While art is typically considered a single, original work, that is not always the case. Some artists create multiple versions of their work, and each, while nearly identical, is its own unique work. This grouping of works is called an edition, and they are often enthusiastically acquired alongside one-of-a-kind artworks by savvy art collectors. Read on to learn more about editions in art and how artists use them.
What is an Art Edition?
An edition is a reproduction of an original image, designed as a group or multiples and produced under its original artist. Bronze castings, photographs, artist proof prints, etchings, lithographs and other works on paper are some of the most common types of works in editions. Because each piece in an edition is produced separately, each is unique. While editions are produced as a set, each is treated as an original artwork because each is created individually by an artist, making them a special case in the art market.
Open vs. Limited EditionsThe number of pieces in an edition can vary greatly, and it is usually up to the artist to decide how many versions they wish to produce. There are typically two approaches to editioning: limited edition and open edition.
Limited edition is fairly self-explanatory. An artist will set a predetermined number of reproductions they wish to create, and once that number is reached, they will stop. For instance, this bronze casting of Liberty Enlightening the World is an example of a piece that comes from a limited edition. As seen in the image below, the sculpture is numbered 8/8, meaning it is the last cast in that numbered edition.
As a general rule, the fewer numbers in an edition, the higher their worth. However, the value of a number in a limited edition can vary from medium to medium. For bronzes and etchings, the earlier in the edition, the higher the value. For instance, an original artwork numbered 6/35 would typically be worth more than one numbered 34/35. Photography and original art prints are quite the opposite. As they are sold, the price of the remaining original print run pieces rises; therefore, a later numbered edition typically sells for more.
Black crayon, India ink and collage on paper
Completed in 1912
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Edition vs. Reproduction
It is important to reiterate that an edition is not a copy in the conventional sense. Rather, they are sets of unique pieces created after an original work, which function together with the original work. On the other hand, a reproduction is a copy, usually produced in a different medium than the usual work, and typically does not involve the original artist. Reproductions are often done digitally and can be made strictly for commercial purposes. One of the most familiar examples of reproductions is the poster, which uses digital technology to recreate a famous scene or image. These works are not included in the artist’s edition and are merely copies.
For instance, the popular Be@rbrick toys often include images from famous artworks. While this use of images is a reproduction, it does not count as an edition because the original artist did not sanction it, nor is it in the same medium.
Editions Across Media
Etchings are perhaps one of the most common types of editioning in art. This print-making process involves incising a metal plate with an image. These incised areas hold the ink, which, once applied, can be transferred onto another surface, leaving the image behind. Etchings were one of the first techniques for replicating images, dating to the 16 century. Although he is most famously remembered as a painter, Rembrandt van Rijn was also a career printmaker. Throughout his career, he produced over three hundred etchings, which are still around today. Looking at one of the Rembrandt etchings, this highly-detailed religious artwork recounts a biblical tale in which Joseph, son of Jacob, tells his brothers about his prophetic dreams.
Another common type of editioning in art is the woodblock printing technique. This technique involves drawing onto a thin type of paper, which is then glued to a plank of wood. The image is then chiseled into the wood, leaving the outlines of the image in a “stamp.” Ink can then be applied to the wood block, and multiples of the image are able to be created. The woodblock printing technique began as a way to spread texts, but it was widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period as an art form. More advanced printmakers could produce incredibly intricate, multi-colored prints called ukiyo-e. The widely popular Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is one such Edo woodblock print. From a series of thirty-six prints, this image has spread and grown in popularity throughout the ages.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Photographs are another medium commonly printed in editions and can be considered another art that tells a story. Because the same negative can be reused many times, photographers often produce multiples of one photograph. For instance, director and author Lawrence Schiller famously photographed a series of Marilyn Monroe, and he printed each image in limited editions of 75. This image of Marilyn by the pool is numbered 19 of 75, and it comprises a larger set of other iconic photographs of the actress. Learn more about the legend of Marilyn Monroe.
Bronzes are particularly apt for editioning, as these sculptures are created from a series of molds. How are bronze sculptures made? Using a “lost wax” technique, the artist pours molten bronze into their mold, which cools and forms into a sculpture. This technique was often repeated; thus, bronzes sometimes come in editions. For instance, this delicate ballerina bronze by Edgar Degas was cast posthumously after the original molds were rediscovered. It is marked “Degas / 6|G / 1998 / CIRE C.VALSUANI PERDUE”, thus indicating it is an edition after Degas’ original. Learn more about famous sculptors and their original designs.
Edgar Degas, Fourth Position Front, on the Left Leg, original wax model executed 1885-1890, bronze cast 1998 M.S. Rau