Art Print 101: The Anomaly of The "Original Print"

It can be confusing going into an art gallery and trying to know what's what when it comes to prints vs. originals. Original artwork is known for fetching higher prices and is typically more sought after than prints with art collectors. But did you know that there is such thing as an "original print"?

Just the other day, a customer searching for "an original artwork" was confused when I showed her a piece that was numbered 11 of 50. I could see the searching in her eyes- the mental math and the confusion- as I tried to explain that because of the medium and the process, it meant there were basically 50 originals.

Yes- all 50 have the same name. And yes- all 50 look very similar. But they are original works all the same. If we've lost you already, hang in there!

I get it! It IS confusing. Which is what brings us here.

The artistic medium grouped as "printmaking" encompasses various techniques- from serigraphy to wood block printing, linocut printing, and etching, to name a few. (If you're interested in technical descriptions of the various printmaking techniques, check out this website.) The instagram account Ink Print Repeat has some great visual example of the process of printmaking.

We call prints made with these techniques "hand pulled prints." After the artist has created the initial stencils or printing plate (think of a handmade stamp made from either wood, linoleum, or metal), ink is applied. Paper and the inked plated are then put through a printing press (or the artist presses it by hand) to transfer the ink to the paper. The final step is the artist PULLING the paper off the plate.

VOILA- a hand pulled print is born!

Since they are handmade but also technically reproductions of each other, "hand pulled prints" occupy the confusing space that lies between an original artwork, such as a one of a kind painting, and a reproduction (an original artwork that has been scanned or photographed then printed on a fancy printer). They are originals. But also prints.

Original + Print = Original Print

Easy enough right? But how do you know the difference between an original hand pulled print and a reproduction print? Both will often be numbered and signed by the artist which can make it tricky!

The best indicator would be to identify the technique used. If the piece is called any of the following, to name a few of the more common types, it's a hand pulled print: serigraph, etching, linocut, woodblock print, intaglio, or lithograph. What I'm trying to say is- the best way to know what you're looking at is to know what you're looking at. If it's called a "giclee" (pronounced jee-clay), it's a reproduction or essentially, a copy.

Another indicator (though it's not full proof) is the number of prints that are in the edition. For example, if a print is some crazy big number like "742/1250" chances are it is not a hand pulled print. First of all, that would be a lot of prints to hand pull. We can assume that printmaking artists have other things to do in their lives than print the same thing 1250+ times. On a more technical level, the plate used for printing actually does physically wear down with each print that is pulled from it. By the time the artist got to 1250, they might as well be rolling ink onto a pancake. There is no rule or standard for how many times a printmaker will use the same block, but it's safe to say (in very non-technical terms) that it's "usually not a ton."

Thirdly, you can actually FEEL whether or not it's a hand pulled print. Not like in an emotional, "I just have a feeling" sort of way. But in a literal "touching the artwork even though the gallery/artist really frowns upon you touching the artwork" kind of way. A reproduction is going to feel like a piece of paper. That's because it's a piece of paper. There won't be a texture to it. A hand pulled print has texture from the ink or if the print has more than one color, layers of ink. And depending on the technique used, you can often see and feel the imprint of the plate in the paper as in the case of Juneau printmaker Michelle Morrell's hand pulled intaglio print "Shooting Star." You can see the indent from the metal plate she etched into. If you were here to touch it (but if you are here, please don't touch it), you would feel it too.

You might be gathering that printmaking is a rather labor intensive process. It really is! Not only does the artist create the initial plate, but then there's the added technical process of pulling prints from it.

The more colors that are present in a hand pulled print, the more labor intensive it is. Take for example the serigraphs of Donna Catotti and Rob Goldberg of Haines, Alaska. A serigraph, or screen print, is where each color is applied through the use of a different stencil. Each stencil and layer of color is carefully applied so that it lines up with the layers underneath to create the final image. If one stencil were slightly off, the whole image would be compromised.

In this piece below, for example, the number of colors that you can see (I count 9?) is the number of stencils that were made and layered on top of each other. It's crazy, right?! Crazy cool!

None of this is to say that original hand pulled prints are "better" than reproduction prints. We are happy to carry original artwork, original hand pulled prints, and reproduction prints at the gallery, and we believe that there is a place for each depending on your style and budget. We are also happy to educate our customers on what's what when it comes to prints vs. originals and will always do our best to explain how a piece was made.

If you're interested in checking out more hand pulled originals, we carry the work of several talented printmakers at the gallery including Brian Elliot (woodblock printing), Irene Klar (etching), Michelle Morrell (intaglio), Catotti and Golberg (serigraphy), Teri Jo Hedman (serigraphy), Marianne Wieland (embossing), and others not currently on our website.

If you're in doubt of what kind of artwork you might have on your hands or are looking at a piece and you'd like to know more about it, get in touch with us and let's talk arty!

Artfully yours, 

Maria at Scanlon's


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  • Vicki Hoehn on

    Great information. Thank you!


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