Fit to Print

Q. I have a large painting (about 36×50) and would like to have limited-edition prints made of it. What steps must I take to do this?

A. This subject occupies an entire chapter of Harald Johnson’s Mastering Digital Printing (Muska & Lipman Publishing, 2003). It’s a subject much too extensive and complicated to treat in detail here, but I can give you a synopsis of the procedure.

Unless you’re a professional photographer, you’ll most likely need to hire one to make a large-scale color photograph (traditional or digital) of the painting. The larger the color negative or digital file, the more detail and fidelity there will be to the original color and appearance of the painting.

You may decide to sell these reproductions of your painting for considerable sums, so you’ll want to have the highest quality prints possible. If you’re not an experienced printer with all the equipment and expertise, you’ll probably choose to use an outside service. It takes a long time for printers to learn their considerable skills, and all printing services aren’t equally qualified, so I suggest you get recommendations from friends or fellow artists, or do a search on the Web. I’d spend a good deal of time researching and interviewing print services, as well as looking at samples of their work.

The next step is to decide whether to use a traditional offset lithographer or a printer who operates a digital printing service. If you go the traditional offset route, the printer will make color separations from your color negative. The minimum number of separations is four, like the four-color printing used in magazines, but that’s usually not a sufficient amount of colors for an accurate reproduction. I suggest you choose a minimum of eight separations; this may sound like a lot, but the more color separations you choose, the more accurate the color rendition will be.

If you decide on a digital print service, they’ll probably scan the color negative into a computer file and adjust its colors through an image manipulation software program like Adobe’s Photoshop. This is far easier to do than using the traditional process, although seeing the image on the computer screen is far different from seeing the actual painting.

Next, you’ll have to work with the printer to choose a paper. You can use almost any kind of museum-quality paper for traditional offset printing, but there are a relatively limited number of good papers that can be used in digital ink-jet printing—Arches, Somerset and Bockingford are among the most familiar names. Either way, work with your printer to choose the best paper for the project.

At this point, you’ll want the printer to make test prints, or proofs, of the reproduction. In offset lithography, that means that the paper is run through the press using each of the color plates made from your color separations: If there are eight plates, for instance, then each piece of paper is run through the press eight times. The alignment, or registration, of the prints is critical at this time, in order to assure a crisp image that accurately reflects the original. There are many different ways of proofing prints in offset, so again consult with the printer. If you’re going the digital ink-jet route, the entire image can be printed at once: In effect, the proof is the print.

You must inspect the proofs carefully, side by side with the original painting, to see that they duplicate the original image as closely as possible—realizing, of course, that such things as surface texture and some subtle color gradations may not appear in the proof. Several proofs will have to be made, depending on the skills of the printer and how picky you are. Once you’re satisfied with the proofs, you can give the printer the go-ahead to print your edition. With digital ink-jet printing, it’s called “print on demand.”

Traditionally, once the edition has been printed, the original plates are cancelled or destroyed so that edition can never be printed again. You might want to consider doing that with your digital file, too, if you go that direction. It’s not truly a limited edition if you can just keep printing however many pictures you want.

Needless to say, this isn’t a simple process, and I haven’t covered every issue in my answer to your question. It would be a very good idea for you to establish contacts with other artists who already have experience with reproductions, and to listen carefully to their experience and advice.

Joanne Moore is managing editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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