A print is a work of graphic art which has been conceived by the artist to be realized as an original work of art, rather than a copy of a work in another medium. Prints are produced by drawing or carving an image onto a hard surface (known as the matrix) such as a wood block, metal plate, or stone. This surface is then inked and the image is transferred to paper by the application of pressure, thus creating an impression, or print. The printed image that results is the exact reverse of the image on the plate.
Unlike paintings or drawings, prints usually exist in multiple impressions, each of which has been created from the inked plate. The total number of impressions made is called an edition. Artists began to sign and number each impression around the turn of the 20th century to ensure that only the editions they intended to make would be in circulation. Plates are not to be used in subsequent printmaking runs without the artist’s explicit authorization. The process of printing the edition is therefore just as important to the authenticity of a print as the act of inscribing the image onto the plate.
The earliest prints were made in China in the ninth century, around the time that paper was invented. Later, contact between Asia and Europe facilitated the spread of this form of art-making, and by the fifteenth century printmaking had become popular all over Europe. After the introduction of moveable type in 1437, text and printed images began to appear in conjunction and were used together with growing frequency to create illustrated books. Prints also continued to be made separately and were considered their own unique art form, distinct from painting and drawing.
Traditionally there are two categories of prints: reproductive prints and original, or fine, prints. Reproductive prints reproduce a work created in another medium, for example painting. This kind of print was in high demand from about the sixteenth century forward, often used in artists’ studios as inspiration or to ensure consistency in representations of certain subject matter, such as religious or biblical scenes. The practice of copying a famous work of art using a printmaking process was not considered forgery and in fact was quite common. In the nineteenth century, with the advent of photography and photomechanical processes of reproduction, cheaper and more accurate reproductions of works of art could be made and so traditional printmaking as a form of reproducing a painting fell into disuse.
The second category of print is the original or fine print. This type of print is created by an artist to be a work of art in its own right. That is to say, the artist creates original compositions and visual imagery, rather than copying another work of art. Artists are trained in any number of printmaking methods to yield distinctive appearances in their creations. The artist's choice of a technique or a combination of techniques depends on the specific effect the artist wishes to achieve.
article courtsey of IFPD: The International Fine Print Dealers Association