A Question of Prints

March 12, 2012


The question must be looked at in three parts - definitions, artistic merit and market.
All of the media discussed here are prints. A print is made by putting ink on a surface and transferring the ink to a piece of paper. This includes etching, stone litho, serigraph, photomechanical, wood block, potato print and other techniques. Some prints are reproductions. This occurs when there is an original work of art which is copied, either in the same or in a different size. Reproductions are usually done with the photomechanical process but not neccessarily. Years ago, reproductions of the Group of Seven work were done by serigraph. Photomechanical reproductions were very low quality in those days. Audubon had his original watercolours reproduced by copper engraving, and these were seen as copies done by different craftspeople.

An original print is one where there is no other original, just a plate or a stone or a screen, etc. But it is possible to use the photomechanical process to create original prints. These may done by an artist working with a commercial printer on commercial presses and building the image stage by stage and may involve photographic images. These are original prints because they are not reproductions of an original work in spite of the fact that they are done photomechanically.
All of the above has nothing to do with artistic merit. A high school lino cut is an original print but that does not put it on a par with a serigraph or etching designed by a well known artist who may not be assisted by a professional craftsperson. Some painters have attempted original prints and the results are not necessarily as pleasing artistically as their paintings or good reproductions of their paintings. I know of a case of an artist who did subtle, delicate watercolours and had made reproductions of these which were both high quality and faithful to the originals. He was forced by political pressure from the art guild in his country to give this up. But in order to supply the demand for prints he turned to mylar lithos. He did four or five colours and supervised the printing and the guild was happy. The only problem was that the finished product was harsh and flat and lacked what was aesthetically best in his work.

The merit of a piece of art depends on the artist's idea, creativity and rendering. There is nothing intrinsic in any print media that makes one superior to the other artistically. Stone lithos usually give richer blacks and more subtle light tones than photomechanical prints, but new methods and great care can produce virtually equal results.

Most original print techniques have special qualities which give the art a power and subtlety suitable to the medium. It goes beyond the mere need to make multiple copies. To me it is pointless to use original print methods to produce a work that looks like a realist painting just to be able to say it is an original print.

There are a number of artists of important stature such as Jack Chambers and Andrew Wyeth who have used signed and numbered limited reproductions to augment their output to the public. These are often realist in style since this style is more difficult to render in original print techniques. Also, some museums are accepting reproductions as part of their print collection. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has two of Roger Tory Peterson's limited and signed reproductions in its print collection.
Finally we come to the market, which seems to to be the main motivation for the furor. Market still relates to supply and demand. There must be many thousands of original prints emanating from all of the schools and artists in Canada each year. Most of them are in very little demand so it doesn't matter whether they are limited or unlimited. However, some artists produce work of great artistic merit or popular appeal or both. If the supply of their work is limited the market will be brisk.

Some artists have chosen to have their paintings or drawings reproduced with high quality technique in a limited edition. None of these artists, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that these prints were other than printed reproductions of existing works of art. I don't think that public is hoodwinked on this score. They know they are getting a reproduction. The accusation that there is a deliberate attempt to deceive the public is unfounded. A reproduction of a painting is obviously a reproduction of a painting and not an etching or a woodcut. This may not be what the complaints are about. However, they may be talking about faking. There are, no doubt, a few cases of artists, for example, who will draw with litho crayon on pebbly paper, have it reproduced photomechanically and sell it as a stone litho. This is obviously fraud and should be stamped out. I have also recently heard of a case where photomechanical reproductions of watercolours were implied to be original prints, but I believe this practice is rare.

Perhaps the problem is the general proliferation of all kinds, particularly reproductions. There is a vast quantity of poor quality reproductions both artistically and technically and this has added to the confusion. But there are also many poor quality original prints and paintings, etc.

It is also possible that the trouble is due to the higher quality limited edition reproduction and the fact that very few of them are becoming "collectible". This is due to supply and demand. Some of them, in fact, have a resale value of many times the original price and sell very well at auction. If this is the rub then supposed loss of sales might be the reason for anguish. I seriously doubt loss of sales of original prints because of this. I am sure that general excitement in the art market helps sales all around.

I have heard it said that the limiting, signing and numbering of reproductions is the dishonest thing. In the case of all kinds of prints this is done for two reasons. It shows the artist's attention to and control over the edition and by limiting the number, the value of each print is raised, especially if the demand is there. The artist will not sign work (presumably) that is below his standards, nor will he sign more than he wants to have in the market. This applies to all print media. I fail to see why reproductions should be treated differently. The early original printmakers did not limit, sign and number their work and yet they sell very well depending on artistic merit and rarity. This limiting business is, in fact, business, and not art. Why should an etching not be re-issued once the edition is sold out? That would wreck the market and the investment value, of course. There are some well known Picasso etchings floating around, unsigned and unnumbered. I am sure that he could not have cared less except for the market. The bootleg prints are original prints of the same artistic merit as the signed ones but of vastly less market value.

It has been said that artists do not supervise photomechanical reproductions with the same care that they supervise other print forms. This may have been true at one time but recent trends have thrown the artist's involvement with his work into a state of chaos. Many limited edition reproductions are very closely supervised by the artist. The artist frequently looks at and criticizes proofs and in several cases I know, has ordered an entire edition destroyed because it is the result that is important and he approves it by signing it. I have even heard of establishment artists (Andy Warhol, Victor Vasorelli) who order their original work by phone to be done by someone else. It is the artist's idea and he signs it, and that is what counts, at least in the market.

It is a pity that so much muddy thinking exists on the subject, even by experts who pretend the furor has something to do with Art. Art has to do with inspiration, creativity and skill. More people are excited by it today than ever before and good prints of every kind play an important part in this.