What is an original print?

The word “print” is confusing today. There is a vast difference between original artist prints and reproductions, often referred to as “limited edition prints”, “gicleé” or “digital prints”. Buyer beware!

Reproductions are photo reproduced, printed on large commercial offset presses and are the most common type of prints on the market today. They are printed using the same method as posters and magazines and thousands can be produced. Another method on the market is “digital” printing. Digital prints are also photo reproduced by scanning the original and reproducing it on a digital press over and over again.

An original “artist print” is produced from a plate (wood, metal or stone) and is inked and hand pulled through a press by the artist onto quality printmaking paper one at a time. Each print pulled is numbered in sequence and collected into an edition determined by the total amount of prints the artist decides to pull. Much time and effort goes into making each print.

Usually original prints are printed in small editions because of physical limitations. The plate or stone will eventually break down through use, thereby limiting the number of prints produced. Printmakers sign their prints using pencil on the lower right hand corner below the image. If the image covers the full sheet of paper the artist will sign on the image and/or the back of the print. Oddly enough price does not determine whether the piece is a reproduction or an original print. Sometimes reproductions and digital prints are priced higher than hand made prints.

The word lithograph originally meant that the print was produced on stone but beware of the term “litho”. It is used to refer to both original lithographic prints and commercially produced offset lithographs.

“Original” print techniques include:

Intaglio Etching: there are so many different methods of intaglio but basically the image is cut or incised into a metal plate with various carving tools and acids. This method has enormous range and includes etching, aquatint, and drypoint.

Linocut and Woodcut: parts of a linoleum or wood block are carved away leaving a raised surface such that when ink is rolled over it, the surface can printed through a press transferring the raised image onto paper. “Reduction linocut” is a printmaking technique that the artist Picasso invented using a single linoleum block that is slowly cut away in stages, gradually reducing the surface area. The colours are printed one at a time with each newly carved image.

Lithography (plate or stone): this process is based on the incompatibility of grease and water. The artist draws on to the stone with a grease crayon. A mix of nitric acid and gum arabic is applied to the entire stone to increase the stone’s ability to hold water. Water is poured over the surface and absorbed everywhere but into the grease of the ink image. Ink is then rolled over the surface and adheres to the greasy ink drawing but is repelled by the rest of the wet stone. The “inked” image is transferred onto paper as it is run through a press.

Monotype: is a unique print and there is only one impression pulled from the plate. It is a spontaneous approach to printmaking and lends itself to being very painterly.

Serigraph: also referred to as “silkscreen” because ink is forced through a tightly stretched piece of silk. The silk screen is blocked in negative areas where the ink is not desired, thereby creating a stencil. A different stencil is created for each colour so each serigraph print can have many layers built up on it to create the image.

Pulling a monotype on a hand press

Pulling a monotype on a hand press. OM Printhouse, Yokohama, Japan November 2001