What is an Original Print?

Print showing male figure at the Moulin Rouge.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1891. Color lithograph on laid paper. 18-11/16 in. x 14-5/8 in. (image); 22-1/2 in. x 17-1/2 in. (sheet). Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, Museum Purchase: Ella M. Hirsch Fund, 41.11.1.

The noun print is used to designate any image that has been transferred from a matrix to a support. Postage stamps, newspapers, currency, cereal boxes, in addition to etchings by Rembrandt and screenprints by Andy Warhol are all prints. In order to distinguish commercial or utilitarian prints from artworks, terms such as “original print” or “fine print” are used. One could say that the phrase “original print” designates a printed image that the artist has declared to be the carrier of cultural significance—whether it be an image, words, a diagram, or any combination. In the history or commerce of art, “original print” is a designation of artistic intention. Original prints are expressions of human creativity, artistry, and imagination, and valued for their aesthetics, emotional power, unique characteristics, historical or social significance, and visual communication. What distinguishes prints from other artistic media, such as a unique painting or drawing, is that there can be multiple copies of an image. In the vast majority of cases, it is also the artists’ wish to create multiple copies (“impressions”) of their work. Although it is the artist’s intent that defines a work of art and not the medium, it is helpful to know how prints are created in order to recognize their appearance.

Before 1900, nearly all original prints were fabricated from four basic matrices: wood (woodcuts, wood engravings); metal, usually copper (engravings, etchings, drypoints, aquatints, mezzotints, and so forth); stone and zinc (lithographs); and mesh cloth (screenprints, silkscreens). The artist creates his or her design on a printing surface or template, called a matrix, using one or more techniques (such as carving, etching, drawing, building up, stenciling, etc.). After an image is created on the matrix, a medium (usually ink, a pigmented liquid) is used to transfer the image from the matrix to another surface (paper being the most common, or cloth, plastic, etc.). The resulting impression is a print. Repeating the process of inking the matrix, and then transferring the image, results in multiple impressions that are nearly identical to each other.

The matrix is created or conceived by the artist, either working alone or in collaboration, for the specific purpose of making a print. Each combination of materials used to create a print has visual qualities distinct from art created in other media. Before the mid-nineteenth century, every surface involved in printmaking had to prepared by hand, but artists later adapted photography and casting processes, electrotyping of wood engravings, for example. While many contemporary artists continue to make prints via traditional matrices and techniques, others employ non-traditional materials and methods or combinations of them. Of course, today an artist can create an image digitally and print with laser technology, thereby further pushing the boundaries of what an original print can be.

Print of Rhinoceros in profile.
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Rhinoceros, 1515. Woodcut with letterpress. 9-1/4 x 11-7/8 in. (image/block, with inscription). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds by exchange from the Katherine E. Bullard Fund in memory of Francis Bullard, 68.247 (www.mfa.org).

The ability to make multiple impressions by repeating and consistently printing from the same matrix is what defines a print, and the number of copies produced is called an edition. The concept of limiting an edition to a certain number of prints is a modern one, originating in the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, the number was determined by how many impressions could be taken from a matrix before it broke down as well as the popularity of the image. Some works, such the 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer, were so popular that the matrix was continually repaired so it could make additional impressions well into the seventeenth century, years after the artist’s death. Other artists, such as the Dutch seventeenth-century visionary Hercules Segers, made unique impressions from his metal plates by experimentally varying the inking each time he printed one of his landscapes.

Two prints side by side comparing landscapes.
Hercules Segers (Dutch, ca. 1590–ca. 1638). Mountain Valley with a Plateau, ca. 1625–30. Line etching, drypoint, and metal punch; second state of two. LEFT: Printed in green, on a yellow ground, colored with brush. 4-15/16 × 7-15/16 in. (sheet). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; transferred from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, collection Pieter Cornelis Baron van Leyden (1717–1788), 1816 (inv. no. RP-P-OB-821). RIGHT: Printed in blue-green, on a yellow-green ground, colored with brush. 4-1/8 x 5-7/16 in. (sheet). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1923, 23.57.3.

After the invention of photography in 1839, the role of prints shifted. Photomechanical reproductions cost less to produce than hand-made prints, which led to a new way of promoting and selling traditional prints. Producing a limited edition, or special editions on certain types of papers, and devising a convention for signing and numbering each impression are all ways of creating a market value for prints. While these conventions are still followed today, there are a number of contemporary artists who embrace printmaking’s democratic and dissemination possibilities by producing unlimited editions, or who emulate commercial manufacture by enlisting industrial methods for production. Regardless of how many copies are made, the process of printing an edition should be authorized by the artist.

