Print versus reproduction

I’m a printmaker.  It’s the most honest thing that I can say about myself as an artist.  Sure, I paint, I draw, I’ve done embroidery, made jewelry, constructed some things with wood and wire and clay.  But the thing that I do that gives me the feeling that I am, as Joseph Campbell was wont to phrase it, “following my bliss,” is making prints.

As a participant in the Etsy system of commerce, I have developed a pet peeve about the language used to talk about some aspects of art marketing: specifically, the ambiguous ways that people use the word “print”.  Having stated that this is a pet peeve, I hope you forgive me if any of my language seems a bit, well, strong.  This is, after all, a topic that cuts to the heart of my identity as an artist.

There is an important difference between a print and a reproduction.  A print is an original item; a reproduction is not.  Using the word “print” to describe what is really a reproduction causes a chain reaction of problems.  I understand why people who are making and selling reproductions call them prints; they are, after all, made through a process called printing, and what comes out of a printer is often called a print.  “Oh, print that map for me,” or “I have to print my essay before class tomorrow.”  In colloquial terms, this is how it is used.  I understand.

When it comes to the finer points of describing an object, however, this is not adequate or correct. When you take a painting, make a digital copy, and sell that – it is a reproduction.  That person printed a reproduction of an original work.  While you can be technically correct in calling it a print, it muddies the waters of describing what that object really is.  Most people, it seems to me, don’t have a clue what printmaking is, which makes calling a reproduction a “print” all the more terrible for printmakers.  I’ve also regularly seen reproductions incorrectly included in the Etsy printmaking category, which always makes me wince.

A print, as in an original work of art often but not always made in an edition through a printmaking process, should not be conflated with a reproduction.  Let me state it again, because this is the important bit: a print is an original work of art.  Not a unique work, generally, though it can be — there’s no reason you can’t just pull one good print and move on (for example, a monotype).

As an original work of art, it occupies a different sphere of meaning.  The distinction may seem arbitrary because it is not measurable, though anyone who has seen a reproduction of a van Gogh then looked upon the real painting physically on the wall before them understands what I mean. (I use van Gogh because seeing his original work was the first time I understood the difference, but perhaps you could fill in a different name.)  Objects have, for lack of a better word (and I wish sincerely that I had a better one) auras.  A painting has a different aura than a printed reproduction of it, though it could be the exact same size and color.  The objectness of a work of art has meaning; it is weighted with experience, effort, and the (more or less) intangible hand of the one who created it.  This is why an original work of art is worth more than its reproduction, a mere copy of the thing itself.

Prints, real prints, are not mere copies.  They are the thing.


2 thoughts on “Print versus reproduction

    1. We were very lucky to have exposure to printmaking in high school; I wish I had appreciated it more. I liked it then, but I didn’t really fall in love with it until college. I think it was getting to use the acid (or, to be precise, ferric chloride) for etching that flipped the switch. It reminded me of developing photos, which was my favorite thing to do in high school. When photography went full-scale digital, I felt like I was on a sinking boat… then I took an etching class. Now I have a tattoo of an alchemical symbol for copper on my wrist.

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