Artist Print or Reproduction Print? Spotting the difference in the era of Digital Printmaking

Are Prints by Digital Printmakers Reproductions or Original Artists' Prints?

Prints created on a computer or printed using an inkjet printer (the giclee process) can sometimes be classified as an "original" or "artists" print, just like a print made using a more traditional process such as etching or handmade silkscreens.  We agree with artist David Hockney who says bluntly "the computer is just a tool" and exhibits inkjet (or giclee) prints drawn on a graphics pad because clearly the image only exists in printed form, there is no "original" therefore it is an original work of art (in multiple form).

However many high priced digitally produced prints are not original prints, they are (albeit very high quality) reproductions.

When giclee/digital prints first appeared the high cost of materials and hardware created a blurring of the price signal differentiation between artists prints and reproduction prints. The print buyer was also paying for a higher quality product than an offset print (in terms of longevity of inks, colour fidelity and the option of reproduction onto canvas as well as fine art paper) but the prices for early digital prints were often further amplified by the premium for a more exclusive reproduction, the infiintely flexible "limited edition" being exploited by early adopters of the giclee printing process who were reproducing paintings.

Original digital print by NZ printmaker Alec Tayler
High prices being asked for  reproduction giclee prints has made the path for acceptance of pioneering digital printmakers like NZ's Alec Tayler just that much tougher. Tayler's work passes all the tests for an original artists' print but at $350 (for an edition of 180) they are still priced below some reproduction prints of a similar size.

There used to be an obvious distinction between prints created by hand (original prints) and prints made by machine (reproduction) and some straightforward tests for informed buyers to classify the value and rarity of a printed artwork they were purchasing.  But our conclusion is that the advent of digital printmaking processes is making some of the previously useful rules of thumb for making the distinction between "artists prints" and "reproduction prints" less useful and possibly obselete.

Why doesn't NZ Fine Prints call reproductions of other artworks "reproductions" and reserve the term "print" for original artists' prints, produced digitally or otherwise?

This writer has previously been taken to task for New Zealand Fine Prints' policy of calling copies of artworks in other media (such as oil paintings or watercolours) "prints".  For instance Kerikeri printmaker Mark Graver took exception in both an article in the Artists Alliance Magazine #76 and in his book "Non Toxic Printmaking" (you can read a copy of his article here) when he was told by me in an email exchange that he was ‘fighting a losing battle’ in terms of trying to educate the public, and that ‘the terms art print and art reproduction, even poster are seen as pretty much interchangeable by the general public’.

Our response is that because the terms are used interchangeably it does not make sense from a business perspective to fight this battle.  Our artists and publishers rely on us to get sales and we operate in a competitive marketplace. Mercedes tried for years to promote "pre-owned cars" but nobody was looking for them, they now call them "used cars" like everyone else.

In our catalogues we have reproductions alongside screenprints or giclee prints next to limited edition reproductions of antique prints if they have a common theme or topic as we believe clear labelling, detailed descriptions and expert articles in NZ Art Print News will keep print buyers educated and informed.

"Cracker Biscuit"
Screenprinted reproduction of a
 painting by Michael Smither
[However as the series of prints by famous NZ artist Michael Smither we are cataloguing at the moment demonstrates classifying prints is still no easy task - Smither's range includes original prints AND handmade (screenprinted) prints that are based on original paintings].

As the shift to digital printmaking by fine art printmakers gathers pace it is more useful to ignore calls by printmakers like Graver for government regulation and to instead listen to his more sensible advice based not on regulating the process but on understanding the artist's intent. As Graver himself concedes "A Giclee… can be as much an original print as an etching or wood cut, it depends on the artist’s motive."

Definition of Print Terms

On old (antique) prints there are usually abbreviations of Latin words printed below or beside the image. These are like the credits, acknowledging the contributions of the artists and craftsman printmakers responsible for printing the print. For this week's article we have written an explanatory guide to the words that they are abbreviated from, offer a rough translation and expand the meaning/definition of these terms in the context of printing and engraving.

  • Del. or Delt.  Abbreviation of "Delineavit". Definition: "He Drew It". Used after the artist's name on a print to show that it was a drawing and not a painting from which the engraver worked.
  • Ex. or Execud. or Ext. Abbreviation of "Execudit". Definition: "He did it." Follows the engraver's name on the plate. Used in place of Sculpsit (see below).
  • Fc. or Fec. Abbreviation of "Fecit". Definition: "He did it."  Used in the same way as Pinxit (see below), usually follows the artist's name on the print. 
  • Pinxit. or Pinx. Abbreviation of "Pinxit". Definition: "He painted it." Used after the artist's name on a print to show the engraver worked from an original painting.
  • Sc. or Sculp. or Sculpt. Abbreviation of "Sculpsit". Definition: "He engraved it." The engraver's credit, on English prints the form Engr. is also commonly used.
Example of Antique Print by JMW Turner Delt., W.B. Cooke Sculpt.
So in the example of the antique print "Pevensey Bay" in our gallery today the English artist J.W.M Turner is credited for the original drawing (JMW Turner Delt) and the engraving is credited to W.B Cooke (W.B Cooke Sculpt.).