Understanding Limited Edition Prints

Posted 18 September 2016

Collecting original etchings…

Collecting ‘Limited Edition Prints’ is enjoyed by people everywhere. How you come to collecting can range from falling in love with your first original etching, the work speaks to you, being able to acquire affordable original artwork, to developing a passion for this style of art and artist. Whilst price and future value can be what drives a collector, for many, it is the ability to own an artwork that has been created with direct involvement of the artist and often together in collaboration with a printermaker.

Fine art prints are original works of art - multiple originals.

A common misconception about creating fine art ‘prints’ is that the art work produced is an unaltered copy or reproduction of an ‘original’ art work such as a painting or drawing. This misunderstanding is sometimes further exacerbated by the the fact that these ‘prints’ exist as multiples, in a numbered edition. Like those presented in Northern Impressions, original fine art prints are printed by and, with consistency and accuracy being essential qualities; this process honours the integrity of the artist’s intended work, regardless of whether their marks display an inspired rawness or meticulous refinement. The tactile nuances of human touch are barely detectable yet still suffuse each individual print as an original work.

Extract from Northern Impressions - a celebration of contemporary printmaking and Artback NT

Choosing a Limited Edition Print requires special attention. The following information are for those entering into this field and developing a passion for Limited Edition Prints. You can then view our selection of limited edition prints by searching through this site…

The terms ‘Original Print’, ‘Limited Edition Print’, and ‘Reproduction Print’ are terms to describe a printing technique. 

The term ‘original print’ has come to mean work created directly on the plate, stone, block, or screen by the hand of the artist, printmaker or both. The print is the original – the plate or master image being produced by the artist, whilst the printing is often handed to an experienced printmaker.

Usually, the image on the matrix (what the print is produced from) is a mirror image or reversed image of the finished work. This requires the artist to think and work on a reverse or mirror image (not necessarily an easy thing to do for some artists).

Etching: Etching is a method where images or designs are made by cutting or acid etching into a metal plate. The difference with engraving is that the engraver works directly onto the plate with an engraving tool, whereas the etcher covers the plate with some acid resistance substance ( like wax or varnish ) first, draws the design into that with an etching needle, and then sinks the plate into an acid bath. The acid “bites” into the exposed areas of a plate, whilst the protected areas remain untouched. The plate is cleaned and then covered in ink. Before printing, the surface ink is wiped off so that ink remains in the bitten design areas. Paper is placed on the wet surface of the plate and they are passed through a press.

Lithography: In this process the design is drawn or painted onto the surface of a stone or metal plate as if they were paper. Lithographic ink can be applied with a pen or brush. When the drawing or painting are finished, they are fixed onto the surface by wetting with a sponge dipped into a solution of gum arabic and a small amount of acid. The gum protects the surface from any further grease, while the acid opens up its pores so that the gum can penetrate. Before ink is applied, the surface is moistened with water, which is absorbed by the untouched parts of the surface and repelled by the greasy drawing or painting. A roller covered in heavy, greasy ink is passed over the surface. The wet parts rejects the ink, while the greasy parts attracts it. Paper is the placed on the stone or plate and they are passed through a press.

Editions: Each print that is produced is technically a unique work, and as such are usually signed and numbered (in pencil), as a multiple of a whole. Written as a fraction eg 1/50, 2/50, 3/50 etc, this is called the ‘edition number’. The technical term for this is ‘monoprint’. The ‘original print’ is usually produced as a limited number of impressions. The term for this group of prints is the ‘edition’. Although an edition has many of the same image, each print is an individual part of the whole, the whole being the edition. An ‘original print’ is actually one piece of a multiple original work of art.

Printing evolved as artists adopted various printing techniques to produce multiple images of their work. 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”.

‘Reproduction Print’ are photographic reproductions of the original work and whilst they can have large runs, an artist can limit the run, number and sign each reproduction.

Limited edition prints were traditionally signed and numbered in pencil. Pencil was used as it doesn’t fade easily and it is difficult for a computer to reproduce pencil, making it less vulnerable to fraud. However, with all the different types of paper and surfaces available and used today, pen may also be used for editioning and signing. 

AP - Artist Proof: Historically the artist proof had a different meaning than it does today. In the early days of printmaking, the first prints of an edition were of a higher quality. The re-using of the printing plates would gradually wear them down, that caused a decline in the quality of the edition’s production. These first prints of the press were often kept by the artist.

As printing technology has advanced, the quality of a print is no longer an issue. Each print in a giclee or off-set lithograph edition is identical. The Artist Proof’s are now exactly the same as numbered copies of the print edition (run), albeit in a smaller print edition. In some instances the artist may create an AP as a working trial.

The numbering sequence of artist proof differs from the limited edition, as the number is preceded by the letter “AP”. The artist is usually the owner of the Artist Proof edition, and because it is unique, the Artist Proof edition are sold at a slight premium. 

For the discriminating collector, the Artist Proof prints are more valued due to their restricted quantity.


If you have any specific questions about this artwork please email us at Be sure to include the catalogue number in your email.

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