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What's the Difference Between a Print and Original in the Art Market?

If you've spent any time browsing art to buy online or in person, you've probably come across the words "original", and "print", as well as terms such as "limited edition". It can be confusing to figure out what these terms mean, and what they translate to in terms of the art market. How much does a print cost? What’s a print made from? How much should an original cost, and what makes an artwork original? What's a limited edition mean? In this article, we will answer all of these questions so you can easily decipher the art lingo when buying your next piece of art.

What Makes An Artwork "Original"?

Basically, original fine art was created by the hand of the artist. It's a one-of-a-kind object. The value of an original fine art piece depends on the market and the overall portfolio of the artist.

For example, The Last Supper, as it sits on the wall it was painted, is the original work by Leonardo da Vinci. Any other image of it is not original. It can get more complicated with things like photography, film, and performance art, but a good rule of thumb is to consider the very first thing made by the artist as original artwork.

What is a Print?

The term "print" can, admittedly, get confusing—and at times, rather vague—since it can be used in different ways. Let's break the term down with some art history. Traditionally, a print is “an impression made by any method involving transfer from one surface to another”, according to Tate. This can include manual processes such as engraving, drypoint, etching, lithography, monoprints, and more. Broadly, these manual processes fall into the medium of printmaking. Think of prints as impressions made from the same original plate—making for easier reproduction and distribution. For example, engraving was essential to the mass distribution of images in newspapers.

So, that’s where the term “print” comes from. Now, let’s fast forward to the modern-day, where the term is used in a myriad of ways.

Modern Day Prints In the Art Market

Now, of course, we have amazingly high-quality digital printers and countless online art markets. Often, the term "print" is used to describe a reproduction of original artwork. These are typically made from very high-resolution scans or images. These digital files can then be resized easily for sale.

However, more distinctions here can cause differences in price and quality. Let's go over them below:

Limited Editions This term means that there can only be a certain number of prints made from an artwork. You'll see notions such as 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and so on. The first number refers to the order in which the print was made, and the second number refers to the total number of prints made in the set. This can be used both with digital and manual prints.

Theoretically, a print belonging to a limited edition should be more expensive since the quantity is known—even if the limited edition includes 500 prints. It is more unique than a print that might have thousands of others floating around…in fact, a “print” of any artwork that is not part of a limited edition can go on forever.

Inkjet Prints

This is a standard form of printing that uses dye-based inks.

Giclée Prints Giclée prints, on the other hand, use pigment-based inks. Their lifespan can range from 100–200 years since they experience minimal fading. You’ll see this term a lot while browsing prints.

Giclée originated as a French word for "squirt" or "spray" coined in the early 90s by printmaker Jack Duganne. The pigment-based ink of giclée differentiates it from an inkjet.

If you’re trying to tell if you’re dealing with a giclée or an original, you can run your hand lightly along its surface—if the paint is resting on the surface of the canvas and looks like it's been layered, it's probably an original. If it seems like the image seeps into the canvas, then it’s probably a giclée.

So, with all that said, are giclée prints worth it? If you’re looking at an embellished giclée (one that has further markings on it made by the artist, therefore making it more rare and valuable), then they are typically sold at a price between a simple print and an original piece. The higher quality and longer lifespans of giclées help the prints stay the same or appreciate in value.

Choosing Between a Print and Original

As an art buyer, you'll come across both terms regularly, so you want to know what suits your taste (and potentially budget) best. There are benefits to both. Original artwork shows the artist's original brushstrokes and 3-dimensional texture, and other qualities that won't transfer to a print. You can’t really replace the original texture displayed in the original artwork.

On the other hand, prints will typically run a bit cheaper. In addition to being a more affordable option for collectors, they can also be a more steady stream of income for artists since they aren't relying on one big-ticket sale in the form of original artwork. Additionally, if you get a print belonging to a limited edition, it is still somewhat unique as it can’t be endlessly reproduced.

Here at Sweet Papaya Arts, we aim to appeal to everyone who wants to have artwork in their space. We have several artists who sell originals and prints, so browse the website to see what works best for you!

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