WHAT IS AN ORIGINAL PRINT?
By David Rudd
For many fine and collectable art collectors and enthusiasts, an original print is the most desirable form of print. This is because it is an original, hand-made creation by the artist. It is the printing equivalent to an original oil painting or hand-drawn sketch.
While most have a good idea what is an original painting (‘An original Rembrandt painting is a painting painted by Rembrandt’), the answer is not as straight forward with prints. Printing not as conducive to intuitive answers. That there can be more than one of a particular original print is often confusing.
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An original print is a manual (‘handmade’) print
making a linocut by carving the design directly into a piece of linoleum
Prints can be divided into many different categories, including by they way that they are made, what materials are used, whether they are commercial or non-commercial and artistic styles. For this article, the most important category is whether prints are manual or process.
Manual literally means ‘by hand’, and manual prints are made from printing plates whose artistic design is created onto the plate by hand. For example, an original Rembrandt engraving involved the famous artist literally using a hand held tool to carve the design into the steel plate. A wood-engraving was made by someone cutting the artistic design into a block of wood.
Process prints are the opposite of manual prints. The design on the printing plate is made mechanically, not by hand. The vast majority of process prints involve the use of photography, and are called photomechanical prints. Photomechanical prints are most commonly used for mass-production commercial purposes. With notable exceptions, all 20th century and today’s commercial prints are photomechanical prints. This includes everything from the images on trading cards to cereal boxes, movie posters to magazines. These commercial prints involve the reproduction of an original design, whether it's a painting, photograph, print or sketch.
Original Prints Are Manual Prints. The terms are synonymous. If you think about it, the reason why should be apparent. Rembrandt carving his original design directly into the steel printing plate is the printing equivalent of him painting onto a canvas or drawing a sketch.
There can be and usually are more than one print made from a printing plate (which is the point of printing). If an artist uses his manual printing plate to make ten prints, each hand numbered 1-10, each of these prints is an original print. This helps explain why, all other things being even, a painting is more valuable than a print. The number of prints in existence will ordinarily affect the value, with the fewer considered to be the better.
As with terms like rare and beautiful, original is widely used, sometimes abused and comes in a variety of senses depending on the situation. In the genre of prints ‘original print’ has a specific meaning as just described. James Dean, George Washington’s first hat and Coca Cola are called originals, but no one’s going to confuse them with original prints. Similarly, a 1960 Topps baseball card, which is a photomechanical print, may be accurately labeled ‘an original baseball card,’ but it is not to be confused with an original (manual) print.
To many collectors, original prints have special importance, and, all other things the same, the original print will almost always be of higher value than a reproduction. In part, this makes practical sense. A reproduction will have less detail than the original.
Much of the value placed on original prints is due to a widely held sense of significance for originality, historical authenticity and celebrity. Similar sentiments are found in all areas of collecting. All other things even, the baseball bat used in a game by Babe Ruth will have significantly higher value than the bat he never touched. The document signed by George Washington will have be worth more than the document signed by your nextdoor neighbor. The Marc Chagall original lithograph will be worth more than a reprint or an original print by an unknown artist. While based in irrationality, the desire for ‘the original’ is real.
Whether or not a print is an original print is usually straightforward. If, in his studio in Paris, Pablo Picasso made a set a linocut prints by carving by hand the linoleum and printing them on paper himself, these certainly are original prints. If today someone takes a digital photograph of the print hanging in a gallery and makes a print off off her computer printer, this is obviously not an original print. Even if Picasso himself or his estate made the digital reprint, it is not an original print.
There will be instances where the answer is more difficult and even up to different reasonable interpretations.
Using the above Picasso linocut example, what happens if he had some assistants who helped him? While it was Picasso’s own unique design and he carved the design into the linoleum, his assistants did the actual printing and, under his direction, added a bit of hand coloring. Assuming Picasso had direct artistic control of this printing, most would say this is an original Picasso print. Realize that some printing processes, like etching and engraving, are difficult and help from others may be required.
What happens if, after his death, the Picasso estate creates linocuts based on the original design of Picassos. While the result may be original prints and may be called original prints ‘based on a design by Picasso’, they aren’t original Pablo Picasso prints. Even if one were to argue that this was an original Pablo Picasso print, the print would no doubt have less popular desirability.
While a photomechanical print is inherently not an original print, what happens if an artist makes an original design that is a composite of small photomechanical images combined with handmade areas? Reasonable opinions will differ as to whether this is an original print. Whatever type of print it is, it can be called an original piece of art.
What happens if a talented artist created a completely original design (no reproduction involved) on her computer using a graphics programs, printed out one hundred copies on her computer printer and signed and numbered each one. Are these original prints? As the print is not manual, I would not call it an original print, though reasonable people may have a different opinion. Irrelevant to which term it falls under, I suspect that both you and I would not pay the same price for an original Picasso linocut versus an original design he made on his laptop. As much due to sentiment as to technicality, original prints and digital prints are generally separated in the art world.