Editioning, Signing, Numbering, Presentation

Signing and Numbering Prints: What is an Original Print?

 Traditionally, an "Original Print" is an image created by a repeatable matrix. The difference between an original print and a mere “reproduction” is all about the artist's involvement in the creation of the matrix.

The process for creating "Original Prints" revolves around the Artist's involvement in the creation of the printing matrix (etching plate, screen, litho stone, woodcut, etc). In our case the artist creates a copper etching plate by drawing through a hard ground and etching the plate, using aquatint, drypoint, etc... In the end the plate is "proofed" (test printed a number of times) and the artists arrives at an impression they would like to "edition." The impression that meets the artist's standards is called a B.A.T. and all the subsequent impressions taken from the plate must match the B.A.T. in order to be included (impressions that do not match for whatever reason are discarded).

Once the edition is printed the artist signs and numbers each print (1/10, 2/10, 3/10, etc.) You should always sign and number your prints in pencil

Here are some of the things you can put on your prints to identify them in the edition:

1/5, 2/5, etc, - These are the edition numbers you should use if you have five prints in the edition. If you had ten prints it would be 1/10, 2/10, etc. You may also have other prints that are kept by you (an Artists Proof) or other designations (see below). 

W.P. - Working Proof - Any proof you pull as you work on the plate to get it to it’s final state. 

G.P. - Guide Proof - If you re working with a master printer this is what you call the proofs you pull together as you work toward the B.A.T. The artist marks these up to tell the printer what needs to be done to the plate. 

B.A.T. - Bon A Tirer - The PERFECT PRINT which is used as the standard that everything else in the edition must match. 

A.P - Artist’s Proof - Prints from the edition kept by the artists and not signed or numbered with the rest of the edition. 

P.P. - Printer’s Proof - The print the Master Printer is entitled to keep out of the edition as a record of the work done and as a reward for putting up with the artist.

H.C. - Hours Commerce - Prints made in a workshop with a master printer which are destined to be used to sell the edition. These prints are shown to collectors and displayed at trade shows.

U.I - Unique impression - If the artist is not creating a numbered edition but is using the same matrix over and over again he/she might identify the images as unique impressions. 

E.V. - Edition Verite - The artist is not creating a numbered edition but might be using the same matrix over and over again or incorporating hand colored elements into the image. 

C.P. - Cancellation Print - after an edition is complete you are supposed to deface the matrix in some way and pull a cancellation proof to prove that no one can continue to print from the matrix. 

An example of how an original print differs from a reproduction can be seen if we compare a Goya etching with a photo-reproduction of a Thomas Kinkade Painting.

Goya drew the image on the plate using a sharp tool to scratch through a wax ground. He later added more marks with aquatint, drypoint, and engraving and supervised the printing of the plate himself.  The plate (matrix) was physically created by Goya so that he could express himself (and make some money by selling them...) The Goya print is a perfect example of why original prints are wonderful art. The marks Goya used to make the image could only be made through etching. There was no other way to express his content. The grungy, scratchy line, and rich blacks of his etching are well suited for the creepy and grotesque content of the piece.

 Thomas Kinkade created an oil paining... He then had a photograph taken of that painting. This photograph was digitally processed, separated out into many colored layers, and printed through a process of offset lithography or ink-jet printing (it’s the same process used for magazines, cereal boxes, comic books, and term papers). This can be seen if you look at the poster through a magnifying glass. You will see a pattern made out of many different mechanical looking colored dots that combine together to optically reproduce his brush strokes, paint texture. etc.
Things created this way are POSTERS, not Original Prints.
So this is where the modern art world becomes a bit confusing (and interesting). Why is a photomechanically reproduced poster not considered to be great art, but a photomechanically reproduced silkscreen by Andy Warhol valued at millions of dollars? What is the practical difference between the two prints? One difference is the fact that the artist had nothing to do with the selection or creation of the printing matrix that was used to create the edition.

Even Warhol, an artist who “wished we could all be machines,” had a hand in selecting the images and colors used in his works. And the interesting and charming thing about Warhol’s prints is the fact that they are hand printed (not mechanically printed as in our Kindade example). The variations and flaws transform these screen prints into original prints. Kinkade allows the machine to endlessly reproduce his work - without any of the  conceptual or philosophical weight that drives most other contemporary artworks that we value in the art world. 

The reason why Thomas Kinkade’s “prints” are troubling has to do with the use of PHOTO REPRODUCTION. The artist had no part in the creation of the matrix used to generate the editioned images. In Thomas Kinkade’s case he had 5000 of them printed on rag paper or coated canvas and then he signed and numbered them as if they were original prints. This would be fine if they were sold for a reasonable price and collected for personal (and affordable) pleasure (like screen printed gig posters, or baseball cards). However Kindade's reproductions are usually marketed as HIGH ART and sold for thousands of dollars. These numbered posters have no real value as ART, and it is unethical to sell them as if they were something more than mere reproductions of paintings.

