Original Print

What is original print?

In today's art literature there is enough proof to show that print making is an important art form in it's own right and should be looked at side by side with painting and sculpture. Nevertheless it is surprising to find that prints take a subordinate place with art-lovers.

One reason for this view might be that printing techniques are often complex and difficult to explain. Another might be the low-key appearance of prints - in comparison to some oil paintings which fetch exorbitant prices in today's art market and therefore attract excessive attention through the media. One often forgets that artists, especially modern ones, used printmaking as a form to express their artistic creativity and pushed printing techniques to a fascinating new level.

The artist's choice for a particular technique depends on which technique serves his artistic aim best. Each printing technique or a combination of several different techniques offers the artist, besides drawing, painting, collage and installation etc., an individual form of expression in order to realise his artistic vision. The scholar of prints will soon realise that painting and printmaking has to be seen side by side and is often used by one artist simultaneously. On this note it should be pointed out that an artist using printmaking is usually not the same person as the printer.

With this leaflet Galerie Boisserée would like to take the opportunity to explain the importance of original prints and explain briefly terms and terminology of printmaking.

Eduardo Chillida, Antzo III

Eduardo Chillida

"Antzo III"

Aquatintaradierung 1985, van der Koelen


"Original Print" - A Definition

An original print is a work on paper which usually is produced as a multiple. It is not created by producing an image with a brush or pen on a piece of paper but through a printing press. Nevertheless, original prints are not the same as reproductions such as offset prints. Such reproductions, which have little or no direct input by the artist, have simply the purpose of reproducing an image and have therefore no artistic standing in their own right. An original print is created through the artist's personal creativity. Strictly speaking one can only refer to an original print when the artist himself designed and executed a print. This includes the design and creation (working of the printing plate), the supervision of the printing process (often including printing by hand) and the signing of the print. (Klein p.131)

The term 'original print' indicates a particular characteristic in the work of art: genuineness and authenticity. The artist 'developed the work of art from the initial idea through to its final execution. It was therefore only done by him (lat. origo = original, genuineness). It is not a copy or plagiarism but it can be a replica in the sense of being a repetition intended by the artist. It is not the uniqueness, as in the quantity, but the authenticity that matters'. (Koschatzky p.25) The term 'original' should not be confused, as it often is the case, with 'unique' which indicates that a work of art only exists once.

The choice of a particular printing technique is therefore not necessarily intended to create a multiple. An artist might choose one technique because he feels that it is the best way to express a particular idea. In this case 'the technique is used to create a particular effect for the desired artistic idea. The finished print is desirable even without the further aim of creating multiples'. (Erich Brauer / Koschatzky p.36) An example for this definition would be a monotype, which only allows the creation of one print.

Literature (in German language):

Klein, Heijo: DuMont's kleines Sachwörterbuch der Drucktechnik und grafischen Kunst, Köln (8) 1991.

Koschatzky, Walter: Die Kunst der Graphik. Technik, Geschichte, Meisterwerke, Salzburg und Wien (3) 1979.

The basic printing techniques

Relief, intaglio and planographic printing are the basic main printing techniques. They vary in whether wood, metal or stone is carrying the image (matrix) and which parts of the matrix transfer the ink onto the paper or any other printing surface. The difference lies in the matrix and its associated characteristics. This will be explained in more detail below. The modern technique of offset lithography, which is a commercially advanced development from lithography, is the first printing technique where the printing matrix and the printing surface do not come into direct contact anymore. The matrix is produced photo-mechanically and colour is directly transferred from a rubber roller onto the paper. This cannot be referred to as original printmaking because the artist was not personally involved in the creation of the matrix, nor in the printing of the image on the printing surface. This fact would not be altered even if such reproductions, often by well known artist, are signed and published in so-called 'Art Publications'. This form of reproduction, often printed in very large editions, has no collector's value.

Relief Printing

The principle of relief printing is to ink the parts of the matrix which are standing in relief from the printing block. Similar to a stamp, only the raised parts carry ink and transfer it to the paper. The areas which should remain without ink have to be cut away.

Georges Braque, "Profil de femme" aus Apollinaire "Si je mourais là-bas"

Georges Braque

"Profil de femme" aus Apollinaire "Si je mourais là-bas"

wood-engraving 1962

Vallier 181 S. 252 r.o.

