April 19, 2011

"Print" - Original or Reproduction?

        There seems to be quite a bit of confusion caused by the fact that the word "print" has two meanings that are close enough to seem similar, but are different enough to have major implications.  One of those meanings is the product of a mechanical process of reproduction, so that any newspaper, magazine, poster, greeting card, or photocopy can be called a print.  The other meaning is an original piece of art produced by hand, so that each one is uniquely created.  Needless to say, artists are eager to have this difference understood and respected, to explain why our work should cost more and be valued more than a mere reproduction.  But it isn't always a clear-cut distinction.
        First of all, all printing methods were invented in order to make cheap (or at least cheaper) and more identical reproductions.  It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the concept of a limited edition was invented, with the convention of numbering and signing original work that is in use today.  Before that, most printmakers were anonymous, and even those, like Dürer, who were acknowledged as great artists, probably thought of their printed work as an artist today might think of a poster or a book that reproduces their work.  The idea of limited editions was invented explicitly as a sales gimmick - to convince buyers that this print wasn't a mere reproduction but was a valuable piece of art in its own right.  But as more mechanical methods of reproduction were invented, the distinction between those and art printmaking grew, and was reflected in the status of limited edition hand-pulled prints. 
        A second question is how much "by hand" must each piece be in order to count as an original piece and not a reproduction?  When I myself carve the block, roll the ink, place the paper, and press the back with a wooden spoon, as I do for my work, that's pretty clearly made by hand.  But what about a printing press?  Is that still "by hand?"  And then what about screen printing in which the screen is made by a photocopy process?  What about the artists using offset lithography and Iris prints as mentioned in my post "Hard Pressed"?  The fact is, all prints with multiples in an edition are in some sense reproductions… yet there nevertheless remains (in most cases!) a huge difference between the "prints" that are original pieces and the "prints" that are copies.  I've written about The Value of Original Art in another post.
        Muddy as the distinction can be at times, it is still very important to be aware that the word "print" can have these two significantly different meanings.  If you try to search for original printmaking on the internet, you'll run into an awful lot of sites selling reproductions and calling them "art prints," and such.  Some of these sites seem to be in good faith, while others are deliberately trying to take advantage of the confusion in order to make a buck on ignorant buyers.  Either way, being educated about what's out there is important, and it's always best to make completely sure that everyone's talking about the same kind of "print."  As for me, I hope you're talking about original printmaking, because that's just a whole lot more interesting!

[Picture: photo of me printing 1914 Locomobile Model 38 Berline, rubber block print, 2007.]


  1. inspiring..!


  2. Welcome, nanditark! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great article on an issue that has become critical (re: Etsy) of late. It is also an issue created by keyword algorithms. Machines can't distinguish between a print and print, and now neither can people.

  4. Hello, kaslkaos. That's a good point that keyword algorithms are making it ever harder to make a distinction. That's why I generally prefer "printmaking" for the hand-made stuff, just to find a different word to use. But of course if people aren't educated that there's a difference, they can't know. That's why it's so important for sites like Etsy, that ought to know better, to help educate people instead of contributing to the ignorance. I hope they change their "browse" policy to reflect the reality of "prints" vs "prints."