There are so many kinds of “prints” for sale that it is easy to get confused. Is a printed reproduction of a museum work a print? What about a more expensive print which is mass-produced but signed by the artists? In today’s art market the word “print” is loosely used to refer to many different types of work on paper, including offset reproductions (offset refers to the mechanical method of printing commonly used to reproduce art).

In the fine arts, when we talk about prints we are in the broadest sense talking about works of art created by hand, and printed by hand, either by the artist or by a professional assistant under the supervision of the artist, from a plate, block, stone, stencil or other medium (referred to as the matrix) that has been hand created by the artist for the sole purpose of producing the desired image. From the matrix, multiple, but limited, impressions are hand pulled or printed. The plates or stencils the work is printed from often bears little resemblance to the finished work of art, which means it is not a copy or reproduction of anything. In fact, in all print media but two, the image on the matrix is a mirror image, or backwards from what the finished work will be. The image reverses in the printing process so the artist has to think and draw backwards. Each print produced is technically a unique work. Although there are multiples of the same image in an edition (the number of impressions printed), each print is an individual part of the whole, the whole being the edition.

In terms of a definition, we could say, then, that original prints are nearly identical multiple originals of a specific image or work of art. Each print is individually hand pulled from a plate, block, stone, screen or other medium that was created by or under the direction of the artist.

Original prints are traditionally signed in pencil by the artist.
They are usually numbered to indicate how many prints there are in the edition and to identify the individual print. This number appears written as a fraction, for example: 34 / 75. This is called the edition number. The number to the right of the slash (in this example, 75) indicates the size of the edition: 75 prints have been produced. The number to the left is the actual number of the print. This number is read: "print number thirty four of seventy five". There are other types of identifying marks as well. The artist traditionally keeps a separate group of prints outside of the edition marked as artist's proofs, normally about ten or less. These are marked A / P, sometimes with an edition number after (such as: A / P  2 / 5) to indicate how many A / P's there are. During the course of developing the image an artist may pull many experimental images before modifying the plates to achieve the finished product. These are referred to as state proofs, trial proofs, or color proofs. When the image is finally perfected the printer's proof or bon à tirer (signed B.A.T.) is pulled. This is the image that the rest of the edition is matched to and there is only one of these. The artisan printer or master printmaker who assists the artist traditionally gets to keep the printer's proof.

What Is A Limited Edition Print?

Many print collectors are confused by the terms "original print" and "limited edition print". The two are not synonymous. The term "original print" is a specific term; "limited edition" is a general term. An original print is almost always a limited edition print simply because the edition is limited to the actual number of prints that can be safely "pulled" or printed from the plates before the plates begin to wear out and break down from the physical wear and tear of the printing process. But a limited edition print may or may not be an original work of art. It might be just a photo-mechanical reproduction of a painting, photograph, drawing, etc., in other words a product akin to a poster. Such an edition may be limited to an arbitrary number of 500, 1000, often more, and is sometimes even signed in pencil by the artist. It is not, however, actually printed by the artist.

The term "limited edition" can be vague. When purchasing a work of art it is a good idea to distinguish whether or not you are buying an original print and not a reproduction, if you are on the market for fine art prints, or original work.

There are new technologies in printmaking that are blurring the differences between Original Prints and reproductions and adding even more confusion to the subject. Serigraphic reproductions of original paintings, Mylar prints, hand manipulated color copies and Giclée are some of the examples of technologically enabled hybrids which are often represented as original prints. (Giclées are digital ink jet prints of a digital image file on a computer or CD.  Technically, they are copies, though some artists use this process to produce beautiful one-of-a-kind images on paper).

Although there is debate on the subject, it is generally agreed by purists that an Original Print must be entirely produced by hand by the artist, a process that combines a considerable degree of skill, artistic ability, and technical knowledge. 



  Original prints can offer an affordable way to get our feet wet. Their relative low cost enables many people of moderate means to own and cherish genuine works of art. Indeed, prints and perhaps drawings are about the only bona fide works by the masters that most of us can ever hope to obtain. A Romare Bearden one-of-a-kind original, for example, cannot be found for under, $30,000 - $40,000, but an original lithograph by him may still be found for around $5,000.

