Ever wonder why someone would sell a “print” as if it were an “original”? Setting aside the unscrupulous motive of deception, there are prints that are original works of art. Say what?
The term “print” has developed in modern usage as synonymous with “reproduction” or “copy”. In many cases this is certainly true. A giclee print of an original painting is an example of a reproduction. Regardless of how excellent the print is, it is still a copy of an original and it is valued and priced so. The same is true of prints made using a four-color offset printing process and similar methods of reproduction.
In the world of fine art printmaking, however, exist various media that are printed images on paper where the prints are the original fine art. The Print Council of America (PCA) issued a guide, in 1961, establishing some criteria for what is an original print, that are quoted below:
- The artist alone must create the master image on the stone, or whatever material would be used to make the print.
- The print -if not printed by the artist- should be hand printed by someone under the artist’s direct supervision.Each impression should be approved and signed by the artist and the master image (the matrix) destroyed or cancelled.
- The original print is not a copy of anything else, not a copy of a painting or another print. If an artist chooses to copy his own work, originally done in another medium, it would be a print done after an oil (or other medium). An original print is a creative endeavor by the artist and therefore is as valid an expression as is any other form of visual art – may it be a painting or a sculpture. The original print is a work of art in it’s own right
Definitions such as this one continue to evolve, but this one seems to me to do well to describe what is an original print. The International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) also has some published material on this subject. I have provided links to both the PCA and the IFPDA below in this blog for your reference.
The concept of original prints came to my attention as I was learning more about the fine art media of intaglio etching printmaking used by an artist that we represent at The Marshall-LeKAE Gallery in Scottsdale (AZ, USA), specifically the exceptional work of artist David Smith-Harrison. The term “intaglio” comes from the Italian word “intagliare”, meaning, “to incise” or “to engrave”. The term is commonly used to refer to either the process or the finished work.
The intaglio process is an etching process where the artist uses a stylus (needle) to hand incise the image into a “ground”, a thin, protective coating (either soft or hard), on a metal plate (usually copper or zinc). The artist draws directly into a hard ground, that is firmly adhered to the plate’s surface, removing it from the plate’s surface in the process. With a soft ground, the artist will over-lay the ground with paper and draw on the paper. Where the lines are drawn on the paper, the soft ground, that is less firmly adhered to the plate’s surface than a hard ground, sticks to the paper and, when the paper is lifted, lifts from the plate’s surface.
The ground coated & image incised (into the ground) plate is then dipped in an acid bath where the metal plate surface is “bitten” (chemically eaten away) by the acid wherever the plate’s metal surface is exposed (by the removal of the ground coating). This acid etching creates grooves in the plate’s surface that match the image incised in the ground coating.
The acid-etched plate is then coated with high quality ink (as used for the intaglio process). The ink is gently wiped off of the surface leaving ink within the grooves of the etching. The plate is then pressed together with high quality paper (also as used for the intaglio process), using a press with rollers to produce high pressure contact between the plate and the paper to force the paper into the etched grooves in the plate’s surface. The ink that remains in the grooves transfers to the surface of the paper pressed into those grooves.
The resulting image, on the paper, is the original intaglio print. With a good press and high quality print, the ink image will have a raised feel to it. To produce each print, the process repeats, so the printer must clean, polish, re-ink and wipe the plate after the printing of each impression (image) and before the printing of the next image. Each print normally is hand titled, numbered and signed by the artist. When the printer completes the total run (total number of prints made, or edition), the plate is then “cancelled” (holed or scratched over) or destroyed so that more original prints cannot be made.
The process that leads up to the run of the original prints includes some trial prints along the way. Such a print is a “Work Proof” (W.P.) or “Trial Proof” (T.P.) and is one of a kind. Because a W.P. or T.P. is unique, it may have a higher value than those original prints in the run. When a print is the one approved by the artist for the run, it becomes the B.A.T. print from the French words “Bon A’ Tirer” that mean “good to pull”, or “right to print”. This proof is the first good impression that an artist approves for the master printer to use as the standard for the run (or edition). The first prints made after the B.A.T. are each called an “Artist Proof” (A.P.). Several A.P.’s may be made, for the artist’s personal use, before the printing of the numbered prints of the run. These A.P.’s are not numbered, simply labeled as A.P.’s. Because they are the same as those prints in the numbered run, the A.P.’s have no special added value above the value of the numbered prints in the Edition.
Print numbering is typically in a format such as “64/200”. The “64” is the specific number of the print. The “200” is the total number of the run or edition. The mark “64/200”, written by the artist on the print (usually to the lower left, in the margin), simply means print number 64 of a run of 200 prints. The artist marks proof prints W.P., T.P. or A.P., as applicable. The artist’s signature usually appears to the lower right in the margin, although the artist may choose to include the signature within the print image. A print is still an original whether signed and numbered by the artist or not. When done by hand, the artist will sign, title and identify (the number or proof) each print in pencil to contrast with the print’s ink image thereby showing that the hand markings are original and not a part of the printed image.
In trying to grasp the “original print” concept, I likened it to the making of bronze sculpture. In this case, the artist’s hand work is the artist’s creation of a clay sculpture (that I liken to the printmaker’s etched plate) that the artist makes a mold from. I liken the mold to the printmaker’s plate after its acid bath. Bronze castings (that I liken to the printmaker’s prints) are then made from the mold and numbered and signed by the artist as “original” bronze sculptures (that I liken to the printmaker’s “original” prints). Upon completion of the series (total number of castings), the artist destroys the cast and re-uses the clay for the next sculpture.
Here are some links to some websites that I found particularly helpful to self-educate about fine art prints as original works of art:
- http://www.dshprintmaker.com/Print.html – Artist David Smith-Harrison provides a thorough description of when a print is an original. He creates Intaglio prints, among other artistic media that he works in.
- http://www.weloetchings.com/etching_process.htm – Artist Larry Welo provides a good description of the etching process, including some concise descriptions of various Intaglio techniques that he uses often as a printmaker.
- http://www.ifpda.org/content/collecting_prints/basics – from the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA), some basics about “What is a Print?”
- http://www.printcouncil.org/ – The Print Council of America (PCA)