Useful Terms for Discussing Digital Prints

There has been much 'discussion' in the past few years
about whether a digital print is considered an original print / printmaking.
Here are a few thoughts on the subject, but I hope we can discuss this more...

This definition of an original print was published in Printmaking Today (Vol 14, No.3) in 2005:
An original print is "an image that has been conceived by an artist as a print
and executed solely as a print in a limited number under his or her artistic control.
Each print in the edition is an original,
printed from a plate, stone, screen, block, or other matrix created for that purpose.
There is no one original print from which copies were made.
Each is inked and pulled individually; it is a multi-original medium.
The unique qualities of each matrix influence the nature of the images created by the artist.
Regardless of the technology used, an original print is conceived and executed as a print,
not as a reproduction of work in another medium"
This is the most common arrangement for signing a print,
however if printing your image to the edge of the paper
some artists may sign over the image, or may add these details on the back.
(Often the year is also added, either after the title or signature)

Printmakers have always embraced new technologies for getting ink on paper!
If the artist conceives & makes the image entirely by digital means,
then it is still an original print, even if the matrix is digital.
Digital prints, made by artists/printmakers, are multi-original works of art,
just like etching, woodcut, engraving, screenprint and linocut,
or photo-mechanical reproductions such as lithographs. 

Most handmade prints are produced in small quantities, up to 100 prints.
There may be subtle imperfections, differences or degrading, 
inconsistencies that occur naturally within the editioning process.
On the other hand, digital prints tend to have no noticeable flaws or variations;
consistency is an advantage if buying a print late in an edition; 
as the last looks the same as the first, no matter how many prints are made.

Both can have varied editions, where the artist intentionally makes changes
such as changes in colours throughout the edition.
A famous example of extreme varied editioning is Andy Warhol's Marilyn Portfolio

Andy Warhol (USA), Marilyn, 1967

Regardless of the printing method, all prints should be honest in their description
when being advertised for sale; privately, commercially or through art dealers/galleries.
Each original print should be accompanied by description of the medium 
which states the process by which it was made.
I personally think the description on digital prints should include digital processes,
such as 'inkjet print' (avoid using obscure terms such as giclĂ©e or c-type print)
because I want to know if it quality ink on archival paper.

In printing these digital multiple originals, or limited edition prints,
the artist should sign, date and number each one if an edition,
or for a series of tests use 'AP' (Artist Proof), the same as any other print method.

High quality digital printing service for artists at Endemic World

If the image is taken from an existing artwork (eg. a scan or photo from a painting)
and digitally printed, then it should be termed a reproduction.
This description applies where the artist does not have a hand in producing the print.

Limited edition reproductions are produced in limited numbers;
smaller print runs make the image more exclusive (and therefore more valuable)
but you are relying on the honesty of the publisher not to exceed that number
or to release 2nd runs of the image to generate more money etc.
Limited edition reproductions must be numbered and/or certified,
but I think it should in some way acknowledge the original source image in the information provided
(eg, Digital Reproduction of 'Title, Year, Oil on Canvas')

Margaret Petchell, Parson
Digital print (reproduction of painting)
Signed & numbered, limited edition of 50

Open editions or print-on-demand prints tend to cost less than limited editions,
They generally have no number or signature (or signature may be in the digital file) 
and are often produced by a 'publisher' or retailer under license from the artist.
If the design is popular, the publisher can print hundreds or even millions
and can potentially decrease in value as they become more common.
However, remember that original art prints can also be open editions.

Let's be realistic: It's no secret that artists need a source of revenue between exhibitions.
Often labour-intensive paintings are expensive,
so artists may reproduce them as digital prints
to make their artworks more accessible and affordable for the general public.

There are many NZ artists and printmakers producing digital prints for sale
(both original prints & reproductions)
though print retailers such as Endemic World in Auckland,
who offer a range of affordable prints
(I like their mix of screenprints, letterpress, stencil, digital).
high-quality using Epson Ultrachrome archival inks and papers,
so click here to contact Elliot Alexander if you're interested in printing &/or selling prints,
and take advantage of their great set up for online orders for prints (NZ and overseas).

As with any provider, it is important to discuss your requirements thoroughly.
Its up to you how many to print, whether you want to sign and number the prints,
to decide on the best medium description for the work, and to set a realistic price.

Michael Smither, Cracker Biscuit
Screenprint, 41x41cm, edition of 70

Now, don't get sucked in to believing that describing a print is 'simple'...
Above is Michael Smither's limited edition screenprint reproduction of his own painting.
The image is a reproduction,
however each hand-printed screenprint is an original artist print.
I love this example, as it is challenging the perceptions of print original vs reproduction.
For additional perspectives about these issues here in NZ, 
I recommend you also read these:

New Zealand does not have any specific legislation regarding artists prints or multiples,
we do not have a recognised policy of standards and regulations for classifying prints.
Do you think we need it?? Who would enforce it? How?
At present, we rely heavily on the artists, galleries, dealers to label them 'correctly' and honestly,
 its currently a shared responsibility between producers, sellers and buyers;
that's why I believe it is important that we continue to share knowledge about digital printing.

When purchasing, you should be able to tell by the medium description,
but if you are buying a print and you're not sure, then ask these simple questions:
Is it an edition? How many prints are there?
Is it a reproduction of an existing artwork,
or did the artist create it as an original to be printed?

Do you have any thoughts on whether digital prints are original art prints?
Do you have any tips about how to identify a reproduction from an original?
Add a comment below to let us know your thoughts,
or click here to head over to our Facebook page to join in the discussions...


Antony said…
Nice even-handed article considering the passions that this topic stirs among printmakers! Although I argued in our article that we should rely on honest and straightforward descriptions rather than legislation we would support a law prohibiting anyone asking a printmaker "where's the original?" ;)