The woodcut is the most common form of relief printing and has been used since about 1400. The material used is a wooden block, preferably using the plank of a tree of fairly soft wood (cherry or pear). The artist's design can be drawn directly onto the block. The cutter then cuts those areas away which are not part of the design. When finished the image will appear as a network of lines in relief. The surface of the block is then inked and a damp piece of paper is laid onto the block. After rubbing the back of the sheet by hand it is then put through a printing press. The pressure of the press can show in parts the texture of the grain in the printing which creates a desirable effect.

For wood-engraving a very hard wood is used, preferably boxwood, which has been cut across the grain. Rather than using a knife as with the woodcut, one has to use a sharp iron tool called a graver to remove the wood. The hard nature of the wood makes it possible to create very fine lines.

Pablo Picasso, Bloch 1063

Pablo Picasso

"Tête de Femme"/"Portrait de Jacqueline de face. II"

colorlinocut, IV.

Zustand 1962

Bloch 1063

Baer 1280 IV Ba

During the 20th century linoleum was introduced which is softer and therefore easier to work. The linocut has a softer expression and because of the lack of grain allows flat areas of colour to be printed.

Intaglio Printing

The principle of intaglio printing is to print from lines or areas which have been incised into a metal plate. After the worked plate is inked it is then wiped clean so that the ink is only left in the incisions. The plate is then printed under great pressure with a damp piece of paper. The paper is forced into the grooves to pull out the ink. For a polychrome intaglio print a different plate is needed for each colour. Various intaglio techniques exist each varying in their mechanical or chemical treatment of the plate. The oldest mechanical technique is engraving using a copper plate. The groves are incised directly into the plate with a burin which cuts clean V-shaped groves into the metal. The curls of copper which are thrown up in front and side are cleaned away with a scraper.

With a drypoint the lines are scratched directly into the plate using a sharp metal point – a drypoint needle. The curls of metal thrown up during this process are not removed but stay on the plate. During the printing they hold small amounts of ink which creates a soft velvety tonal effect.

The most important chemical intaglio technique is etching. A copper, zinc or steel plate is coated evenly with wax, asphalt or resin to form what is called the ground. The etcher then scratches the drawing as opposed to with an engraving this is done effortlessly into the ground, exposing the metal surface. The drawing reads as fine lines in the ground. After the drawing is finished the plate is placed into an acid bath allowing the acid to eat into the metal in those areas where the wax has been removed. Depending on the thickness of the needle and the amount of time the plate has been exposed to the acid, the lines print either finely or strongly.

Pablo Picasso, Bloch 230

Pablo Picasso

"Faune dévoilant une dormeuse"

aquatint 1936/1939

Bloch 230

Baer 609 VI Bc

The technique of aquatint is used to print areas of shades rather then lines. A stopping-out varnish is used to protect those areas which are to stay white. The plate is then placed in a dust-box where minute particles of resin are blown into a cloud and allowed to settle on the plate. The particles are fused to the ground by heating the back of the plate. The plate is then placed into the acid bath, the acid biting into the plate in tiny pools around each particle. To achieve a stronger effect the process can be repeated, blocking out again the white areas. This technique enables the artist to create different shades of light and dark and varying tonal effects.

Antoni Tàpies, "A.T."

Antoni Tàpies


Farbaqutintaradierung mit Prägedruck 1985

Galfetti 1017

Carborundum etching - This is a form of etching using a printing plate with a carborundum relief. This synthetic resin (ground limestone and marble dust) can be formed when heated to create texture or a relief, it even allows the enclosure of objects (objects trouvés). When cooled down it is very hard and creates a relief on the paper after printing.

Planographic Printing

During planographic printing the areas holding ink and those without are on the same plane. There are no incisions or raised parts on the matrix.

Pablo Picasso, Bloch 604

Pablo Picasso

"Figure au corsage rayé"

color-lithography 1949

Bloch 604

Lithography is a very complex technique based on the chemical fact that grease and water repel each other. Using a greasy substance such as ink or crayon the design is drawn onto the flat surface of a limestone. The drawing is absorbed by the pores of the stone. It is then fixed with talc and a mixtur of Gum Arabic and nitre. Through this process the fat of the drawing is absorbed even deeper into the pores of the stone. The greasy drawing is then removed from the surface of the stone with turpentine so that it becomes invisible and only exists in the greased areas below the surface. Water is then applied to the surface and the stone is inked with a roller several times. The grease based ink is only picked up in those areas where the grease drawing is and repelled where the water is. Then the paper is laid onto the stone and picks up the ink through the great pressure of the press. To print a polychrome image a separate stone is needed for each colour which are the n printed one after the other.

