Inspired by Khan's piece on Kinkade, here is an article that was published in Tamarind's 2006 newsletter. Enjoy!

Defining the Digital Print

People are confused about digital prints. What are they? Are they originals? What is the difference between a digital print and a lithograph? Are they worth as much as lithographs? What is the difference between hand printing and digital printing? Which one should I buy?

Let’s clarify the names first. Whether they are called digital prints, giclées, or IRIS prints, the process is the same. Images are created on (or scanned into) a computer where the artist or printer can color correct them. The computer sends the image to a specially designed inkjet printer. The French word giclée means to spurt or spray and is descriptive of the way these special inkjet printers apply the colors; the inks are dispersed by a sophisticated print head in a fine mist of minute droplets. The IRIS Company of Massachusetts was the first to make these printers; all prints made on their machines are called IRIS prints. Other companies (like Epson), soon followed the IRIS Company’s example. Many of the newer printers use pigments instead of dyes (assuring a longer life for the print), and can print on rigid materials like copper plate and cardboard.

Historically, digital prints have been reproductions of already existing works and many still are. Because the printers can produce the same image in several different sizes, they are convenient for dealers or artists who want to market reproductions in different formats. There is no question that for copies of existing works of art the digital process produces higher quality reproductions than photo offset processes.
The price should reflect that they are indeed copies and not original prints.
Problems arise with digital prints, as with any reproductions, when copies are
misrepresented as original prints. As a result, potential buyers of digital prints should proceed with caution. Although documentation papers are not necessarily an assurance of originality, the client should always ask to see them and should read them carefully. Some artists or publishers will scan in an existing image and make small or no changes to it and call it an original print. It is always wise to ask the dealer how the artist made the print. The size of an edition may be indicative of whether it is an original or a reproduction. An edition of several hundred, or a too- reasonably priced print signed by a famous artist are red flags.
Notoriously, Salvador Dali signed and numbered blank pieces of paper on which reproduced images were later printed. Sometimes skilled draftsmen are hired to create an image to which a famous artist’s name is affixed. Depending on the skill of the craftsman, these copies can be quite convincing.

Defining originality in prints has always been a thorny issue. One of the contributions Tamarind has made to printmaking has been our scrupulous documentation of every step in the making of a print. Anyone buying a Tamarind print will know all the pertinent details of its execution including how the artist created the image, and the complete size of the edition (with no possibility of using the original plates and stones again). Above all, however, at Tamarind originality is a question of intention. The artist comes here to create a new visual statement. It should be noted that not all artists who make digital prints want copies of existing work. Robert Kelly, Dirk DeBruycker, and Johnnie Winona Ross are all artists who make prints regularly at Tamarind and also make original digital prints. Their images are either significantly manipulated from the original scan or start with drawings created on the screen, so that the result is truly an original image. They enjoy working in a new medium, and exploit the differences between digital work and making a lithograph.

The value of our prints lies in the artist’s involvement with the lithographic process. Lithography is a physical medium. Artists come to Tamarind with an idea of what they’d like to do, but all of their drawings must be done on site on plates and stones. They use pencils, crayons, touches, and brushes, etc. to make their images, not a computer keyboard, as the digital artist does. The latter has no hands-on use of materials and does not feel the texture of a stone or physically alter the drawing. Changes are made with the click of the mouse, and while the process may be engrossing and challenging, it is more intellectual than physical.

At Tamarind the artists work with the master printer until they create a proof that expresses their aesthetic intentions; the digital artist may employ a similar process. The edition at Tamarind is then hand printed, one color at a time. The result is a textural quality that cannot be achieved by an inkjet printer because digital prints have no physical surface.

At Tamarind, after all the impressions in an edition are printed, the plates and stones are effaced so that no additional impressions can be pulled from them. Documentation papers attest to the integrity of the edition. Digital prints, on the other hand, are not often printed as a whole edition at the same time. The images are stored on computer files, not on physical stones and plates. Artists need not pay for a whole edition up front, but can print impressions as their market demands.

Because digital printmaking is a relatively new medium, many questions arise: how can we be sure that the file will remain with the original printer? When an edition is printed over an extended time, do software and printer upgrades alter the later impressions? And if so, should they be called by a different name and numbered differently? If a digital image is ruined or damaged, does the printshop re-issue another impression with the same number? Some digital printshops believe that owning a digital print is like buying a piece of intellectual property. So, if your impression #5 of a print is ruined in a home fire, they will reprint a new #5 because you have bought the image, not the piece of paper it was printed on. This is obviously very different from Tamarind’s way of assuring the buyer of the physical uniqueness of his purchase.

For artists who enjoy expanding their repertoire of skills, digital printing is another form of experimentation. Ross, who is particularly fastidious about his prints, finds that he spends as much time changing and fine tuning his digital prints as he does on his lithographs, and believes prices for both kinds of prints should be comparable. He sees both as valid media, and enjoys what is unique about each. For example, he loves to use chine collé in his lithographs, which he cannot do with digital prints. In his digital work, he likes being able to scan and change layers of visual effects that would take much too long to proof in lithography.

Ross recognizes the limitations of digital prints, and makes an analogy to music about the differences between hand printing and computer printing. He loves original old recordings of music because there is a spontaneity and immediacy about creating the sound that the listener can share. For him, lithography is like a recording. Digital printing, he thinks, is similar to listening to music on his Ipod: its capacity for permutations and its acoustics may capture the sound better, but not the individuality of the musicians in a specific performance.

By nature, artists like to experiment, and the computer has provided them with new techniques for printmaking. We remain dedicated to the principles of experimentation on which Tamarind was founded, and value artists like David Humphrey, Liliana Porter, and Will Mentor who have incorporated digital imagery into the hand work they did at Tamarind.

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Comment by cc on August 2, 2008 at 8:42am
Thank you for this very informative lesson! Many important issues brought to light here.
Long live the artistic process, including the quintessential "hands on!"


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