What is the difference between fine art prints, editions, and multiples?

In 2019, the global market for fine art prints and editions was valued at around $15 billion USD, with North America and Europe being the largest markets. Despite disruptions in the art market due to fairs and exhibitions being canceled or postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the market for fine art prints and editions remained relatively stable. In fact, the uptick in the past few years seems to be attributed to the nature of prints, as they are better accessible and suited for digital presentation.

With all this talk, these questions remain: what are prints, editions, and multiples, where do they come from, and what role will they play in the contemporary world?

Sayre Gomez, World 1, 2022, 10-color silkscreen on Rising Museum Board, 2 ply, 36in x 48in

The notion of reproducing an original artwork to reach greater audiences has been around before the press. Nowadays, these reproductions have evolved from illustrative gospels to a range of viewpoints told through a range of media, from works on paper to sculptures and collectibles. However, the aim of reproduction remains the same from Urs Graf to Kaws: to bring the essence of ones work and ideas to a wider audience. In short, fine art prints, editions, and multiples all fall under one umbrella: they are high-quality reproductions of artwork. This leads to a democratic end: a greater range of people are able to own pieces of work from an artist that would otherwise, be difficult to obtain in the market, providing an accessible entry point for young collectors and art enthusiasts.

Editions and Variables
'Edition' is an umbrella term, referring to any lot of work made from a single matrix. Under this umbrella are prints, essentially editions on paper through a variety of processes such as lithography, etchings, and linocuts. Multiples, on the other hand, are a type of edition referring to a lot of identical objects that are not necessarily prints. Often produced with molds and cast, these objects can involve ceramics, metal, or synthetic materials that would often go into sculptures. So editions can be segregated into prints and multiples, but what other categorizations are there?

In the contemporary practice, each edition is typically identical to the others, and the total number of works in the edition is predetermined as a limited edition. For example, if an artist decides to make an edition of 30 prints, only 30 prints will be released to the general public, and each will be numbered (e.g., 1/30, 2/30, 3/30, etc.). However, open editions are prints that can be reproduced indefinitely, according to demand. This is an important distinction, as the work of Warhol can range from auction breaking records to a mere $400 depending on whether they are produced as open editions or limited-edition prints. Despite this being the common practice in the modern day, editioning wasn't common until the 19th century.

A proof number

During earliest instances of prints throughout the era of Old Master prints, images were allowed to run off as demand required. As the original plate wore-out, it would be reworked by the original artist or another, producing a new state. This creates the distinction between 'lifetime impressions' created by the original artist, and 'late impressions', which were produced after the death of the artist. However, this proved to be problematic as prints under the name of the artist would continuously be reproduced despite the degradation of image quality. This was the case for many of Goya's aquatint1 plates, that had survived and been reworked posthumously, despite a decline in the images. To fulfill the quality criteria set by the artists in contemporary print making practices, plates are cancelled to signify the end of an edition often with a scratch across the surface to prevent further iterations.

Francisco Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, (The sleep of reason produces monsters), (1797-1798). Published 1799, plate 43 from Los Caprichos (The Caprices) series.

A Renaissance of Print
The influence of printmaking in contemporary art in the 1960's encompasses a broad group of artists who set out to explore the possibilities of mechanical means of production validify its means of expression in contemporary art. Cutting-edge experiments in processes such as silk-screen and lithography were made possible by artists working with printers such as Gemini G.E.L. in L.A., ULAE in West Islip, Long Island Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, and Paragon Press in London. Artists of that era like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Claus Oldenburg would produce unique works using the techniques of printmaking that blurred the lines between the original and the reproduction. As Barnett Newman said, "I would create a totality only to find it change after it was printed--into another totality." In many cases of works produced in this period, prints were made with differences that could not be replicated, making them unique prints essentially original works in their own right.

Jasper Johns, Flags II, 1973. Color screenprint from thirty screens on J.B. Green paper with deckle edge, 27 1/2 x 35 inches.

Technological advancements and new processes in the 21st century
Contemporary fine art printing have seen the marriage of traditional processes such as intaglio, lithography, woodblock cuts with new techniques such as silk screen, photo polymer etchings, and giclee prints. At the end of the day, what differentiates a fine-art print from the rest is the archival quality of the work allowing it for longevity and storage achieved through substrates like pigment based inks on fine art papers.

As the advent of intaglio has given way to the reproduction of drawings, lithography to the reproduction of watercolors, and giclee printing has to the reproduction for almost everything else. A term coined by Jack Duganne in the 1991, giclee is a method of printing known for its ability to accurately reproduce the details and wide color gamut of an artwork or photograph. The printing process involves the use of high-quality archival inks, which typically uses eight or more archival quality inks to produce a wide range of colors and tones. The printer releases microscopic droplets of ink, typically between 1 and 10 picoliters, carefully controlled by the printer's software to produce highly detailed prints on various types of high-quality paper. These reproductions are known for their smooth tones, vibrant colors, and deep blacks that differentiates itself from photographic prints.

David Hockney, Untitled 468 from The Bigger Book, 2016. iPad Print, 17 1/10 × 13 in, Edition of 250

Editions and multiples are an affirmation to the experimentation of artists made possible with the advancement of technology. Overall, printmaking's role in contemporary art is diverse and multifaceted. It provides artists with a versatile medium for artistic expression, experimentation, and dissemination, while also contributing to the broader art world through its rich history and ongoing innovation.

ADAMS, BROOKS. The Print Collector’s Newsletter 10, no. 2 (1979): 63–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44130589.