most practical purposes the numbering does not matter much. If you get print #35 it is probably not going to be noticeably different from #45. Etched plates do wear slightly, however, and the wear in lightly aquatined portions may be noticeable when comparing a very early print of the edition and one toward the end of the edition. Thus the clearest and sharpest prints iwll probably be the earliest ones, and best yet, the “artist’s proof” prints, which are printed before the numbered series. In most cases, though a run of 100 or even as many as 300 prints can be done without much loss of definition.

 Serigraphs, Wood-Cut Prints, Lithographs, Etc.

In these processes there is little or no wear, and consequently no discernible difference between prints at the beginning or at the end of the run. Some people may still like to collect the early numbers.

Certificates of Authenticity

Certificates of authenticity are used by some art shops to underline the authenticity of an artist’s work. Importers of art and craft work from other countries often issue a certificate of authenticity attached to an art piece, which is the dealer’s way of guaranteeing that piece. With individually signed print such certificates are redundant, as the signed work bears its own authentication. Of course, the best authentication is to buy directly from the artist, or a dealer who deals directly with the artist.


Those unfamiliar with the terminology may refer to a “reproduction” as a “print,” which it is not. Artists often have reproductions done of their work in order that more people can enjoy a work of art that otherwise would be enjoyed only by the owner of a “one of a kind” piece, and also to maximize their income from their work. Most large art museums sell reproductions of works of art so that many people can enjoy the work of famous artists. Thus reproductions of original oil painting, watercolors, or other graphic media are produced by a commercial press process called “press lithography,” which is only tangentially related to a should not be confused with the fine art process of stone lithography. Such reproductions are not properly called “prints,” even though they are “printed” on a commercial press, nor are they “lithographs,” even though they are done by press.

…distinguished from hand-made prints, and have the same problems as posters in regard to longevity. Though often sold for very high prices, they have no value as original art pieces.

Inks commonly used on commercial presses do fade, and all reproductions will fade if exposed to direct light, or even to reflected natural light. Reproductions should be enjoyed for as long as they last, which may be several years, and then discarded. They should not be considered as permanent art for one’s collection. Therefore it is important to know what you are buying and how it is represented by the seller. Reproductions should be clearly labeled as such, whether signed or not.

So-called “limited editions” and number of reproductions is misleading, inasmuch as the image is not a direct product of the artist, the artist does not know which image came off the press in what order, and it’s doesn’t make a difference because the 5th, 500th, or 5,000th image will be exactly the same as the first – a printing press poster.

Giclée Reproductions

With the advent of a computer technology has come a very high quality method of reproduction called the “Iris print.” That was the name by which the company which developed it called the process and the resulting reproduction. Artists quickly discovered the process and gave it a French name, giclée.” The inventor didn’t mind the new name, and it stuck. Giclée, or Iris – whichever you prefer, is the process whereby a two-dimensional piece of art – usually a painting – is scanned and translated into millions of tiny ink-jet dots sprayed onto paper. The resulting reproduction is virtually indistinguishable from the original except by close examination. A mangifying glass reveals the tiny dots of ink.

Many tout the lasting quality and colofastness of giclée reproductions, but the jury is still out on that matter as they have not been around long enough ortested in sunlight to be sure. If properly cared for and kept from direct or strong indirect sunlight they should last many years. They are not, however, the direct end product of the artist’s work, but machine-made reproductions. Fine art dealer, David Stary Sheets, says that these reproductions have “devastated” the market for original prints, and while they are very good reproductions, they have no lasting value as works of art, whether signed by the artist or not. He says that “all one is buying is a poster and an autograph.” Signature and numbering does not authenticate originality, as with hand-pulled prints, though it adds a nice touch, and it seems to be here to stay.

I have heard artists tell customers that “the lower numbers are more valuable,” and that giclée reproductions are “an investment that will grow in value,” but neither statement is true. Nevertheless, some well-known artists are lining their pockets by selling giclée reproductions at greatly inflated prices.

Giclée reproductions are a good way for more people to enjoy a piece of art, and to maximize the artist’s income, but customers should be told what these reproductions are, and art not, and reputable art dealers will not sell them as “investment” pieces of art, or as the equal of original art.

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