What is a Limited edition print?

What is a limited edition print? Limited edition print with Edition number, Tile and signature in pencil across bottom
Limited edition print with Edition number, Title and signature in pencil across the bottom

Limited edition prints explained

Limited Edition Print is a often a confusing term, Printing has always been associated with mass production so what is a limited edition print? In any type of printing, an edition is a number of prints struck from one plate, screen or stone (called the matrix), 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 sometimes used. 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’. Consequently artists started to Limit their editions to differentiate their work form the mass produced images and the the question: what is a limited edition print? had to be answered. The term limited edition print became synonymous with hand crafted, labour intensive, and rarer artworks of consequently of greater value.

What is a limited edition print? Original prints

Pulling a print Colin Bailey print 2015

For most of the traditional forms of printmaking, methods and techniques have remained the same

Robert Macbeth (1848–1910): “The artist supervising pulling a proof from the press, with the printer Frederick Goulding”. 
Etching, c1897, etched as exhibition invitation.

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 dry point, 10 or 20 may be the maximum number of top-quality impressions possible

Reproduction prints

Where an artist has produced an original painting or drawing on paper or canvas, has spotted the the potential for multiple sales and has the means to photograph or scan the work before selling it, there is always the opportunity to produce reproduction prints. These again can be open or limited editions, but the crucial difference is that the image is not First generation – it is not created on the plate or screen (the matrix) and is a facsimile of a standalone original.

Modern giclée printer

It is rare to see artist or galleries make it too obvious when they are selling reproduction prints as opposed to original prints and indeed most people don’t understand the difference. The term original print sound contradictory. Up until recently reproduction print were almost invariably done by offset lithography The artist could have an original piece of artwork photographed and reproduced by a printer. This requires an elaborate 4 colour screening process and the production of 4 separate plates. The printing process could also cause variations in quality and a careful monitoring of ink quantities was required to achieve consistency. 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. This form of printing is now only economic for large runs of lower quality prints such as postcards, flyers and posters.

Giclée printing has now replaced offset litho as the main source of reproduction prints. Please see what is giclée? for information about this form of printing.

What is a limited edition print? Editing conventions

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 monotypes 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.
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’. Some 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.

Steel facing a copper plate

Specific steps may be taken to lengthen the printable life of 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 – most often steel on copper. This is often referred to steel facing the plate – and can be removed and redone giving the plate an almost infinite life, although at a slight loss of finer detail. This has been done in the past to fraudulently expand the size of an edition or to exploit an artists popularity after their death. Another dodgy practice (in my opinion) is the restrike etching, where the original plate is reworked to squeeze out further prints after the plate has begun to wear down.

see Artist and illustrators for more information