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why original print?

about the art  Signing and numbering original prints

Signing and numbering

At art school a friend of mine saw an edition number (the penciled number on a print) of 2/10 on one of my etchings and not knowing what the number actually represented said "You didn’t get a very good mark for that one then!"


There are host of edition numbers and marks that are used by printmakers when signing prints. Unless their meaning is fully understood it can be confusing. Although this is not the place to discuss the dubious practice of signing and numbering reproductions in the manner of bona fide original graphic works such as etchings, woodcuts etc., such practice is misleading especially when marketing them as "fine art" or "limited edition" prints. 


In the 1880’s, James McNeil Whistler was the first artist to sign his original graphic work on the paper margin instead of including initials or a monogram in the matrix such as Durer would have done. He sold the signed prints for twice the price of the identical unsigned ones. Artists now recognise the right that they have regarding their work. They sign and number them providing information that helps to promote and preserve those rights. 


Original prints should only be signed and numbered in pencil and usually in the margin under the image. If it is not possible or is undesirable to sign in the margin, if the image is bled off the paper edge or if the signing would detract from the image, signing and numbering can be carried out on the reverse. 

Normally the edition number is placed on the left hand side just below the image with the title in the centre and the artists signature and year of publication on the right.


Signing a varied edition print  (where each print in the edition varies in its inking or hand colouring from the next) as "monoprint" because there is only one like it is incorrect. Monoprint refers not only to its uniqueness but more to the specific technique of monoprint.


Other than the edition number there are other marks that can be found on original prints. 


Here are some of the most frequently used:

The edition number, for example 3/30, means that there are 30 prints in the edition and that this print is the third that the artist has signed. The artist is bound by law not to exceed, extend or re-print the edition without altering the matrix in some way. If the matrix is altered (even marginally) then the image can be re-editioned. In this case it is usually given the same title with the Roman numeral II after it to indicate this.

A/P. (Artist’s Proof). Originally the artist was able to pull a number of prints out with the edition for personal use (if the edition was being retained by an agent or publisher). These are normally printed at the same time as the edition, are of the same high standard, and number up to 10% of the edition size (or a total of 5 in the case of smaller editions). Substandard prints should not be signed as A/P s just to save them being binned!


B.A.T. (Bon a Tirer). The first perfect print to be pulled from the matrix is signed as the B.A.T. (good to pull). The edition and artist's proofs are then matched up to this as it is printed. The B.A.T. usually remains the property of the editioning atelier. 


Trial proof. These prints are pulled to assess the development of an image. They are marked as trial proofs as they indicate the unfinished progress of a work. They can be worth large sums if they land on the market as they show an insight into the artists working methods. 


State Proof. This is the general term covering all working proofs. It can refer more specifically to trial proofs being reworked after an image has been editioned. 


Guide proof. Whilst working to print the perfect print from the finished matrix, the artist or printer may mark a guide proof with notes of alterations or improvements to be made in the printing. 


V.E. (varied edition). Occasionally the letters V.E. have been written after the edition number if the inking or hand colouring varies remarkably from one print to the next. Hand coloured or varied edition prints should be signed with the usual edition numbers alongside the letters V.E.

Monotype. This refers to the technique of printing a single painted image from a silkscreen or non porous surface such as a sheet of glass, metal or styrene. In either case, the print is unique and cannot be editioned. It can be signed as monotype or unique print in place of the edition number.


Monoprint. One-off variations from an existing matrix such as an intaglio plate, wood block or whatever and could either be signed as monoprint or sometimes as 1/1 (see also V.E. above)


H/C. (Hors Commerce). These prints are not for sale but are marked for commercial/business use such as display or promotion. They do not have to be signed by the artist. 


Imp. From the Latin "impressit" which means "has printed". An artist who has printed his or her own work may write this after their signature. 


Dedication. An artist may choose to dedicate an individual print of an image to someone. Such a print can be from the edition or any of the proofs. 


Chop mark. The chop is a small embossed seal that is impressed (chopped) on to the print by the publisher, printer, artist or workshop. As dealers and collectors may also use chop marks, a print may end up having several usually at the bottom right hand corner of the paper. 


Cancellation print. When the edition has been printed, the matrix, if it is a lithographic stone/plate an intaglio plate or wood block is defaced in such a way that it cannot be reprinted in the original manner. Often a print is pulled with a large score through the matrix and is signed as the cancellation print. 


Books or portfolios. In books it is usual for the artist to sign only the title page or colophon. This may also be the case with portfolios but as they contain loose leaf impressions from the same or different artists, individual prints may be signed and numbered The portfolio in this case will contain all the different images with the same number.

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