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Prints vs. Reproductions

ART TIMES Jan/Feb, 2005

Question: When is a print not a print?

Answer: When it’s a reproduction.

Maryland printmaker Peter Stoliaroff at his Charles Brand etching press. The same press can be used for pulling other forms of prints, including engravings, drypoints and embossings. (Photo permission of Peter Stoliaroff)

Like a lot of words in the English language, “print” and “reproduction” are often misused, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Both prints and reproductions are copies of some original image, but they are made in quite different ways. Prints are copies painstakingly made by the artist, one at a time; reproductions are copies made mechanically, usually quickly and in large numbers, without involving the artist. Because the term “print” has been watered down and made ambiguous, some prefer the term original print to more firmly signal the participation of the artist in its production.

Prints are made in a number of ways: Relief prints (e.g., woodcuts, linocuts) are made by carving away unneeded areas from the surface of a material, inking the remaining areas and pressing paper against the inked surface. Intaglio prints (e.g., etchings, engravings, drypoints) are made by forming grooves in a surface, forcing ink into the grooves, wiping the rest clean and pressing paper against the surface so that the paper picks up ink from the grooves. Surface, or planographic, prints (e.g., lithographs, monotypes) are made by forming an image on a completely flat surface and transferring that image to a piece of paper. Stencil prints (e.g., serigraphs) are made by forcing ink or paint through unprotected areas of a guide, or stencil, onto a sheet of paper, fabric, or other material.

Reproductions have long been made by the process of offset lithography using large, expensive printing presses to make copies rapidly and in large numbers without directly involving the artist. These days, some artists are making copies on ordinary office copy machines—since the artist may run the machine to make the copies, it may sound as if that qualifies these copies as prints, but let’s not stretch things that far! A more recent way of making copies is the giclée process using a computer and a special inkjet printer. Giclée copies are most often advertised as prints, but they are in fact reproductions (admittedly high-quality reproductions). Sooner or later artists will operate their own computer-printer setups and personally introduce variations from one copy of an image to the next that may qualify these copies as prints — stay tuned.

Prints are made in limited editions — that is, there are a fixed number of images made and no more. If, say, fifty copies of a particular image are made, the edition size is 50. Usually the artist signs and numbers each copy 1/50, 2/50 and so on, traditionally in pencil, which helps signal that the signing and numbering were not done by mechanical means. Signing and numbering each copy gives the buyer some assurance that the artist has personally viewed and approved each one. It’s become widespread practice to sign and number reproductions in the same way — in that case, signing does not imply that the artist actually had a hand in producing the copy, but only that he or she did look at each copy and that the number of copies to be sold is limited to the stated edition size. The term “open edition” means there is no limit to the number of copies that will be produced; in this case numbering the copies would be meaningless.

Line etching "Upsurge" by Peter Stoliaroff, 4 1/4" x 4". Permission of Peter Stoliaroff, whose work may be seen in Phil Metzgeršs book, The Artistšs Illustrated Encyclopedia, North Light Books, Cincinnati, 2001

Prints are prepared one at a time and a careful artist inspects each one to be sure it meets his or her standards before signing and offering it for sale. In a given set of prints there are subtle differences from one copy to the next. Most differences arise because each print involves manual procedures such as inking a plate, squeezing paint through a stencil, dampening the print paper, and so on. In addition, the nature of a printing plate may introduce some variables. In drypoint, for example, the original image is formed by lines scratched into a metal plate, such as copper, and there are tiny burrs along the edges of the lines. The burrs tend to hold more ink than a cleaner line would and the resultant print has a distinctive look that is different from the sharper look of an engraving. As successive prints are “pulled” — that is, as the plate is inked and run through a press to make an impression on a sheet of paper — the burrs become increasingly worn down and the last print pulled looks different from the first. For this reason drypoint prints are usually run in small editions. The artist pulling the prints will inspect each one and determine when the results are no longer satisfactory. There is no comparable consideration in making reproductions — usually thousands can be run without any discernible difference from one to the next.

Despite the significant differences between prints and reproductions, “print” has become the word of choice for any copy and these days you’ll find many people at art fairs selling “prints” that are really reproductions. Why?

1. Prints sell better. “Reproduction” has a cheap connotation and, given a choice, a buyer will almost always choose a print over a reproduction. Much of the buying public doesn’t know the difference between the two. If you label your reproductions  “reproductions” and the guy in the next booth labels his reproductions “prints” — other things being equal — which of you do you think will attract more buyers?

2.  Ignorance. Not only does the public not know the difference between a print and a reproduction, but neither do many so-called artists. In my painting classes I talk about this, hoping to do a little to inform the next generation of artists, but it’s a tough battle.  People simply prefer to say print! Which leads me to the next point:

3.  Print rolls off the tongue more easily than reproduction.  Why use a four-syllable word when you can use a one-syllable word?  Sorry to say, I catch myself occasionally swapping the simple “print” for the formidable “reproduction” in casual conversation.

4.  In photography, print is the accepted word for any number of copies of an image and it’s easy to understand the carryover from photography to printmaking.

Our language is rich and constantly evolving and, as Martha Stewart might say, that’s a good thing. But I think there’s a big difference between decent evolution and plain dumbing-down. Just because most television commentators say “lay” when they mean “lie” and “these kind” when they mean “this kind” doesn’t mean we have to alter our language to accommodate them. Art should be a place where quality and honesty still count for something, so please, let’s at least get our terms right.

(Phil Metzger, artist, teacher, and author of several art books, lives in Rockville, MD. You’ll find much more on printmaking and specific kinds of prints in his book, The Artist’s Encyclopedia, available from North Light Books, at 1-800-289-0963.)