Original Prints should be valued and priced the same way an artist would sell paintings or drawings, but the price can be lower because there are MULTIPLE ORIGINALS of the desired image. 

 One of the best things about printmaking is the reproducible (and democratic) nature of the medium. If an artist chooses to they can make a set of 25 images and sell them for less money than they would have to sell single images. The artist who chooses to use printmaking in this way will “sign and number” the “edition” (1/25, 2/25, 3/25, etc).  This allows collectors to know how many impressions were taken from the matrix, and  to rest assured that the image isn’t being reproduced into eternity and thus driving down the value of the print. A great example of this is the way that the Spanish Government continued to print Goya’s etchings long after his death. The people who owned the plates kept printing and selling even though the images produced were faint and horrible compared to the editions created in Goya’s time. The impressions that are truly valued are the earliest editions -and those sets of prints fully reflect the artists vision and original intentions. The most important thing for artists involved in printmaking to keep in mind is the ethical responsibility they have to be honest with the people who purchase their work.
It’s OK to sell a poster reproduction of your artwork if you tell your audience what they are buying and sell it for what it’s really worth (a poster should never cost more that a couple of hundred dollars - framed!). If people are willing to spend more than that for a poster you have entered into the realm of “collectables” (baseball cards, comic books, lunch boxes, and beanie babies). It can be fun but it’s not “Art” and you shouldn’t trick anyone into thinking it is...
This is a fine (and profitable!) place to be but everyone should be honest about the difference between “art value” and “collectable value”.
Many artists today no longer choose to use printmaking as a method for making original editions--but instead use the matrix as a means to create endlessly changing series of images (unique impressions). The reason why printmaking continues to thrive in our digital age is due to the the fact that it is a flexible and conceptually relevant medium.


Once you have signed and numbered your edition you are ready to present it. Below are a few strategies for doing this professionally and effectively.

Cover Sheets

coversheets-wop coversheets

How to Cut a Mat

Mat-cutting is easy. All you need is an organized system, a good mat cutter, and mat board to practice on. There are two kinds of mat board to think about. The cheapest stuff is standard (Crescent brand). It isn’t archival but it is acid free (usually). The high end equivalent of mat-board is “Museum Board”. It’s basically REALLY thick rag paper--permanent and beautiful. 

Choose the kind of mat board you need based on the what your work is going to be used for. A short term (non-permanent) exhibition in your Aunt’s house calls for the cheap stuff, while a show at a museum requires the pricey board. Museum board is worth the money but it won’t improve the quality of your work (but at least you won’t look cheap if you use it)... 

The craft of mat-cutting requires math. It’s completely unfair, but this is where all those things your math teacher in high school said to you will start coming back. The best way to get it right is to measure the image area and figure out the size of the opening needed in the mat.

Draw out a diagram with the OUTSIDE dimensions of the mat, then SUBTRACT the amount of space needed for the opening (example: you need a 4 X 6 inch opening, and the frame you want to place the mat into is 8 X 10. Subtract 4 from 8 = 4, and 6 from 10 = 4). Divide the leftover space by 2, and now you know how wide your margins need to be.  In this hypothetical case it would be 2 inches (math is fun, is it not?).

On the back of the mat-board carefully measure your margins and draw them using a ruler and pencil. 

Place the mat, SHORT SIDE FIRST, in the mat-cutter and put a scrap piece of mat-board under the good one. 

Hold the arm down firmly and line up the straight edge with the guide line you drew on the back of the mat. 

Start your cut on the green dot, and stop it on the red one (when you hit the line for the outside edge of the next margin).

Once you have cut all the margins carefully, gently remove the center of the “window”.

Put everything away and clean up your mess!

Other options for Presenting artwork...

There are many other options for presenting artwork. Your presentation must look professional, appropriate, and  intentional.

Push pins look cheap and ugly unless there is a good reason for using them--and a triple  mat with a gilded frame just looks tacky (always). 

You never want the presentation of your work to distract the viewer or to overpower the image. So choose the color of your mat wisely (white, off white, gray, black are best). 


You may choose to “float” an image on a piece of tastefully colored mat-board.

Linen hanging tape and a special “T” system for the tape are the secrets to adhering paper to the backing board.


In some cases it is also permissible to mount an image on a backing board, panel, or canvas. The thing to think about here is permanence.  How long do you want this to last?

If you are going to present a laser-printed piece of graphic design to a client, permanence isn’t much of an issue--so you can use rubber cement and cheap mat-board.

If you want a masterpiece of high art to proudly hang in your home until you are old and gray then you need to use an archival adhesive (Archival glue, acrylic medium, wax, etc..).

The process can involve “shellacking” the image on a canvass, board, etc. or merely adhering it...

Once you have an even coat of glue on the back of the image carefully burnish it onto your target surface (put a clean sheet of paper over the image as you burnish so that you don’t mess up the image).

To shellac the image, cover the front of the image with your adhesive as well, but be aware that this will produce a surface sheen - and you might want to choose glossy or mat finish depending on what you want the image to look like.

"Curating" Prints

Instructions for Fixing small problems with your prints.