One of the mottoes of the Midwest Fine Art Exchange is “No reproductions. Just original art.” It’s true. There are no reproduction or commercial prints on the MFAE site–however, there are prints. Fine art prints by two of the most noteworthy printmakers currently creating in the upper Midwest: Larry Welo and Chad Nelson. Here is an examination of this often misunderstood artistic medium.
As an appraiser, I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with some prestigious public collections of printmaking in the region. (A portion of one, the Neil Cockerline Collection, is currently on display at the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, SD.) I have become deeply fond of it as an artistic medium and am fascinated by its inherently three dimensional process and essentially two-dimensional product. However, alongside my fascination with printmaking is a constant struggle with its nomenclature. In fact, “print” is the most misused art term I encounter day to day.
There are two ways to examine the term “print”–its common use and what it means in the fine art world. In the latter, a print is the product of a delicate, labor-intensive process in which an artist creates an image on a metal plate, stone or other surface, applies chemicals, ink or other pigment, and then runs it through a press (often multiple times) to apply the image onto paper. This entire process is done by hand (and has been oversimplified by this author/appraiser to illustrate a point here so printmakers among us, forgive me). A printmaker might create a series of 15 images using the same plate or stone; each one of them is on a separate piece of paper and is considered an original work of art. They are often numbered and signed below the image in pencil or they are signed as part of the printed image. I have a profound respect for fine art printmakers; the most skilled among them embody tremendous expertise in the nuances of this process AND they have extraordinary drafting and compositional skills. Prints have a viable and active market in the appraisal world—like all fine art, their value can increase based on art market conditions. You’ve no doubt heard of Whistler’s famed etchings. Those are prints–and very valuable, highly regarded ones at that.
Those who know a bit about art, will you help clear things up for others? I get a plethora of questions about “prints.” In most cases, the person refers to a signed reproduction of a painting. This is quite different from a print in the fine art sense as it is basically a high-quality poster copy of a painting that an artist may have signed and numbered. It is not a work of original art and it didn’t come directly from the artist’s hand. Rather, it came from a photo of a painting which was then mechanically recreated onto paper or canvas. (Reproductions on canvas are often called giclée prints–as highbrow as the French term “giclée” sounds, these too, are merely reproductions). Calling these “prints” does a disservice to printmakers–instead, call them “reproduction prints” or “commercial prints.”
Reproduction or commercial prints do not tend to hold value in the art market. That being said, they can be nice to have around since they allow many people the privilege of living with an image they could never acquire because the original version is in a museum or private collection or is too expensive to afford. Plus, reproduction prints have provided artists a way to earn a living by offering more affordable versions of their work.
The moral of the story is that if you buy a reproduction, know that you aren’t buying an original work of art. Buy reproduction prints because you like the image, not because they are a good investment. On the other side of the coin, if you sell reproduction or commercial prints–don’t offer them with the obscure promise that they will go up in value some day–offer them because their imagery is memorable and they are affordable. Simple as that.
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