The Print Council of America website provides information regarding Printmaking Techniques; Care of Art on Paper; Authenticity as it relates to prints; Value; as well as a selection of Print Council of America Publications, and a searchable database for Catalogue Raisonnés of prints, drawings, and photographs by artists. One of the best ways to learn about original prints is by looking, however, so curators recommend examining original prints displayed at art museums and library exhibitions, as well as at galleries and art fairs where original prints are sold. Many museums and libraries also have print study centers where collection selections can be viewed by appointment. Making prints is an excellent way to comprehend different processes and to sharpen connoisseurship skills. Perhaps more significantly, is to learn by collecting—putting your money down, thereby committing to the study and enjoyment of a particular work of art on paper, even as one’s taste and collecting goals evolve. The advantage of collecting original prints is that they can be acquired at relatively affordable costs enabling people even of modest means to live with and treasure authentic works of art. There is no better method for truly understanding an original print, as with other works of art, than by experiencing it in person.


Print of a seated woman sending a letter
Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), The Letter, ca. 1891. Drypoint and color aquatint. 13-5/8 x 8-7/8 in. (image/plate); 17-1/8 x 12 in. (sheet). Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Batts Tobin, 1978.25

The Role of the Print Council of America in defining “What is an Original Print?”

On May 1, 1959, three years after the incorporation of the Print Council of America, the founders, led by the great collector Lessing J. Rosenwald, proposed publishing a brochure to answer the question: “What is an original work of art as it affects prints primarily?” The objective was to set standards for what constituted an original print and enlist print dealers, artists, and publishers to abide by three rules, which would guard against fraudulent practices, as well as provide a publication for educating collectors and the general public. The founders were in part reacting to the advances in photomechanical techniques that had given rise to offset reproductions (i.e. posters) of paintings and drawings, as well as increased production and sale of art forgeries. Numerous art historians, artists, and dealers collaborated on the project, which was coordinated and edited by Print Council’s legal counsel, Joshua Binion Cahn. Curator Carl Zigrosser wrote on the history of originality and Print Council’s executive secretary, Theodore Gusten took charge of shaping the definition itself that stated, the general requirements of an original print are:

  1. The artist alone has made the image in or upon the woodblock, metal plate, stone, or other material, for the purpose of creating an original work of graphic art.
  2. The impression is made directly from that original material, by the artist or pursuant to the artist’s direction.
  3. The finished print is approved by the artist.

In 1961 the pamphlet, What is an Original Print? was published and widely distributed. It was later amended with minor corrections in 1964 and again in 1967. A revised and expanded version, A Guide to the Care of Original Prints by Zigrosser and conservator Christa M. Gaehde was published in 1965.

Although the pamphlet’s guidelines may have helped lessen piracy, the strict definition of an original print did not embrace historical or avant-garde printmaking practices. At a meeting with Print Council board of directors on April 30, 1965, Rosenwald cautioned that, “to impose regulations on artists, and to enforce standards of originality, would very likely result in killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” Rosenwald advocated for the Council to educate the public. Demystifying fine art prints would promote their widespread appreciation and encourage their exhibition, collection, and creation.

The role of prints in society and the techniques and working habits employed by artists and publishers have changed so radically over the centuries that an overarching definition of an original print is difficult. Since the publication of What is an Original Print? in 1961, the views of many members of Print Council of America on this matter have shifted, which is why the definition must be continually reconsidered and revised. After all, there are no rules in the making of art, and today and tomorrow’s artists will continue to reimagine what an original print can be.


RESOURCES (in chronological order)

Cahn, Joshua Binion, ed. What is an Original Print?: Principles Recommended by the Print Council of America. 2nd ed. New York: Print Council of America, 1964. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/items/detail/what-original-print-pamphlet-8324

Zigrosser, Carl, and Christa M. Gaehde. A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints. New York: Crown Publishers and Print Council of America, 1965. https://archive.org/details/guidetocollectin00carl

Austin, Gabriel, Richard Field, Hubert Prouté, and June Wayne, “Alice In Dali-Land: On Originality,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 2 (May–June, 1972), pp. 25–29.

Griffiths, Antony. “What is a Print?” Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 9–12.

Malenfant, Nicole, and Richard Ste-Marie, eds. Code d’éthique de l’estampe originale / Code of Ethics for Original Printmaking. 2nd ed. Montréal: Conseil québecois de l’estampe, 2000.

Gilmour, Pat. “On Originality.” Print Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1 (March 2008), pp. 36–50.

Wood, Debora. “What is an Original Print? The Evolution of a Definition.” Print Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 3 (September 2022), pp. 274–86.


“What is an Original Print” was posted on March 28, 2020. It was updated on October 18, 2022.