There are other advantages, besides price, to collecting original prints. Some forms of original prints, for example etching and woodcuts, tend to be small in scale and can be easily accommodated in small living spaces. They can be easily stored when not on display. They tend not to demand heavy, expensive frames and special lighting.

The beginning art collector could do well starting with original prints. In addition to the having the satisfaction of owning original works of art, we can live with and try out various kinds and styles of art without making too great an investment.

But perhaps the greatest reason for buying and collecting original prints by African American artists is to acknowledge and honor to the contribution of African American artists to an age-old, rich, complex and demanding artistic medium - printmaking. Both art and craft, printmaking demands long study and hard work and the work of the most talented African American printmakers offer a wealth of  opportunities for the collector.


Traditional printmaking techniques fall into four categories: Relief printing where the image is created by carving from a flat plane those areas which will not be part of the image and applying ink to the raised area. (woodcut and linocut are two examples of relief printing); Intaglio where the image is created by removing surface and forcing ink into the negative spaces (etching, aquatint and drypoint are examples of intaglio printing); the Stencil process, also called silk screen, screenprinting, or serigraphy, where the negative image is affixed to a fine mesh screen and ink is forced through the screen; and planographic printing where the image and negative area are both on the same plane (lithography is the best known example). Some of the more popular printmaking techniques are broadly described here:


One of the oldest known printing method, The design is drawn on a flat block of smooth hardwood. Then the surface around the lines or areas of the design is chiseled away, leaving the design in high relief. The block is inked and the paper is placed under it. The image is transferred by applying pressure with a press. A separate block is used for each color. A linocut is made in the same way except that linoleum is substituted for wood.

The linocut is a printmaking technique similar to that of the woodcut except that linoleum is substituted for wood. Since linoleum offers an easier surface for working, linocuts offer more precision and a greater variety of effects than woodcuts. Artists like Picasso and Matisse brought popularity and respectability to the medium.


Etching is a method of making prints from a metal plate, usually copper or zinc, which has been “bitten” with acid. The metal plate is coated with an acid-resistant substance (etching ground or varnish). The artist draws his design on the plate with a sharp tool (a burin, needle or other) which removes the ground wherever the implement touches it. When the plate is put in an acid bath, the exposed parts are etched (or eaten away). This produces sunken lines that receive or hold the ink for printing. The plate is wiped clean, leaving the ink in the sunken area. The plate, in contact with dampened paper, is passed through a roller press. This forces paper into the sunken areas to receive the ink, thereby forming the art image on the paper.
Etched lines are often subtle and fine since the motion comes from the motion of the fingertips.

This technique is so called because its finished prints often resemble watercolors or wash drawings. It achieves a wide range of tonal values. An aquatint is created by etching sections, rather than lines, of a plate in  order to create areas of uniform tone. An aquatint is prepared by applying powdered resin  or a similar ground to a metal plate, which is then heated, thus adhering the  ground to the metal. This gives a roughness or grain to the plate which adds  texture to the image. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which bites or  etches the plate and creates areas which will hold the ink. The design is  created with gradations of tone achieved through repeated acid baths combined  with varnish used to stop out areas of lighter tone.

Drypoint is similar to etching but the lines are simply scratched directly into the plate manually, without the use of acid. Lines in a drypoint are characterized by a soft fuzziness somewhat like that of an ink pen on moist paper. Drypoint is most often used in combination with other etching techniques, frequently to insert dark areas in an almost-finished print.

Mezzotint can be thought of as the inverse of the other intaglio processes, for  a mezzotint design is created working from black to white, rather than vice versa. In a mezzotint the metal plate is worked using a rocker, which  roughens the entire surface of the plate with tiny holes and burrs. If the plate  were printed at this time the image would be completely velvet black. Areas that  are to appear in lighter tones or in white are smoothed out on the surface so  that they will hold less ink. Mezzotint is an intaglio process, so prints made  in this manner will have a platemark. The mezzotint process makes a very richly  textured image and was used particularly for portraits.

