Original Prints – What are they?

Many people are very confused by prints; seeing a print on the wall they do not
quite understand what they are looking at.

Much of the problem is due to the word „print“ itself. It can refer to a mechanically
created reproduction of a painting or drawing, such as is sold in many museum
shops; it can refer to a photographic image. It can even refer to something totally
non visual such as the print on the page of a book. In art terms, however, it means
an image created on a piece of paper by an artist where the actual creation of the
work uses the mechanics of a printing press and one of a variety of techniques.

In essence, when an artist decides to draw a work using one of the print techniques
it is the same as when he decides to use a painting or drawing direct onto a canvas
or paper.Only the actual „method“ of the image-making is different. The work
created is an original work of art by the artist in the same way as a drawing; the
only difference is that the nature of technique allows for the image to be created
more than once, i.e. in an edition. There is a close parallel between an artist’s
prints and the work of a sculptor who casts his images in bronze. It is usual for him
to make more than one cast, but each is seen as an original sculpture.

When artists use printmaking to make images in this way their works are referred
to as „original prints“. This is to emphasise the fact that they themselves made the
work and that they are original works of art not just a mechanical reproduction.

The Value of Original Prints:

A question that is often asked is „why are original prints more valuable than
ordinary reproduction prints?“ An artist’s work in printmaking, his „original prints“,
unlike mechanically created reproductions, have a value just like his drawings or
paintings. They are works from his own hand, but the fact that they may exist in an
edition makes them less expensive to own than a drawing of equivalent importance.

A number of factors affect the value of original prints – the size of the edition, the
importance of the work within the overall oeuvre of the artist, the condition (as for
any work of art), and. for modern prints, the question of whether it is signed by the
artist. The importance of signatures and editions is discussed in more detail below.

Editions and signatures.

It is widely believed that the status of a print is defined by whether it carries a
hand-written signature by the artist. In fact there are many mechanically created
reproduction prints which are shown to be authorised by the artist by being pencil
signed; but they remain reproductions. Equally an artist can work in one of the
printmaking techniques to create an „original print“ but decide to leave the work
unsigned. Such a work remains a creative original work of art, albeit unsigned.

In fact the concept of an artist signing his prints is very modern. In the old master
period no artist thought a hand-written signature was necessary. Goya, for
example, never hand-signed his prints yet they are highly valued works of art. The
idea of hand-signing prints started around the 1890’s but it did not really become a
widely accepted practice until around 1910-20.

The idea of the „limited edition“ is also modern. Rembrandt and Durer printed and
reprinted impressions of their etchings and engravings to suit the demands of the
market. Just as with hand-written signatures so the concept of limited editions and
numbering was introduced as the market for artists prints became more organised
at the end of the 19th century. Many very important early 20th century prints are
not actually numbered but the edition sizes are known from the records that the
artists or their studios mantained.



With the modern emphasis on images with strong colour screenprinting has become
very popular. Its real development came in the 1960’s following-on from the earlier
idea of the stencil print and it does not need a heavy press. A screen of very fine
mesh material is stretched over a frame. The artist then covers up the parts of the
mesh where he does not want any ink to print, leaving a type of „cutout“ of the
shape that he wants. A sheet of paper is then pressed up close to the underside of
the mesh and ink is passed over the stretched mesh. It will penetrate through onto
the sheet of paper in the open areas but be blocked off in the masked parts.

To print differing colours the artist must make a screen for each colour and then
print them one by one onto the sheet.

In the earlier stencil prints, the forerunners of screenprinting, no screen was used.
The artist made a cut-out of the shape he wanted, in paper, cardboard or even
plastic. This cut-out stencil was placed directly over the paper sheet; when ink was
passed over the cut-out it printed through onto the sheet below. This was a
technique which greatly appealed to some of the cubist artists in the 1920’s for the
solid areas of colour it created but had in fact existed since a much earlier date.


Text by William Weston, 2006