What is a Print?

A PRINT is an original work of art in any of five mediums: photography, relief (woodcuts, etc), intaglio (etching and related procedures), lithography, and serigraphy. Each carries the character of the marks made by the artist in or on that object. An original print weds the printing ink to the art paper, or in the case of photography, the "Painting with Light" to the light sensitive paper. The original print is created in the unique artistic process that is on an equal level with drawing, painting, and other fine arts.

The word "print" (in the art world) IS NOT a generic term. For marketing purposes some artists and shop owners may have tried to turn it into a generic term.

A REPRODUCTION, often mistakenly referred to as a "print", "fine art print," or "limited edition print" is a photo-mechanical copy of an original work of art. It is printed by the same commercial printing process used when printing illustrations in a magazine or in your morning newspaper. It does not require the artist's involvement in its production. Reproductions have the virtue of being less expensive than the original. Or at least they should be. I have witnessed exceptions to this statement in more than one art show. And many people are buying these reproductions under the false pretense that they are actually works of art.

An inkjet printer is capable of producing an original print or a reproduction. If you are duplicating an existing two- dimensional image, the end result is a reproduction or copy and may be marketed as a Giclee image. These could also be referred to as posters. If you use a digital camera to capture an image and use a computer program for completing your own creative concept, the end result is an original print.

Reproductions that are signed and numbered are no more "original" than reproductions, which are not signed and numbered; they are still copies. The number on an original print tells the viewer the exact number of prints that the artist has "pulled" or made from the negative or block, all of which are considered to be originals.

Calling reproductions "prints" or similar names that imply that they are somehow works of art can mislead or confuse the buyer. Misunderstanding still exists and continued misuse of the term "Print" is a long-standing abuse that serves hucksters and con-artists well. When the "print" industry usurps legitimate efforts of printmakers by referring to reproductions as prints we are all subjected to fraud. The long term effects on the medium of original printmaking have already been felt by many artists who have seen their sales drop considerably because of the continued misuse of the word "print." To be sure, ask if it is a hand-made print or a reproduction (poster). A reputable dealer or artist will clearly label the work and give you a straight answer. When you know what is being sold, you can judge if the price is fair or not.

I was talking to a gallery owner in a large eastern city some years ago, shortly after reproductions hit the street in full force. He was telling me how a retired couple had brought in for appraisal a large stack of what they had invested a significant portion of their retirement dollars in. What they had been led to believe were valuable original prints turned out to be reproductions, and many of the inks had faded terribly over a few short years in storage. The gallery owner had no choice but to inform these misinformed investors that their nest egg was worthless.

Sad to say, most people who are looking for a piece of two dimensional work to hang on their walls simply do not know the difference between an original and a reproduction. Furthermore many of these same consumers could care less.

I do not point my finger solely at a few artists who misrepresent their work and darken the waters for the rest of us. I also point a crooked stick at a number of magazine editors, publishers, show promoters and people in the art/décor business. These are individuals who should know better, but who deliberately use the erroneous terminology of "a limited edition fine art print" when referring to a reproduction just to close a sale. Obviously these people must feel that there is something distasteful or demeaning about having to use the term "reproduction".

Don't misunderstand me. I have no problem with artists making reproductions of their artwork. It certainly fills a need for those who appreciate the work, but who cannot afford an original. However, marketing a reproduction as a "limited edition print" or as a "fine art print" or numbering reproductions conveys the impression that there is a value in the reproduction itself, apart from the customer's appreciation of the artwork.

A reproduction can truly be enjoyed and appreciated by the buyer, but it is still a copy with little or no investment value. To imply otherwise is to mislead.

As artists, part of our responsibility is to educate our customers. The fact that many misuse the term "print" doesn't mean that we, as members of the artist community, shouldn't work toward correcting that error. Why would anyone wish to perpetuate a customer's misconception and misunderstanding?

For additional information about print & reproduction go to:

Jeffers is a fine art photographer (printmaker) who has been actively marketing his original silver prints for over forty years.

Credits: Many thanks to the Columbus Art League, Columbus, OH, the late Ted Rose, painter and printmaker of Santa Fe, NM and numerous artists around the country who have shared their feelings and expertise with me over the years.

Updated 2007



Jack's Articles:

Is It Art?
Memorable Moments
Mountain People
Silver & Oil
Water Mills
What Is a Print?
What Is a Silver Print?