“What’s the difference between fine-art prints and art reproductions, giclee copies, posters, etc? Aren’t they all prints?” These are frequently recurring questions lately, particularly after the appearance of digital reproduction techniques.
So-called “giclee prints” have hit the art marketplace in recent years like a tsunami. Their digital reproduction quality is undoubtedly a factor in their commercial success. But so is the confusion generated by people who adopt the traditional terminology of fine-art printmaking to sell their giclee copies as “limited-edition giclee prints,” which would seem to place them on the level of true fine-art prints, which is not the case. Let’s take a look at the essential differences. This will explain why genuine fine-art printmakers are up in arms over what they consider the unfair–even fraudulent–competition from dealers who offer digital reproductions of oil paintings, water colors, etc. as “limited-edition prints.”
Fine Prints Have a Noble History
Fine-art printmaking has it’s origins in the first serial-image techniques used by early print shops to illustrate books around the end of the 15th century. Those early illustrations, mainly copper plate engravings, were individually pulled by hand on manual etching presses. (That’s why book illustrations even today are sometimes referred to as “Plate 1,” “Plate 2,” etc.) Later, at the end of the 19th century, came lithography, the forerunner of offset printing. It was, of course, the printing press which made these developments necessary. When books were still hand copied by monks the illustrations were “illuminated” by hand, an entirely too-slow process for mass production.
At some point in this process people began to notice that these illustrations (woodcuts, engravings and etchings) were art in themselves and might be marketed as such. These prints also had an appeal for their scarcity, as the copper (or zinc) plates wore down a tiny bit with each print pulled off them and therefore, after a certain number of prints were pulled, the images lost quality. Thus were born the first “limited editions” limited by the restrictions imposed by the technology of the time.
Prints Enter Art-Commerce Mainstream in the 19th Century
It was in the last part of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th that dealers began seriously to exploit the commercial possibilities of serial art or “multiple originals,” and artists began signing and numbering their work. Eventually all of the “hand-pulled” print techniques entered into the domain we refer to today as “fine-art printmaking.” These techniques include etchings, woodcuts, silk-screen prints, lithographs, lino cuts, dry points, etc. For explanations and examples of these various techniques, you might want to Google “printmaking techniques.”
The appeal of these prints is based in part on the techniques themselves, which have a magical element in the hands of an artist of genius, as well as on the limited-edition exclusivity. Although woodcuts and screen prints lend themselves to almost infinite editions, these are usually limited by editors for commercial purposes, to create scarcity and exclusiveness.
Then there’s the hand-of-the-artist factor. A true fine-art print always benefits from the direct touch of the artist. Prints always have an element of craftsmanship which reproductions lack. Economy is also a factor. A limited-edition print by a given artist is always more economical than one of his oil paintings or water colors, as these are one-offs and the print is a “multiple original.”
So far so good. It’s quite straightforward, really. Fine prints are original handmade works of serial art on paper, signed and numbered by the artist and commercialized in limited editions. Then along comes digital technology and upsets the apple cart. Suddenly we have “digital prints,” “giclée prints,” “Iris prints” and the rest. Some editors are using digital reproduction techniques to print out photographic copies of artists’ oil paintings and watercolors.
Let’s Play by the Rules
So where do these new, digital phenomena fit into the fine-art printmaking picture? Most printmakers agree that if digital artists want to be admitted to the 500-year-old fraternity of fine-art printmakers they will have to respect existing precedents and play by existing rules. First of all, no reproduction of an existing work of art, no photographic or digital copy can ever be deemed a fine-art print. It’s a “reproduction” or a “poster,” but never a “print.” But what of original works of art created directly in the computer and “output” on inkjet printers? Insofar as these are original works of serial art, they are usually considered fine-art prints, especially if they are edited in limited editions and signed and numbered by the artist.
Commerce creates the confusion. There are unscrupulous dealers out there grinding out industrial print-shop reproductions of paintings by the thousands and passing them off as “limited-edition fine-art prints.” Sometimes they call them “giclee prints,” which means only that they have been printed on a high-quality inkjet printer (the first of which was the Iris, hence “Iris prints”), but says nothing of their status as original fine-art prints. It is obvious that when the potential for profit is so great and the risk of sanction so small, many will abandon ethics in favor of the easy money.
Beware: Just Because It’s Printed Doesn’t Mean It’s a Print
All of these reprographic reproductions may well be printed, but they have nothing to do with true fine-art prints which are in another category and come from another tradition, that of Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya and Picasso. There’s further motive for confusion here, as some digital images are, in fact, genuine fine-art prints, original images created in the computer and output on the same high-quality inkjet printers used to make giclee reproductions.
Authentic fine-art printmakers, both traditional and digital, resent this deliberate confusing of true fine-art prints with mere copies as disloyal competition. They feel this confusion degrades their original prints, whether hand-pulled or created on a computer. For openers, just imagine having to repeat this explanation every time a printmaker wants to sell one of her hand-pulled or true-digital prints!
By Kaz from Pixabay