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What is the difference between a fine art print and a reproduction?
A fine art print is a "multiple original" made by hand, one impression at a time, from a plate (usually wood, copper or zinc) etched or carved by the artist. With original fine art prints, the tactile quality of the ink on paper and the printing style, are inseparable parts of the artwork; something you cannot achieve with reproductions.
A reproduction is a copy of an already existing work. It is just a photo-mechanically reproduced image, often scanned and then mechanically printed en-masse. There is no intervention of the artist. Reproductions are in essence posters, often called iris or giclee prints, and have little or no monetary value. The inks used fade when exposed to the sun and the paper is not always 100% cotton and acid free, which means that it will easily degrade and yellow.
Despite good quality printers and up-to-date technology used to produce giclees or iris prints, the result cannot compare to fine art prints.
Additionally, reproductions are printed by the thousands, and there is no physical limit to the number of impressions, as the matrix does not wear down. However, just to support a price desired by the publisher, edition size is artificially limited in order to create scarcity and therefore increase the value of the print, which is even made to sign and number by the artist thus creating confusion as to authenticity.
Original Prints and Limited Editions
The notion of limited editions and the numbered prints that go with them is a notion that developed in the late 19th century. Earlier prints were limited in the number of their impressions solely by market demand or by the maximum number that could be printed by the medium used.
A limited edition print is one in which a limit is placed on the number of impressions pulled in order to create a scarcity of the print. Limited editions are usually numbered and are often signed to increase prestige, rarity and to induce building collections.
The number of prints in any edition is established by the artist beforehand, though normally imposed by plate wear (etchings, aquatints, woodblocks, lithographies, all wear down at a different rate).
Each impression in the edition is signed and numbered by the artist in pencil. There are usually two numbers separated by a slash, (for example: 3/50). This means that 50 prints are the total impressions of this numbered edition, while 3 is the specific designation for that particular impression (see image).
Every edition also has artist proofs (A.P.), which are extra prints pulled by the artist to proof the edition. There can also be different states from any particular editions, as well as publisher's prints. The artist proofs or publisher's prints may never exceed 10% of the total number of impressions in one edition.
Once an edition is complete the original block, plate or stone is either defaced or destroyed so that no more can be made.
Prints are not signed and numbered in the order in which they were printed. Therefore, an impression with a lower number isn't more valuable or better than an impression with a higher number.
Although each pass of the plate through the etching press wears down the plate a little, editions of 75 to 100 impressions don't suffer any loss in quality.
What increases value in a print?
A natural consequence of making prints by hand is difference within the edition when interpretive variations occur with different ways of removing ink from the plate. Value can also be increased when prints are handcolored with inks, watercolors, acrilic, pencils or gouache.
The price of each print is generally based on the size of the edition; prints from a limited edition, are worth more than those from an unlimited edition. The smaller the edition, the more valuable it is.
Although in editions all prints look the same, slight differences are always found. The master printer or the artist himself will constantly check for consistency and sameness when priting an edition, but this is not always easy to obtain; the thickness or consistency of the etching ink as well as the dampness of the etching paper, the speed of the etching press as well as the wiping itself will affect the final look of each impression.
Prints can also be manipulated on purpose when wiping or adding color, creating a different print each time. This is also known and monoprinting.
Rembrandt, for example, used to wipe his plates with a personal style, changing and moving the ink as it pleased him, so as to have diffferent tones in each impression.
Many artists like to sell their work accompanying their prints with documentation, a certificate of authenticity (COA) which states in detail the kind of print, details of the edition size, the number of the print being sold, the paper used as well as artist's information and signature.
Understanding old and antique prints
Prior to 1850s a lot of information about the print was included on the printed surface itself. You would know the subject matter, the printer, who designed it, who engraved it as well as the provenance of the print i.e. if it is part of a book or a collection of prints.
Here is an example of an intaglio print by Giovan Battista Piranesi:
The visible platemark (indented area made by the press during printing) makes it clear that this is an intaglio print. Tab xIV
Below the picture is "Reliquiae Basilicae Caii et Lucii. A Columnae quae medianam testudinem sustinebant transfiguratae in latus sinistrum exterius Templi S. Nicolai, in Carcere nuncupati. B Columnae inferiores porticus quae Basilicae circumdabatur. C Reliquiae Theatre Marcelli" which tells us the name of the subject (Reliquiae Basilicae Caii et Lucii - or - the ruins of the Basilica Caii and Lucii) as well as other information related to some parts labelled in the picture as A, B and C.
Beneath the picture, on the left, there is "Vide indicem ruinar num 62 et 63" which tells me to look at the index of the "ruins" number 62 and 63. On lower right there is a surname: Piranesi and letter F next to it. This letter indicates that the print was drawn and engraved by Piranesi.
When holding the print to the light you can see some "Papermarker's tears" , or blemishes caused by water being dripped on the freshly formed moist paper which causes a thin spot. The drops of water disturb the pulp enough to thin the paper where they land. In other words, it’s not a particularly high-quality sheet of paper.
|blemishes in the paper||eyelash inclusion in the paper|
Here is a list of terms referring to the original artist or draughtsman, which are usually printed on the bottm left:
|del, delt, d||drew (sometimes the artist would copy a painting or drawing for an engraver)|
|descripsit||drew (made a visual description)|
|designavit, desig.||traced out, drew|
|invenit, inv.||designed, invented|
|pinxit, pinx, pingebat, ping.||painted|
Here is a list of terms referring to the engraver or etcher, which were usually printed on the bottom right:
|aquatinta||etched in aquatint|
|faciebat, fac, fecit, F||made by|
|incidit, incidebat, inc.||engraved|
|lithog. lith||lithographed by|
|sculpsit, sculpebat, sc., sculp||sculpted, meaning that it was engraved|
Other information on the printed surface may include a publisher's name and address, date of publication, the name of the series or volume for which the print was made, the number of print in a series, a dedication to an individual or public body. The name of the printer is not often stated, except on lithographs
Here is a list of Latin terms and abbreviations commonly found in prints Nomenclature and abbreviations in old prints
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