Recognizing and Identifying Prints

Estate sales can be a fantastic source to find unexpected, original and beautiful artwork.  If you’re interested in purchasing artwork it can be helpful – but not always easy – to be able to tell the difference between prints and paintings or drawings or even to identify different kinds of prints.  Below we have some ideas on how to do just that.

But first, a note…

Just because a piece of art is a print, does not mean it’s bad!  Many well-respected artists, including Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Albrecht Durer, Marc Chagall and Andy Warhol (to name just a few) have done extensive work with printmaking.  Printmaking is a viable medium all its own with a varied history and some intriguing styles.  (Think about Japanese woodblock prints!) Yes, prints tend to be less valuable, because there are more copies, but that also means they are more affordable for those of us without museum-size budgets.  I know I will probably never own a Manet oil painting, but a lithograph by this great artist is definitely within my reach.

Basic Types of Prints

Before we get into tricks for identifying prints, it can help to have a basic understanding of printmaking methods.  Most art prints fall into one of 4 major categories.

Relief prints are prints in which the negative space (the part not appearing on the design) is cut away leaving a raised surface, like a stamp.  Ink is applied to the raised area and then a piece of paper (or whatever is being printed on) is applied to that surface.  The most common example of this is woodblock printing.

Relief Printing

Relief Printing

Intaglio prints are just the opposite – the design is carved or etched into a surface.  The ink or paint is then pushed into the grooves of the design and any excess is wiped away.  When printing with paper, the paper is usually dampened before applying it to the plate, where it absorbs the ink from the plate.  Perhaps the most well known examples of this method are etching, in which the design is created on a wax-covered metal plate and etched into the metal using acid, and engraving, where the design is directly engraved into the plate.

Intaglio Printing

Intaglio Printing

A third type of printing is called planographic. In this case a design is drawn on a specially treated flat surface using fat, oil or wax based materials that repel water.  The negative space holds water, which then repels oil-based inks used to create the print.  This is the theory behind lithography – one of the most popular methods of print making.

Serigraphy or screen printing is another common type of printing.  In this case a stencil is created using a fine mesh screen with an impermeable substance spread in the areas that won’t be printed.  Then the paint or ink is forced through the stencil to create a design.  You may have done this yourself to a T-shirt at some point.

And now…Some tips for identifying prints.

Marks and Signatures

While this may seem obvious to some, a good starting point is always to look for an edition number.  When an artist creates a limited number of prints (or “limited edition”) each print is usually numbered with a fraction.  The first number is the number of this specific print and the latter is the total number of copies in the edition.  Prints may also be marked A/P for “artist’s proof”, one of several early prints in the edition used to check that everything is as the artist wants it.  (Artist’s proofs are not counted in the edition number.)

On prints, edition number, title (if included) and the artist’s signature are usually (but not always!) in pencil.  However, that is also a common practice with watercolors and drawings, so keep in mind that a pencil signature doesn’t always mean a print.

Print marks

L to R: Print number (edition of 100), title, artist’s signature.

Another easy-to-spot giveaway that a picture is a print is a doubled signature.  In this case the artist signed an original work, then reproduced it and signed the print.  The signature will appear both inside the print and in the outer margin, usually in the lower right corner.


The difference in texture between prints and oil or acrylic paintings can be easy to see – especially when an artist piles paint on, uses a palette knife or has strong brush strokes.  It is always important to make sure the lines of the painting match the lines of the “brush strokes.”  Prints are sometimes made onto textured paper or have a textured finish applied over them to create the appearance of layered paint.  Prints may also be hand highlighted (a la Thomas Kinkade) to create a more painterly effect.  Sometimes even straight planographic prints with heavily applied colors can also create a textured, painting-like look.

There are also texture nuances that will help distinguish a print as a print.  Relief and intaglio prints rely on high pressure to create a good impression.  For this reason, the plates will often emboss the paper.  It is not uncommon to see the design of a relief print visible from the back of the paper or a border-like plate mark around the edge of an engraving or etching.

relief printing embossing

Relief printed page, with raised embossing from the reverse side showing through.  You can also see indentation in the red letters at the bottom.

engraving plate mark

Mark left by the edge of an engraving’s plate.

Up Close and Personal

Now comes your chance to breaks out a magnifying glass, jeweler’s loupe or whatever you have handy.  (Even a pair of readers will help!)  By looking at a print under magnification, you can often see artifacts of the printing process.

One of the first things to look for are dots.  You’ve seen them in comic books and newspapers, but even higher quality printing can be made up of tiny, tiny dots.  Below is a picture of oatmeal from a favorite cookbook.  It doesn’t look at all “spotty” until it’s magnified.

magnified print

Magnified print

You’ll also want to examine the edges of lines and shapes for a slight darkening at the borders.  In serigraphs, paint can be pushed against the edge of the stencil, creating a slightly heavier build-up of color.  Similarly, in relief prints, pressure can squeeze the ink or paint to the outer edge of a design, creating a heavier border and lighter center.  This is a subtle variance and can often be difficult to spot, but may help uncover a piece of the artwork’s origins.

In conclusion…

We’ve only scratched the surface here.  I know that, but it’s a start.  If you’d like more info or pictures here are a couple of links to check out: “Nine Types of Printmaking You Need to Know” “Identification of Prints”

If you’re looking for lots of detail, I recommend checking out How to Identify Prints by Bamber Gascoigne, published by Thames & Hudson.  It is well illustrated with tons of examples and draws clear comparisons to help distinguish between different types of printing.

Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to leave comments or tips of your own below!