Identifying Prints

How can you tell if a picture is a print?

The identification of prints is the most difficult area in art valuation due to the great variety of printing methods used over the centuries - too numerous and complicated to go into here.

The best known print types are lithographs, etchings, engravings, screen prints, woodcuts, linocuts and the modern Giclée prints.

The easiest way to approach the identification of a print is to consider a print as being one of two types: prints made purely as reproductions of other artworks, and prints which are created as works of art in their own right - "Reproductive" and "Original" prints.

Prints which are reproductions of well-known artworks should be easy to identify. For example, it should be obvious that a reproduction of an oil painting by Constable, or Lowry, for example, is a print, as the original work would be well known to most people. The surface of the work would be completely flat, with no raised brushstrokes - clearly not an oil painting.

It will be harder to decide if a reproductive 'print' of a watercolour is actually a watercolour or a print, as both will have an almost perfectly flat surface.

Prints which are created as works of art in their own right are produced by many different methods - etching, engraving, screen printing, lithography and so on, and generally speaking make no pretence to represent reality in a photographic way.

Reproductions can of course be made of "art prints". For example, there are many reproductions of Old Master engravings, which will look virtually identical to the original artwork.

A further complication is that some prints are deliberately created to appear to be other than what they are - some prints, known as oleographs, are created, treated and framed to have the appearance of an oil painting, while modern giclée prints produced by inkjet printer can have a deceptive richness of colour, and can be applied to a stretched canvas, which can further confuse.

Clues as to whether a Picture is an Original or a Print

Close inspection of the surface of a print can help in identifying whether a picture is an original or a print.

Consider for example a print of a great drawing by Leonardo, for example. It would be lovely to think your print is actually an original. However close inspection will most probably show that the 'texture' of the paper is printed onto the surface, and is not 'real' paper texture at all.

In the case of prints which look like oil paintings, 'highlights' will be as flat as the rest of the picture - there is no rough or raised surface of paint. Also, shadows cast by obviously raised areas of paint will not "move" as the angle of light falling on the picture changes.

There is a tendency for the colours in a print to fade, just as watercolours may fade. Colour intensity is lost, and there is some colour deterioration. The inks used for some prints over the last hundred years tend to fade towards an unnatural pale blue, yellow or green.

Some types of print are composed of a pattern of dots which can be clearly seen through a magnifying glass, and look completely different to an artwork created by painting or drawing.

Another clue to an artwork being a print is a clearly visible straight edge to the image, which will often be surrounded by a blank border.

A print may bear an inscription - the title of the work, the artist's name, or details of the publisher of the print - the publisher's name, address and date of publication, for example. These details form part of the print.

The print may be signed in the printed image, and may also bear the artist's genuine signature in pencil, pen or ink, normally found outside the printed image area.

Some prints are numbered. A print bearing the number '100/250' is the hundredth print issued from a total print run or 'edition' of two hundred and fifty impressions.

Note: this information is only intended as basic advice, and not as a definitive guide to identifying different types of pictures.