Marc Chagall, "Paysage bleu"

Marc Chagall

"Paysage bleu"

color-lithography 1958

Mourlot 221

Apart from limestone, which was only quarried in the Solenhofen region of Bavaria, zinc or aluminium plates can also be used. They have the same dispersing characteristics together with grease and water. A print from a zinc plate is called a zincograph.


Screenprinting (silkscreen or serigraphy) is often not regarded as one of the classical printing techniques.

Julian Opie, "Bijou gets undressed" No 3

Julian Opie

"Bijou gets undressed" No 3

silkprint 2004

A fine-mesh screen, fixed tautly onto a rectangular wooden frame, is laid directly on top of a sheet of paper. The screen can be made of silk, nylon, cotton or metal mesh. An image that has been cut out from a material such as paper or fabric is then attached to the underside of the screen blocking the areas which stay blank. Ink is then spread over the upper side of the mesh and forced through it with a squeegee (a rubber blade) so that the ink transfers to the paper on the other side. For works with more then one colour, a separate screen is required for each one, printing them one after the other in a separate inking.

Andy Warhol, "Red Lenin"

Andy Warhol

"Red Lenin"

color-silkprint 1987

Feldmann/Schellmann II.403

Different parts to one edition

To differentiate between different prints within one edition, a number of terms have been established. These will be inscribed, often by the artist himself, onto the sheet. It should be noted that most printing terminology is in French. Some of these terms are explained below.


'épreuve d'essai' or 'épreuve d'etat' – 'Trial proof'. This is a proof before the edition. At this stage the artist might go back to the matrix to change it.


'bon à tirer' – 'good to print'. This is the prototype for the edition. This proof serves as an example for the printer how the edition should look. This is an important guideline since each print might vary in its colour density. These possible variations are characteristic of original prints but the aim is to minimise them.


'Number 7 from the edition of 75'. There are often two or more parts to one edition. A smaller number of prints on e.g. larger paper, or more expensive paper (such as Japan nacré paper). The 'normal' edition is numbered in Arabic numerals (i.e.7/75) and the often smaller 'de-luxe' edition in roman numerals (i.e. III/XXV). If the 'normal' part of the edition consists of 75 prints and the 'de-luxe'part of the edition 25 that means that the total edition is 100. The edition size of a print is not necessarily limited but it influences its interest to collectors and therefore its value.


'épreuve d'artiste' – 'Artist's proof' These are a few prints apart from the numbered edition which are reserved for the artist. They are occasionally numbered.


'hors de commerce' or 'hors commerce' - 'not for sale'. These prints are apart from the edition and not meant for sale. They are reserved for the artist, similar to the 'épreuve d'artiste' and given as a gift to people involved in the printing e.g. the publisher, collegues or friends.

Catalogue raisonné

The catalogue raisonné gives an overview about an artist graphic oeuvre. It lists the title, the medium, date, size, edition etc. of each print created by one artist.

In case you are interested in purchasing an original print in Germany we recommend for your protection that you choose a dealer or a gallery who is member of the Bundesverbands Deutscher Galerien e.V. (BVDG) or the Bundesverband des Deutschen Kunst-und Antiquitätenhandels e.V. (BDKA) (National Association for German Fine and Decorative Art Dealers). Internationally we recommend dealers who are member of the Confédération Internationale de Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art (CINOA) or the International Fine Print Dealers Association (ifpda). If in any doubt, seek advice from any specialist who is committed to those high standards of quality. Be sure to purchase, instead of a shiny piece of glass, a true diamond - instead of a signed reproduction, an original print.

Your expert for original prints from the 20th Century:

Galerie Boisserée

J. & W. Boisserée GmbH

Cologne, est. 1838

Directors Johannes Schilling & Thomas Weber

Drususgasse 7-11

D - 50667 Cologne (Germany)

Tel. +49-(0)221-2578519

Fax +49-(0)221-2578550