What is a multiple original?

Lately I’ve been making more and more multiple-original limited editions of paper sculptures. But what does that mean?

Essentially, it means that each image is made by hand, and that each image is in some ways unique, although it is part of a consistent edition, limited to a particular number of prints. And what does that mean? The answer will take a little explanation, and a short walk through art history:

Commercial mass-printing methods

In my experience, the term “multiple original” arose about thirty-plus years ago, when photo-offset lithography (also called “offset litho” and/or “photo offset” printing) became widespread and affordable enough for individual artists to make reproductions of their own artwork.

This sheet-fed offset litho press dates from 1980. Printers of its type revolutionized the art reproduction print business (for more details see the credits at the end of this post).
This sheet-fed offset litho press dates from 1980. It, and others of its type, revolutionized the art reproduction print business (for more details see the credits at the end of this post).

Suddenly, artists could produce and sell high-quality reproductions of their work by the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands (technically, far more are possible. But that was the practical outer limit). These prints were all virtually identical, no matter whether it was the first print off the press or the 10,000th.

Traditional, handmade printing methods

Of course, that’s not at all the way art prints had been made, up until that point. Handmade, individual prints had been created for centuries (and are still being made) in small editions. Rembrandt is known for his etchings, as well as his oil paintings. He is certainly not the only artist who was a printmaker. Hokusai’s woodblock prints and Daumier’s lithographs are other examples of masterworks created through hand-printing methods.

Hand-pulled original prints such as this lithograph are printed by an artist or artisanal printer one at a time by hand. The printing plates used for these processes break down quickly, so a print from early in the edition will be more crisp and clear than one from later in the edition.
Hand-pulled original prints such as this lithograph are printed by an artist or artisanal printer one at a time by hand. The printing plates used for these processes break down quickly, so a print from early in the edition will be more crisp and clear than one from later in the edition.

In traditionally-made editions, the print number makes a difference. An artist numbers the prints sequentially, based on the order in which they were printed. Print number 1/20 means that this piece was the first print made in a total edition of twenty prints.

The prints in an edition should all look as much alike as possible, to be considered “consistent.” Consistent handmade print editions are technically difficult to produce, and prints made early in the edition are often of better quality, because the plate has not broken down significantly yet (when it breaks down too much, the edition ends). However, a commercially-produced offset litho edition, potentially numbering in the thousands of prints, produces identical images, and requires no artistic skill.

Inevitable controversy

When artists in the 1980s began to produce offset-litho reproductions of their prints, a huge controversy arose, especially because they often numbered them, just as prints in hand-pulled editions were numbered. This confused many art-buyers, and, not surprisingly, tended to outrage artists who used those technically-challenging traditional printmaking methods.

Yet the new reproduction method made it possible for artists in “slow” media such as oil and acrylic painting to sell their images as they never had been able to before. It also fulfilled a need among would-be art buyers who had never been able to afford the kinds of art they liked best, before. Now an artist didn’t have to be able to make originals quickly to make a good living selling his or her work to a wider retail audience.

Artists who exhibit their work at art fairs such as this one (the Kansas City Plaza Art Fair in 2013) or in other, similar venues have more ways to offer their work to buyers in a wide range of prices, thanks to more affordable mass-printing methods.
Artists who exhibit their work at art fairs such as this one (the Kansas City Plaza Art Fair in 2013) or in other, similar venues have more ways to offer their work to buyers in a wide range of prices, thanks to more affordable mass-printing methods.

A matter of terminology

It became clear that distinctions had to be made. If a print has that fraction-like number on it, buyers need to know what that means. Is it a hand-pulled lithograph or a photo-offset lithograph? Is it a handmade serigraph, or an inkjet-printed giclée? Is the sequence number an indicator of print quality, or simply an inventory number? What does “limited” mean, if an edition is “limited” to several hundred? Part of the answer lies in an art-buyer’s knowledge, and his/her understanding of the differences. Artists can and should help educate them if they aren’t sure.

When something is identified as a “lithograph,” it should mean that the print was produced through the traditional hand-printing method (as in the photo of the artist above) that uses a smooth stone and the principle that oil and water don’t mix–not that it was printed using the related-but-much-different process of commercial offset lithography.

Printed paper money provides another example of mass-produced identical images in limited, numbered quantities. The rules about making that kind of printed image are a little bit different from the rules about art prints, though!
Printed paper money provides another example of mass-produced identical images in limited, numbered quantities. The rules about making that kind of printed image are a little bit different from the rules about art prints, though!

Mass-produced images that are essentially photographic copies of originals made in other media (such as oil paintings, pastels, etc.) are appropriately called fine art reproduction prints, not lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, etc. Those terms should be reserved only for the corresponding hand-printmaking methods.

Fine art reproduction prints usually come in limited editions. That means the artist has limited the number of reproduction prints that s/he will make to a particular number. If you see the fraction-like number 234/500, that means this is a fine art reproduction print from an edition limited to 500. The “234” is primarily there as an inventory number, and to reassure the buyer that it is the only “234” available. It’s a double-check on the artist’s integrity. If there is no number on the print, that means it is an open edition. In an open edition there is no limit to the number of reproductions that may be made.

Chris Pig of East London Printmakers uses
a brayer to roll out ink for a woodcut, a similar
technique to the printing method used by Hokusai.

Traditional hand-printmaking methods are understood to be multiple originals. This means each one is made by hand, and it is in some ways unique, because small variations arise from the process of making it (such as from the plate breaking down in subtle ways, although that’s not the only possible source of variations).

I feel justified in calling my limited editions of paper sculpture multiple originals,  because although some of the early parts of their creation involve the inkjet-printing method often called giclée (generally considered a reproduction-print technique), each individual piece is made by hand, one at a time, and each image invariably has small variations that arise from the process of making it. My editions also have so far been limited to small editions of 25 images each (plus some Artist’s Proofs, a term I plan to define in a follow-up post). This is much more in line with the editions created by traditional hand-printmaking methods.

Next week I will describe how I make my limited-edition multiple original paper sculptures, step-by-step.

IMAGES: The photo of the photo-offset press (an Einfarben-Bogenoffset-Druckmaschine, Type “Roland Favorit RF01”, Baujahr 1980 Hersteller: M.A.N.-Roland Druckmaschinen Aktiengesellschaft, Offenbach am Main Foto aus dem Deutschen Mudeum in München) is used by permission of the copyright holder, Clemens Pfeiffer of Vienna, Austria. It was made available via Wikimedia. Many thanks! 

The photo of the (unnamed) artist making a lithograph is from Orange Carton’s blog post, “Do You Know What an ‘Original’ Art Print Means?” The article discusses the topic in some depth. Check it out, to learn more. 

I took the photo of crowds and booths at the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City, MO in September 2013. It is available for use by others if you include a link back and attribution.

The photo of the sheets of uncut pound notes is from The Commentator. The photo of master printmaker Chris Pig is from East London Printmakers. Many thanks!

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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