By Sam Davidson

UCH CONFUSION EXISTS in the art world today between original prints and reproductions. A print is an original work of art intended to exist as a multiple. A print which copies an existing work (usually in another medium) cannot be an original print.

Before the image making process begins, the artist selects a material or materials which will best express his or her idea and which allows for multiple impressions. The artist then prepares the surface or surfaces. When the matrix is complete, impressions can be made from it directly. The skill of the person doing the printing, the complexity of the image, the number of impressions, required, the durability of the matrix and the wishes of the artist all contribute the final image. Two things determine the originality of these works: 1) fidelity to the original concept of the artist; and 2) the return to the original matrix for each impression, thereby allowing for individual variations one impression to the next.

The confusion over prints started during the Renaissance when woodcuts, etchings, and engravings were employed by the wealthy and the church to copy existing works of art much as we would use photographic reproductions of the Mona Lisa or other recognized masterpieces today.

A brief history of printmaking is helpful to better understand the difference between original prints and reproductions. Printmaking originated in China after the invention of paper in 105 AD. Religious scholars combined text and images using carved wooden blocks to make Block Books. The earliest known Chinese woodcut images and text is a famous Buddhist scroll, the Diamond Sutra (AD 868) which is in the British Museum. Reproduced from drawings by anonymous artists of varying skills, these early devotional prints were important in the development of printmaking. Although printmaking in Japan is closely associated with the Chinese, the Japanese are credited with developing and refining wood block printing.

Printmaking came to Western Europe in the 15th century, and as in China, its popularity grew out of a need to illustrate the printed word, primarily for religious texts. The production of paper as a substitute for parchment and preliminary experimentation by armorers, jewelers and woodcutters, led to relatively inexpensive ways to produce religious images. By the late 15th century comprehensive attempts to chronicle the known world, such as the Nuremberg Chronicle, begged for illustration.

Until the advent of photography, artists used printmaking techniques for both creating primary works and for reproducing existing works. There was no attempt to confuse one for the other. Most reproductive works were clearly marked to identify the artist and to identify the engraver or the person who did the copying. Within the print making community two groups emerged: 1) the artisans who concentrated on making reproductions of existing works; and 2) artists who chose to make bodies of their work in the original print mediums because of the unique line quality they contributed to these images. Both groups desired multiple impressions.

With the camera came new reproductive processes such as helio-gravure, collotype, offset lithography and, most recently, digital manipulations of the image. The colors, the surface, and even the contents of the original, can be changed to suit the operator of the equipment. Today the use of technical characteristics of original print processes to help distinguish reproductions from original prints is less informative. The medium or combination of mediums used to print the image is now less important than the artist's intention at the beginning of the creative process. Techniques and materials used for reproductions and original prints may be combined in the same image-making process, if their combination is consistent with the artist's original conception of the image matrix.

After 1900, traditional means of creating multiple images could no longer cope with the numbers of impressions required. The split between effective uses of traditional print processes and the new technologies diverged quickly. Woodcuts, etchings, lithographs and other traditional printing techniques have been increasingly reserved for the fine arts. Rapid and sophisticated means of generating reproductions have followed one technological advance after another. The ability to copy existing works has reached unprecedented accuracy with digital systems. Still, no matter how good the reproduction is, it can never be the original.

There are still areas of confusion in contemporary printmaking. The contribution of workshop prints and master printers is one example. Many artists with no familiarity with original print techniques still wish to make prints. Often they enlist the help of highly trained printers who help them translate their images into one or more of the traditional print processes. The originality of the result depends upon the proportion of the artist's involvement with and understanding of the process being employed. In the worst case, you end up with a translation by the master printer. The best result comes when the artist understands the unique possibilities of the medium and then allows those possibilities to inform the image making. Between those extremes lies collaboration--a work containing some of the artist's work and some of the printers.

Iris and other digital generation prints present another area of confusion. The computer gives the artist enormous control over certain aspects of the image making process-color, form, line, and more. The challenge in making unique images is for the artist to put his/her personal stamp on work generated by this tool. The open-ended options for alternative choices at all stages of image generation are a continuing temptation or distraction frequently leading the artist away from a clear personal vision. For digital work only the freshness of the concept counts.

To better understand what you are being shown, ask some questions. Is this an original print? Is this a copy of a painting or another work in another medium? Did the artist prepare the surface from which this image was printed? Can you give me a certificate of authenticity which states that this work is an original print and that you will refund my money if it is shown not to be original? Honest print dealers will welcome such questions.

SAM DAVIDSON is the owner of Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square.

William Hogarth (1697 - 1764), A Harlot's Progress, set of six engravings, 1732.

The best result 
comes when 
the artist 
the unique 
of the medium 
and then 
allows those 
to inform the 
image making.

Omi shimidzu no Kwanja Yoshitaka and the Giant Rat, Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861). Photo courtesy of Carolyn Staley Fine Prints.

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