A Collagraph print is best described as a collage printmaking technique (the word is a combination of the words ‘collage’ and ‘graphics’), where the image is composed from a variety of textured materials glued to a  substrate and printed either in an intaglio or relief fashion. Collagraphs are sometimes referred to as collage prints, collage intaglio or assemblage prints. In this process a rigid board or other material is used to create the plate which is then built up using a collage-like process which combines a variety of materials as diverse as cardboard, fabric, string, netting, gesso, glue, found objects, etc. The plate is then coated with varnish or acrylic medium to protect the materials and strengthen the plate. The plate is then inked and usually pulled on a press.


Silkscreen or Serigraphy
A serigraph is produced by screen printing. The process has been popularly known as silkscreen printing because screens were first made of silk. Today, however, screens can be made of paper, metal, or plastics. The screen is tightly stretched across a frame. The design is made by blocking out the entire screen, except for the area to be printed. Paper is placed under the screen, ink is then ’squeegeed’ over the screen through the open or unblocked areas onto the paper below, thereby creating the original art image. Whenever a serigraph is printed in more than one color, a separate screen must be made for each color. Each color is applied separately through a screen blocked out to allow the color to fall only where wanted on the design until the final composite image is achieved. Photographic transfers, both in line and halftone, can also be fixed to the screen with a light-sensitive emulsion.


A lithograph is created by drawing an image onto a stone (lithography =  "stone-drawing") or metal plate using a grease crayon or a greasy ink called  tusche. The process is based on the principle that grease and water do not mix. To create a lithograph the design is drawn with a greasy crayon, or brushed with a greasy ink, directly onto the smooth-grained surface of a stone or metal plate. The plate is then dampened with water, and inked. The ink clings only to the greasy crayon marks. When a sheet of paper is pressed against the stone or plate, the ink on the greasy parts is transferred onto the paper, thus forming the image. The stone or plate can be  re-inked many times without wear. A chromolithograph is a  colored lithograph, with at least three colors, in which each color is printed from a separate stone and where the image is composed from those colors. A tinted lithograph is a lithograph whose image is printed from  one stone and which has wash color for tinting applied from one or two other  stones. Because lithography is a planographic process no platemark is created  when a lithograph is printed.


Monotype and Monoprint
Monoprinting and monotyping are both hand-printing processes that involve the transfer of ink from a plate to the paper, canvas, or other surface that will ultimately hold the work of art. Although the terms monotype and monoprint are sometimes used interchangeably, they represent two distinct printmaking processes.

A monotype is a one of a kind, hand-pulled print. The artist creates an image with paint or ink on a smooth plate (usually plexiglass or metal), and transfers the art to paper via contact and pressure between the plate and the paper. The pressure of printing creates a texture not possible when painting directly on paper. After the paper is squeezed against the still-wet image on the plate, it is literally peeled off the plate by the artist. This stage of printing is called “pulling.” The image is created with ink, paint, water-soluble crayons, or any medium that will leave the plate and stick to the paper when they are pressed together. There are no permanent lines or etch marks on the plate, so the image is created solely by the artist’s manipulation of the medium.

Monotypes are unique, because only one impression of the art can be pulled from the plate before the ink is gone (some people refer to monotypesas the only original art printed in an edition of one.) After the initial print is pulled,  there may be just enough pigment left on the plate to pull a second, faint impression, called a ‘ghost’. The ghost (or cognate, as it is technically known), is a much lighter image, with substantial variations from the first print, and is more of a transparent suggestion of the first image. A ghost print can be treated as an “under-painting”, giving the artist creative license to re-work the image with more ink or paint, and alter the ghost print to create an entirely new, one-of-a-kindwork of art.

What is a Monoprint?
The main difference between monotype and monoprint is that monoprinting involves the drawing or etching of some permanent features on the plate (or matrix), which can be re-used, thereby making it possible to print the image in a (usually very small) series or edition. A monoprint begins with an etched or drawn element on the plate employing any standard printmaking technique such as lithography, etching, or woodcut. The underlying image remains the same and is common to each print in a given series but each monoprint is made unique by any of an endless number of variations such as colors, density of the inks, over-painting, embellishing or combining other techniques. Monoprints, then, can be thought of as variations on a theme, with the theme resulting from the permanent features being found on the plate — lines, textures— that persist from print to print . The variations produce the result of creating a unique impression with each print, and hence the prefix mono.



