What is a limited edition print, an original etching or a giclee print? A guide for the artist
Colin Bailey is an artist and printmaker living and working in Hastings, East Sussex. With over 25 years of printmaking experience Colin has tried his hand at most forms of printmaking including the most recent; giclee printing. His website Ryepress has recently expanded to include a small print studio and art gallery. This informational website is a response to some his visitors most frequently asked questions. Please visit Ryepress to see examples of Colin's work and explore in detail some of the more technical aspects of limited edition prints and etching in particular.
In printmaking, an edition is a number of prints struck from one plate, usually at the same time. This may be a limited edition, with a fixed number of impressions produced on the understanding that no further impressions (copies) will be produced later, or an open edition limited only by the number that can be sold or produced before the plate wears. Most modern artists produce only limited editions, normally signed by the artist in pencil, and numbered as say 67/100 to show the unique number of that impression and the total edition size.
The terms 'Limited Edition Print', 'Original Print' and 'Reproduction Print' are often confusing. Printing has always been associated with the mass production of the written word or image and so the phrase 'original print' seems a contradiction in terms. Limiting something which can be mass produced also attracts a certain amount of suspicion. So, why do artists produce limited edition prints?
In the early day of printing artists gratefully adopted various printing techniques to produce multiple images of their work, publicise their efforts and increase their income. These techniques developed separately from the technology of mass production printing. Engraving, etching, woodcuts, lithography and screen printing were originally cutting-edge technology but are now almost solely the preserve of artists who have become known as "printmakers". Durer and Rembrandt probably would not have recognised the distinction between "printer" and "printmaker". They produced multiple images the best way they could - using the best technology of the day.
These early techniques by their very nature limited the quantity of images which it was possible to produce. The physical constraints of the media used, the patience of the individuals involved and the amount of time required to print each image were all reflected in the price. Technology however moved on - and with the development of photography came the ability to reproduce images accurately and with relatively little need for the intervention of the "artist's hand". At the same time the industrial revolution, the blossoming of Capitalism and the appetite for mass produced goods left the individual artist and antiquated technology behind. Within the lifetime of the Impressionists (mid 1800s) the art world had changed dramatically.
'Printmaking' as a means of expression for the artist became distinctly separate from 'printing' . The term limited edition print became synonymous with hand crafted, labour intensive artworks of consequently of greater value.
Mainly for this reason the term original print came to mean work created directly on the plate, stone, block, or screen by the hand of artist/printmaker. The print is the original; The image created by the printmaker is just part of the process or means by which the resulting prints are produced. A complication to this is that having produced the plate, or master image the artist could of course hand the printing over to an experienced printmaker; the terms "del" (delineat - or "drawn by") and "Imp" (impressit - printed by) were often used on old engravings to indicate this.
Prints by artists today may potentially retain their financial value as art (i.e., as an appreciating investment) because they are created by an artistic process rather than by a strictly mechanical one, and may become scarce because the number of multiples is limited. In Rembrandt's time, the limit on the size of an edition was practical: a plate degrades through use, putting an upper limit on the number of images to be struck. Etching plates can be reworked and restored to some degree, but it is generally not possible to create more than a thousand prints from any process except lithography or woodcut. A  hundred is a more practical upper limit, and even that allows for significant variation in the quality of the image. In drypoint, 10 or 20 may be the maximum number of top-quality impressions possible
The artist also had the option of foregoing the tiresome process of producing their own prints and could have an original piece of artwork photographed and reproduced by a printer. The economies of scale meant a high minimum number of prints was needed to recoup the set up costs. In most cases the only further artistic input needed by the artist was to artificially limit the number of prints and then sign them.


Because of the variation in quality, lower-numbered prints in an edition are sometimes favoured as superior, especially with older works where the image was struck until the plate wore out. However the numbering of impressions in fact may well not equate at all to the sequence in which they were printed, and may often be the reverse of it.
In later times, printmakers recognized the value of limiting the size of an edition and explicitly numbering the prints (e.g., a print numbered 15/30 is the 15th print in an edition of 30). The printing of editions with tight controls on the process to limit or eliminate variation in quality has become the norm. In monotyping, a technique where only two impressions at most can be taken, prints may be numbered 1/1, or marked "unique". Artists usually print an edition much smaller than the plate allows, for marketing reasons and to keep the edition comfortably within the un-degraded lifespan of the plate; or specific steps may be taken to strengthen the plate, such as electroplating intaglio images, which uses an electric process to put a very thin coat of a stronger metal onto a plate of a weaker metal.
Limited edition prints are traditionally signed and numbered in pencil with the edition number on the bottom left, the title in the middle and signature on the right. It is generally accepted that the printmaker can mark A/P (Artists Proof) on up to ten per cent of the edition - so an edition of 100 would have numbers 1/100 - 100/100 and an extra ten marked A/P.
A signed print is one signed, in pencil or ink, by the artist and/or engraver of the print. A print is said to be signed in the plate if the artist's signature is incorporated into the matrix and so appears as part of the printed image. Proof prints were originally signed as "proof" that the impression met the artist's expectation. Later proof prints were signed in order to add commercial value to these impressions. In the late nineteenth century, in response to the development of photomechanical reproduction techniques, fine arts prints were signed by the artists in order to distinguish between original prints and reproductions. Seymour Haden and James McNeil Whistler are usually credited with introducing this practice in the 1880s.

A record authenticating a print will increase its value dramatically and will help when it comes to insurance. Provenance is the record of ownership, or a historic record of the various owners of a work of art. The word comes from the French verb provenir, meaning 'to come from'.Many artists and publishers now offer certificates of authenticity with limited edition prints, and these can be requested by buyers in the second-hand markets as provenance. However you can also use invoices, receipts and any other proof of purchase as provenance.
Examples of Giclee prints from Ryepress


Limited Edition Prints
Information about process & techniques and tips on how to print, market and sell limited edition prints
The recent arrival of digital technology has confused the issue even further. With a relatively inexpensive giclee printer, scanner and computer the artist is now able for the first time to produce accurate "reproduction prints" without any outside intervention, limiting the edition at his or her discretion.
The term 'printmaker' is accepted as referring to an artist producing prints by traditional "hand pulled" methods and for many traditional printmakers the term 'limited edition giclee print' is seen as a direct assault on their profession and, for the general public (who it must be said, are only just starting to accept photography as "Art") it is all extremely confusing. Most people own a PC, an inkjet printer and a digital camera - so What is Giclee print?
Ryepress resources is an Amazon “Astore” in which I have gathered together a selection some of the Art Materials and equipment that I have used personally and can therefore recommend.