Original versus reproduction: why definitions matter in printmaking

A page from the original article in Imprint (Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1) featuring John Olsen’s, Monkey as Aswan, 1979, lithograph, edition of 85, 106 x 75 cm (paper size); and GW Bot’s Field (detail), 2004, linocut, edition of 25, 92 x 52.

‘I am not against reproductions as long as they are clearly stated thus. However, through the promotion of some publishers, dealers and auction houses these reproduction prints are being blown out of proportion financially.’

Imprint Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1. Cover image: Rock art site in Arnhem Land overlaid with etchings from the Injalak Hill Suite, made by 10 artists from Oenpelli at this site. Courtesy of Injalak Arts and Basil Hall Editions.

This article was written by Stuart Purves, National Director of Australian Galleries, and published in Imprint Autumn 2006, Volume 41 Number 1.

Australia is incredibly rich in high quality print workshops and remarkably good master printmakers. Australia is also incredibly rich in artists who are brilliant printmakers. Strangely though, printmaking as an original form of art is still a largely misunderstood medium. I wish I could take away the word ‘print’ – it is too much associated with calendar top reproductions, it is too generic. Instead I favour substituting the specific term for the artist’s chosen print medium, be it ‘etching’, ‘aquatint’, ‘drypoint’, ‘silkscreen’ or ‘lithography’. Using these terms would serve as the equivalent of ‘oil on canvas’, ‘acrylic on board’ or ‘watercolour on paper’ – terms generally used and very well understood.

When a printmaker works with an artist, images may be produced in a series with an edition of anything from five to fifty. Alternatively, one or two larger and more complicated images may be created. The real issue is that the artist, with the aid of printing devices and sometimes one or two artisans, produces a series of prints which are original works of art. At the end of this period of hard work the result is an original image built up on the plate or screen. This can vary from a one-colour print, to multiple colours requiring the use of numerous plates or screens, as it is usually the case that one plate is required per colour. There is no pre-existing original – the final prints are the originals themselves – the mark making on each plate building up layer by layer to the final image. Each work in the edition is to all intents and purposes the same, although delightfully, through the quirkiness of the press or the artist, each may have fractional differences. Experienced print buyers often view several works in the edition they intend to purchase, scrutinising each carefully looking for the richest in colour and truest in plate registration.

For an illustration of this, one need look no further than the recent and splendid publication Teeming With Life, John Olsen: His Complete Graphics 1957–2005. Here is a remarkable artist who has produced over four hundred etchings and lithographs. He has never waivered from the true methods of building up and making an original work of art through his printmaking. The same can be said of artists such as Rick Amor, Raymond Arnold, George Baldessin, G.W. Bot, John Coburn, Graham Fransella, Euan Heng, Graeme Peebles, Hertha Kluge-Pott, William Robinson, Jeffrey Smart and John Wolseley.

In contrast, when a print is made using photographic techniques to simply copy an existing image with no further involvement by the artist (other than unfortunately signing it), the print is very clearly a reproduction. Very often in such cases artists do not personally inscribe the edition number or title. It matters not what energy an artisan, publisher, or commercial printing house puts into the project, the fact remains that the result is still a reproduction.

Alternatively, when an artist makes reference to his/her own work to create a print (for example using existing imagery from a painting) the print can still be an original work since the artist’s hand is directly involved in the printmaking process, creating the lines and washes on the plates or screens, etc. The result of an artist working this way will always have its own printmaking flavour and thus feel right and look right – it is very different to a photographic transfer.

A reproduction print is a print of an existing popular image that was intended as a one-off. It is not a work of art in its own right and any potential purchaser should be privy to this information as it is simply a copy of an original work. No artist should be seduced into labelling a reproduction as an etching or lithograph in the manner of an original print, and nor should they sign or number the work. It is my view that a reproduction should be labelled with the title of the original work from which it is copied followed by the method with which it was reproduced. In actual fact such reproductions should be credited to the printer and not the artist.

I am not against reproductions as long as they are clearly stated thus. However, through the promotion of some publishers, dealers and auction houses these reproduction prints are being blown out of proportion financially. No pubic collection, such as a state, regional or university gallery, would purchase a reproduction print and it is unlikely that it would accept one under the Tax Incentive Scheme. When a purchaser of a reproduction print starts to do some research and discovers he/she does not own an original work of art, continued interest in the world of printmaking is doubtful. In the long term we are more likely to lose purchasers of reproductions from the art world as well as the ten friends they influence, and we all know the art world needs every art buyer it can get.

Brett Whiteley was an artist extraordinarily dear to me, and, during the twenty-two years he was represented by our gallery, he was an important influence on the way we presented works of art. It is well known that he was an exceptionally fine draughtsman who has left behind (apart from his paintings, sculpture and drawings) a great number of fine prints. If I had my time over again with Brett I would have guided him into signing without numbering the now famous reproduction print The Arrival, as it is after the painting of the same title which was commissioned by Time magazine to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary. It was a perfect painting of Brett’s for a fine art reproduction, or better still, reproduction as a poster. It is a fantastic image for Australia and as an unnumbered poster at a sensible price I have no doubt that thousands of them could be happily pinned up in bedrooms, without pretending to be anything other than what they are and enjoyed enormously from that point of view.

How disheartening it must be, as it is to me, for the serious and extraordinarily hard working printmakers at Australian Print Workshop, Chrysalis Publishing, Port Jackson Press, Northern Editions, and for individuals such as Diana Davidson at Whaling Road Press, Basil Hall at Basil Hall Editions, Peter Lancaster at Lancaster Press, John Loane at Viridian Press and Bill Young at Bill Young Studios, to see reproductions attracting interest and high prices from the generally uninformed and frequently poorly guided public. Printmaking and painting are as different as land and sea, and it is too easy to take a popular image by an artist, reproduce it and set it up against those artists who are making original images through prints. Very often printmaking is not about spectacular imagery: it is much more subtle and it appeals to different senses than painting. It is in fact one of the reasons that painters make prints: it taxes different sensibilities and disciplines in their creativity. Referring again to John Olsen, an artist capable of the most spectacular and arresting large oil paintings, the imagery in his printmaking becomes quite intimate and detailed in comparison.

The art world is not a business – it is a way of life. It is cultural, it needs nurturing and it needs extreme care in its presentation. It is the role of every publisher and dealer to help and advise their artists and clients. Success should not be measured solely in terms of money. Of course all sections of the art world need money but it is not necessarily the priority that should be chased. Perhaps the next step is to establish a uniform standard or code of labelling for prints defining exactly what medium they are, in much the same way that food products must carry a description of their ingredients. There is huge potential in Australia for a more lively and vibrant artists’ print world. If the education of the general public can be raised to increase awareness of what is a ‘real’ work of art and what is not, then I feel printmaking will eventually become a financially viable and culturally important, ever-expanding sector of our art world.