It is important to have an understanding of the terminology in general use in the field of original prints and to know what the markings on print mean. Below are explanations of some of the markings and descriptions of the more common terms:

Artist’s Monogram: A monogram bearing the artist’s initial or personal sign, either stamped or drawn on the print. At times the monogram is drawn on the stone or inscribed on the plate.

Artist’s Proof: In traditional printmaking an artist's proof was a trial impression taken to evaluate the immediate state of a print. It could either indicate that further development was required or that the print is complete. Today Artist’s Proofs most commonly are a small group of prints set aside from the edition for the artist's use. The total number is generally 10 - 15 percent of the total edition. These prints are identified by the marking A/P. Most times an A/P will cost more than a print from the regular edition.

Bon à Tirer: Literally, ’good to pull’, the final proof of a print, the standard against which all other prints pulled in the edition are matched.

Hors Commerce: A small number of prints from an edition that are usually used as samples or given to museums and institutions. Although they are usually not sold, some may find their way to the market. They are designated with the marking H/C.

Cancelled Plate: After an edition is run off, the plate is frequently pierced or scratched or otherwise defaced in order to prevent further printings.

Edition: An edition of a print includes all the impressions printed at the same time or as part of the same printing. A First Edition print is one which was issued with the first printed group of impressions. Edition size is a factor in determining the current and future value and of a print. A smaller edition size means that that the print will be more rare and exclusive.

Hand Signing and Numbering: A print does not have to be signed and numbered to be an original. Signing and numbering prints is a relatively modern practice. The most common method used today is to record on the left side of the print the size of the edition and the number of that particular piece. For example, 11/150 means that there were 150 impressions in the edition of which this is number 11. The signature usually appears near or at the right margin of the print. Most fine art prints are and should be signed in pencil because pencil markings are permanent and will not fade over time.

Remarque: A remarque is a small vignette image in the margin of a print, often related thematically to the main image. A remarque is designated by the marking R/M. Originally remarques were scribbled sketches made in the margins of etchings so that the artist could test the plate, his needles, or the strength of the etching acid prior to working on the main image. These remarques were usually removed prior to the first publication of the print. During the etching revival, in the late nineteenth century, remarques became popular as an additional design element in prints and were also used in the creation of remarque proofs. Some artist remarque their prints by over-painting or enhancing the actual image. The total number of remarque prints is usually small and they cost appreciably more than the regular edition.


Estate Prints are prints made by the artist but not signed by the artist prior to his or her death. The artist’s signature may be reproduced on the print with the approval of the estate of the artist of the print may be signed or otherwise authenticated by the deceased artist’s executor of authorized family member. The value of an estate print is largely determined by demand for and scarcity of the image.

Posthumous Prints are prints printed after the death of the artist. These prints are not considered worth collecting.

Framing and Hanging  Original Prints and Works on Paper

Professional conservation framing is recommended for all original works of art. It is costly but it will bring a special blend of craftsmanship and creativity, skill and patience, which will bring out the best in your print. You will also have the reassurance of having the finest quality conservation material to preserve you print and works on paper.

When having your print framed, the following points should be considered. Be sure to talk about them with your framer.

  • Never cut the margins of the print or fold the edges of the paper. Have  it framed as it is.
  • The  print should never be permanently mounted. Acid free hinges should be used to secure the print against 100% acid free rag board (ordinary wood pulp backing material contains acid which will stain the print over time). Acid free linen tape or rice paper may be used for hinging.
  • Glass or another form of transparent sheeting should be used to protect the face of the artwork from dust, moisture, insects etc. The artwork should not touch the surface of the glass, however, since moisture condensation inside can stain the artwork or cause mold growth. Separate the artwork from glass by rag  board mat or some other form of separation such as a liner. It is best to use glass that offers UV protection to avoid damage and deterioration that can be caused by sunlight.
  • A dust cover attached to the back of the frame is necessary to protect the print from pollution and to keep it clean. Kraft paper provides a suitable dust cover.
  • When your print is framed, hang it with pride but be careful to keep it healthy.  Avoid hanging it in direct sunlight or over a radiator or fireplace.
    Finally a good idea may be to check your print every three to five years, especially if it is an important piece. Have the artwork taken out of the frame and examined for any damage due to light, mold growth, insects, loose hinges etc.

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