Art prints: what types are there?

When it comes to art, there is quite a bit of confusion: what counts as an original and when is it a print? What is a multiple? What is a giclée print?
For example, I call a painting I made, of which only one copy exists, an ‘original’. But another artist might call a multiple an ‘original artwork’ too.
So, how does this work? I like to take you through this, as a lover of printmaking, but also as the (grand)daughter of an artisan printer (the sound of Heidelberg press from the 1980s makes me nostalgic).

What is an original artwork?

The word ‘original’ has two meanings in art:
– Something that is self-conceived and original, and therefore original in its execution
– It is the only one of its kind, i.e. a unique specimen

It’s quite confusing, even for me sometimes. In fact, I saw a beautiful work and it said ‘original artwork’, so I thought there was only one copy of it. But it turned out to be a print that was printed indefinitely. And so that makes it worth much less. After all, the more of something available, the less value it has.
So as an artist, if you sell something made by hand that has only one copy, state it clearly. It will be worth more.

What is important is that you communicate clearly to your customer what kind of edition you sell your work in. We use trade terms for that.

I offer reproductions of my paintings as giclée prints (fine art prints) in limited editions → buy a print here

Different kinds of art reproductions

Multiple/open edition
This is often the most economical art you can buy. It is called ‘multiple’. These are reproductions of artworks in unlimited editions. These are often unsigned, or when printing the artwork, the artist’s signature is printed with it.

Limited edition
A (limited) edition is worth more than a multiple because it is more limited in copies. They are limited edition reproductions, and they are usually signed and numbered by the artist.
Suppose the artist provides an edition of 50 copies. Once these 50 reproductions have been sold, it is not done to sell more in the same format and using the same technique. If, as an artist, you still want to sell more, you have to make an adjustment to the reproduction, for instance by changing the colour or the format. I know sneaky artists who sell more anyway, but be honest: by doing so you are ripping off your customer. Just don’t.
When numbering, the first digit is the serial number and the second digit is the print run. For example 32/50, where ’32’ is the unique number in the series and ’50’ is the print run.

When a limited edition is produced, there are sometimes artist proofs, referred to as ‘AP’. These are prints meant for the artist to check if the print is good. If this one is also limited edition, it may say ‘AP 1/2’. Artist proofs are often sold more expensively than the limited edition itself.

Unique copy (or as I call it: ‘an original’)
Only one of a unique copy exists and is therefore worth the most. Prints may have been made of an original painting (limited edition or otherwise), but there is only one of the painting. A unique copy can also be a sculpture made by hand, a monoprint or a tapestry made by hand.
If you are selling a unique copy, it is wise to add a certificate of authenticity to it. This will state, among other things, that it is a unique copy, the artist’s name, size, date of making, material used and the artist’s signature.

Different printing techniques

Besides there being differences in print runs in reproductions, there is also a difference in the type of print and how the print is made. Below are some of the most common ones.

Giclée print
A giclée print is a print of an original work with the highest quality. To make such a print, for example, the original painting is photographed by a professional using special techniques, at a minimum of 1200dpi. From these photos, giclée prints can then be printed (by a lithographer) on acid-free art paper or canvas with precious archival inks. This paper or canvas has an underlayer (coating) that prevents the inks from degrading. Each giclee print is checked individually by the expert to ensure the best possible quality.
Sometimes something is called a giclée or a fine art print, while it is a photographic print. To be sure that you are holding a giclée, it is important that the print has been printed on an appropriate printer with at least eight colour runs on fine art paper (e.g. Hahnemuhle Photorag). This ensures that the print can last for around 80 years.

Difference between a fine art print and an art print
There is an additional complexity involved, because there’s a distinction between ‘fine art print’ and ‘art print’. The word ‘fine’ indicates exclusivity.
A fine art print is a giclée print made in a limited edition. This makes it art and subject to the 9% VAT rate.
An art print is also always a giclée print, but then a multiple/open edition. There is therefore no limit to the number of copies available and it falls under the 21% VAT rate.
A digital print (see below) cannot be called a (fine) art print, even if it is in an edition. After all, it is not a giclée print.

Digital print
A digital print, sometimes called a ‘photographic print’, is a very affordable print of a work. Unlike a giclée print, a digital print is not printed on acid-free paper, no archival inks are used and the quality is not checked by an expert. The print is usually printed on photo paper, but other papers are also possible.
A digital print cannot be an art print, because the quality of the paper and the printing technique do not meet the quality requirements. Pay attention to this, as there are sometimes sellers who call a digital print an ‘art print’.

Screen print
A screen print is a reproduction by stencil and is usually printed by hand. It involves the use of a screen printing frame, photo emulsion, UV light source and a graphic stencil.
A screen print can consist of one colour, or it can consist of several colours. In this case, several windows are usually used and these are applied to the paper one layer at a time. For a screen print, a colour or a number of colours are selected in advance with which to print. Thus, a screen print can contain unique colours such as neon or gold colours.

Left: a tetrapak print, also called an intaglio etching. Right: a risograph print made with neon ink.

Risoprint is a durable printing technique that has been making a comeback for a few years now. The Risograph machine resembles a copier, but works on the same principle as screen printing. Like screen printing, each colour layer is printed separately, using a stencil technique. The inks used are soya or rice oil-based. Each risoprint is a little different, as the machine cannot always determine exactly how the paper lies. This is precisely the charm of a risoprint, as it makes it unique. Also, risoprints can use unique colours that are not possible in regular CMYK printing, such as gold or neon colours.

A beautiful artistic printing technique, invented in 1796. A drawing is made on a stone or metal plate using lithographic ink or chalk, and then a print is made, mainly on paper. If you use ink, the stone must be smoothly polished. If you use chalk, the stone should be slightly grainy. Once you have applied your drawing, treat it with diluted nitric acid and gum arabic. The gum arabic will penetrate the pores of the stone that has not been drawn in. The nitric acid causes a chemical process, fixing the chalk. You then sponge off the stone, leaving the unsigned areas moist. You then roll that in with printing ink, leaving the ink only on the drawn parts. The inked stone can now be used to make a print, also known as a ‘lithograph’.
For a colour lithograph, two stones are used: one for the actual drawing and one for the colour. A separate colour stone is used for each colour.
Usually, a limited number of lithos are made with one plate. If the quality of a lithograph is excellent and only a few are produced, it has a considerable value.

Etching/intaglio print
An etching is a print by intaglio technique. An etching is created by etching a drawing into a plate (copper, metal, glass) with acid.
To make an etching, the plate is first polished with fine sandpaper or a polishing agent, with a layer of lacquer on top. You can then use an etching needle, for example, to make a drawing by scratching into the plate. You get gradations in light and dark by scratching more superficially or deeper into the plate. After the drawing has been made, the plate is placed in an acid bath. Where the coating has been scratched, the acid eats away a groove.
If no acid bath is used, this is called a ‘dry needle technique’.
Depending on the material used, a limited number of prints can be made. For example, you can make more etching prints from a copper plate than from a cardboard etching or ‘Tetrapak printing’. The latter is currently very popular because you can do it very easily at home in, for example, the inside of a milk carton.

I hope this was of some use to you. Do you have any additions or did I make a mistake somewhere? Let me know and I’ll update it.

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