What Is A Print?

I was going to add Part 87, but realised this is actually the first time I can remember asking this eternal question on this blog. What prompted me was a sign on Lucy Gell’s stand at the Spring Bank Arts Centre in New Mills last weekend.


The quality of the photo is not great (phone pic in available light) so I’ll transcribe it:

“What makes an original print?

  • Prints are made individually by hand
  • The print is closely, but not exactly identical with others in the edition.
  • It is one of a small edition e.g. 3/20, this means that it is number three of twenty individual prints (AP means artist’s proof)

The print making process used is in itself an ‘Art Form’ chosen specifically for what it can give the subject. Each print is not a copy or a reproduction but considered an original impression.

I have chosen to use print making in my work for the unique qualities that can be produced with the different techniques. The etching process gives a textural depth to my illustrations while screen printing gives a bold graphic quality.”

To illustrate these last points, here are a couple of works from Lucy’s website:

Bear and Blackbird screen print 44.5cm x 42cm Lucy Gell

Bear and Blackbird – Screenprint by Lucy Gell

Cat Etching - Lucy Gell!

Cat – Etching by Lucy Gell

Lucy, I think, is clear about what is and is not a ‘print’ to her, and I will go along with most of what she says. However I decided to type ‘what is a print’ into Google. The first thing that came up was a definition:


Produce (books, newspapers, etc.), esp. in large quantities, by a mechanical process involving the transfer of text or designs to paper.
The text appearing in a book, newspaper, or other printed publication, esp. with reference to its size, form, or style.”

So, immediately, we have problems. Google says ‘large quantities’; Lucy says ‘limited edition’. Google says ‘by a mechanical process’; Lucy says ‘individually by hand’. Google says ‘The text’: Lucy says ‘my illustrations’. Perhaps it is that word ‘original’ in Lucy’s definition.

So we’ll ignore Google’s not-so-helpful definition and look at the first site it has found which happens to be MoMA in New York. Well, that is a major art museum, so there shouldn’t be any problems with their definition and explanation.

“A print is a work of art made up of ink on paper and existing in multiple examples. It is not created by drawing directly on paper, but through an indirect transfer process. The artist begins by creating a composition on another surface and the transfer occurs when a sheet of paper, placed in contact with this surface, is run through a printing press. Among the advantages of making an art work in this way is that numerous ‘impressions’  can be made, because new pieces of paper can be sent through the press in the same way. The artist decides how many to make and the total number of impressions is called the ‘edition’.”

Excellent! A definition from a world leading source! So we now know that a print ‘is a work of art’. No, we’re not going to be lured down the ‘What is art?’ road tonight! We’ll ignore that one. It is ‘made up of ink on paper’. Ah! So only ink is OK. No spray paint then. But ‘What is ink?’ I think that is something which I need to examine more closely another time. ‘… on paper’ Oh dear, I thought my spray paint creations on cardboard were prints, but it looks like they fall foul on two counts. At least I haven’t created any prints on textiles or other substrates!

“… exist in multiple examples” So this rules out all monotypes! Sorry, Jenni! All that work on your gauchos, and they are not even prints!

Gaucho by Jennifer Nuttall Waterless Litho/Monoprint

The next site on Google’s list sheds a little more light. It is from studio1617.com. The first part agrees strongly with Lucy’s points above. The next part I found interesting as it discussed the difference between ‘original print’ and ‘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 no more than a poster. The 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 next part I found even more interesting in that it discussed my bête noir – giclee prints:

“There are new technologies in printmaking that are blurring the differences between Original Prints and reproductions, the Mylar Transfer process in lithography for one, and Giclee’s for another.  Technically speaking, Mylar prints are drawn by hand by the artist, which in one sense classifies them as original prints, but then they are photographically copied onto the plate or screen and at that point can potentially be mass produced on mechanical presses.   Some artists are producing hand drawn offset lithographs in small, limited editions and other artists are experimenting with hand manipulated and modified colour copies as original prints.  Giclee’s 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.

“In this ongoing debate one school of thought contends that an Original Print must be entirely produced by hand by the artist, which combines a considerable degree of skill, artistic ability, and technical knowledge.  Another group states that the choice of whatever type of press,  process, or medium is used is just an artistic tool.  Some purists don’t always agree that the above techniques are acceptable for producing original prints since there is far less physical work and, sometimes, no technical knowledge involved in producing an edition. The image my be hand drawn, but it may not be hand printed.

There are just as many printmaker purists out there as there are experimenters and the element of the artist’s direct control and manipulation of the medium is probably the key as to whether a print is an Original Print or not.  So the debate goes on.”

Opposite Lucy’s stand, another artist had some beautiful charcoal and chalk drawings for sale. They were really excellent. However she also had some limited edition giclee prints which, superficially, looked the same. But I’m sorry, I felt they were glorified photocopies. Perhaps it was just me.

And that’s just the first two sites on the Google search page. Would we have an answer by the hundredth site? I doubt it. So before I hit the Publish button, can I bowl a googly (for non-cricket playing former colonists read this as ‘pitch a knuckleball’)? One of the exhibits at last year’s neoartist:printprize was a piece of paper which had been left in the bottom of a river for several weeks. The marks on it were caused by the sediment which had gathered. One of the judges who I know and respect greatly – I’d probably even call him the best printer I know – spent some time explaining to me why it was a print (something to do with the word ‘impression’). I still wasn’t convinced. As the studio1617 article said “The debate goes on!”


About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website johnpindararts.weebly.com
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10 Responses to What Is A Print?

  1. Excellent post John, sort of devils advocate. Good and concise.

  2. Thank you, Denis. Of course, I suppose the Google definition referring to text would be OK for your images, since they mainly consist of text!
    (Anyone not familiar with Denis’s work, have a look here: http://www.neoartists.co.uk/detail.asp?stuID=39 )

  3. timneath says:

    Thanks for posting this, I met Lucy the other year in New Mills during last years festival/trail. Its awesome to see her work reaching wider audiences.

  4. timneath says:

    Reblogged this on timneath and commented:
    I rarely reblog posts from other blogs, But I feel that I have to when I saw Lucy Gells name come up. An awesome artist, and awesome work, which you can see here http://www.lucygell.com/

  5. interesting discussion….but maybe the judgement on the ‘reproductions’ of the charcoal drawings was a little harsh. photocopies aren’t archival and they aren’t limited editions and having ‘prints’ mean that the images are more widely available to the public, isn’t that what they are all about 🙂

    • I agree that perhaps I am a little harsh but I react badly to glicee prints. Yes, they are in special inks (supposedly) on archival paper, but I’m sorry, even if they are not ‘glorified photocopies’, they are still, to me at least, computer printouts. 😦

  6. Pingback: Looking At What’s On The Walls | notes to the milkman

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