One of the most confusing terms in the art world is the word “print.” It gets thrown around a lot, and has many different definitions. I get asked so many questions revolving around this term at work, I thought I’d make an attempt to clarify all of the various meanings associated with it. The seemingly straightforward question of “what is a fine art print?” doesn’t exactly have one single straightforward answer (which is part of the problem.) So I’m going to break this thing down, and, like everything I write about here at Advice From An Artist, try to alleviate your very justified confusion.
Fine Art Printmaking vs. Reproduction Prints
The word “print” is used both to refer to fine art prints and to reproduction prints, so it’s no wonder that everybody is confused. They are very different things, and within each category there are oodles of subcategories. That’s just what you wanted to hear, right? Stay with me.
Although I don’t do it anymore, in college I majored in printmaking, so I understand the subject area pretty well. Fine art printmaking is a tradition that has been around for thousands of years, since the invention of paper. It includes things such as etchings, woodblock prints, lithographs, and screen prints. Printmaking as an art form simply means that the artist uses some kind of matrix (a metal plate, a stone, a block of wood, etc.) to create an image. They then add ink and transfer that image onto another surface, usually a nice heavyweight art paper.
That is printmaking in a very small nutshell. The prints that the artist makes are all hand-pulled and considered to be original artwork even though they are called prints, and multiple copies are produced. Weird, but true. Rather than spending time perfecting brushstrokes on a canvas as a painter would do, a printmaker spends time perfecting their matrix (carving into the wood, etching into the metal plate, etc.) and from there goes through the trial and error process of seeing how their image looks once transferred onto something else. These finished products are called fine art prints.
Reproduction prints, on the other hand, are a completely different story. A reproduction is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a reproduced version of an already completed piece of art. Reproduction prints are usually made by photographing or scanning the original artwork and then using the file to print out new copies.
There’s a wide range of the quality of these reproductions, however. At the lower end of the scale they are usually referred to as poster prints. At the higher end, people in the art world like to call them giclées, a loosely translated french word coined by printmaker Jack Duganne in 1991. It all has to do with the quality and type of the printer, the paper, the ink, and the skill of the person creating the print. Regardless of how nice the paper is, or whether the ink is archival or not, posters and giclées are still both inkjet reproductions.
Is a Giclée a Fine Art Print?
In my opinion, no. Even though it’s the highest quality reproduction, it’s still a reproduction, not an original fine art print. To me, calling a giclée a fine art print is the same thing as calling it a painting. It might be printed onto canvas with expertly done color matching, stretched onto bars and displayed to imitate a painting, but it’s still not an original painting.
That being said, most publishers do refer to their giclées as fine art prints, because it sounds good. The term almost has no meaning, really. I guess people can call things whatever they want, but in my mind a giclée is a reproduction and in a different category from a fine art print such as an etching or a woodblock print. I think that the term “fine art print” should be reserved for true printmaking (and a couple of other things which I’ll get to next), but most art publishing companies have adopted the term to be synonymous with giclées so my personal opinion is moot.
What Other Things Could Qualify as a Fine Art Print?
Certainly photography as an art form and the prints that a photographer produces could be called fine art prints. Personally I would be more inclined to simply call them photographs or photographic prints, but if someone wanted to call them fine art prints, I would have no problem with that. It’s not wrong, it just doesn’t seem specific enough to me.
The other area I haven’t touched on yet is digital art. Digital art is a pretty broad term, but it usually refers to artwork that is created using digital technologies (mainly computers.) Probably not wanting to display their work on a computer screen, digital artists will need to produce prints of their work as well. Since the original work was created on the computer, I consider that to be their “matrix.” So the print produced from that work classifies as a fine art print.
Still, these artists probably wouldn’t want to print it out onto a sheet of computer paper and call that a fine art print. For most people’s purposes, the term “fine art print” always means that the image is printed onto high quality paper using high quality techniques. I believe that is, in essence, what the term has come to mean.
What Does “Limited Edition” Mean?
The term “limited edition” derives from the tradition in printmaking for artists to create a specific number of copies from a given matrix at a time. This number of copies is called an edition. It is represented as a fraction, and written in pencil beneath the image, along with the title of the work and the artist’s signature. Below is an example of a woodblock print with its edition number, title, and signature.
This artist created an edition of 75 prints. The one we see here was the 25th one pulled, represented as 25/75. The lower the first number is, the more valuable the print is because it is the closest to the original artist proof. The reasoning behind this is that a matrix such as a woodblock or a metal plate will wear down after repeated use. The first print pulled would be the “freshest” and most accurately represent the original state of the artist’s design. In other words, limiting the number of prints pulled is a necessity in fine art printmaking, because a matrix cannot remain in the same condition forever.
Now, when it comes to inkjet prints such as giclées, limiting the number of prints created has no practical purpose other than to increase the value of the prints. So it has become a very popular marketing strategy for modern day artists. In order to be able to sell more of their work, artists need to have reproductions made. But they retain their artistic integrity by making sure the prints are of the highest quality, and produced in a limited edition batch. They may then choose to number, title, and sign each copy, as a traditional printmaker would do.
Below is an example of a limited edition giclée print available at Art.com. This one comes with a certificate of authenticity, which is signed and numbered by the artist and verifies that the artist has approved this edition and the quality of the printing.
And here, also available at Art.com is a more rare piece. This is an original lithograph, signed by the artist, from 1972. This is truly a one of a kind piece, as it was hand pulled by the artist and no more copies will ever be made. I think it is gorgeous. I didn’t even know Art.com sold stuff like this, but apparently they do!
Hopefully this has helped you understand a little more about art prints. I know all this art terminology can be overwhelming, so please ask me any and all of your questions below! Til next time, guys.