Originals, limited edition and open edition prints — what’s the difference?


Continuing on from my previous article where I un-murked the murky waters of supporting your favourite artists, today I thought I would like to continue on this trend and explain what the differences are between a 2D artist’s bread and butter — originals, limited and open edition prints.

Other than the print on demand websites mentioned in my previous article, most 2-D artists will rely on prints and originals as their mainstay.


What is an original? Why are originals so expensive? Should you invest in original art?

An original is just that — an original piece of artwork in the artist’s chosen medium. It could be a oil painting on canvas, a watercolour painting on beautiful texture paper, a pastel, a coloured pencil piece or mixed media. Any medium you can think of (barring digital I’ll get to that later) can be used to create an original piece of artwork.

Take for example my Totem Project — each 12" x 18" coloured pencil illustration is a unique piece of artwork. Every stroke of the pencil has been painstakingly chosen and laid down by hand in a process that can take anywhere from 8 hours or more to complete. Similarly, if you were looking at an oil painting you can likely safely assume that the artist has intentionally chosen and planned their colour scheme, composition, brushes and textures, laying down paint in layers and glazes to result in a completely unique piece of art.

As I’m sure you all know, an original piece of art can sell from anything from £5 to £5 million+ but for the purposes of this article I’m not going to get into art as investment pieces for the uber-rich. For me, the value of original art does not come after an artist has died, nor whilst they are popular in a london gallery for a brief period of time like a passing fad. Art for me, captivates, it’s something I can lose myself in and will never tire of viewing. Consider not only the time it takes for an artist to create a piece, but also the lifetime of practice they have put into their craft. The hours of false starts, pushing through creative blocks and exploring new techinques.

When an artist creates a new piece they are also whittling away a new sinewing curve on the masterpiece that is their own creative skill.

Similarly, there is the bricks and mortar cost of the materials used to create the artwork, whether that be a canvas, oil paints, paintbrushes and so on. Not to mention the potential cost of displaying in a gallery where you can expect the gallery to take a commission from the sale price. All of these things contribute to the cost of the artwork.

Most importantly when buying an original you can be rest-assured there is not another like it in the whole world. You have bought a unique creation that was whittled, tweaked, embellished and flooded with creative inspiration, an artist’s imagination made real. Invest in it if you love it and if you can see it gracing your walls and inspiring you for years to come.

Note that when buying the original you are generally not also buying the rights to that image, therefore the artist can continue to make prints of that piece if they so choose.

Limited Edition prints

What are they? Why are they ‘limited’, what makes them special?

Limited Edition prints are a great go-between when you:

  • can’t afford the original
  • the original is already sold
  • the original is too large for your walls but you LOVE it so you really would like a smaller version
  • you want a top-notch print that will last a lifetime

A limited edition print is a proffesional quality printed copy of the original. This means the original has been scanned in at high resolution or photographed to capture the original colours and textures and formatted at specific sizes for printing on paper. The artist then works closely with a printer to select suitable paper and ensure that the colour reproduction matches as closely as possible the original artwork. The artist decides how many copies of the artwork they want to ‘limit’ the print run to. For example, my ‘Windrunners’ Limited Edition A3 print is limited to 100 copies at that size. Once 100 copies have sold I will never again print it at that size. Therefore my clients don’t have something unique but they have something that only 100 people in this world will have access to — still pretty special! Ergo, the value comes from its limitations, some people place even higher value on the first print of the edition.

What to look for with Limited edition prints:

  • Indication of professional quality printing: archival quality inks (which means your print won’t fade over time) on acid-free paper (again another preservation technique)
  • Dated, Signed and numbered edition: look for the artist’s signature on the print, commonly on the white border surrounding the art at the bottom. Ideally there is a signature, title of the artwork and a number e.g 5/100 (which means it is the fifth print in a run of 100) as well as a date which could be just the year in which it was produced.
  • Certification of authenticity: limited editions commonly come with a certificate as well, this is usually an additional piece of paper included with the wrapped print that certifies that it is a real limited edition print. This often also has the date and signature from the artist on it.

Limited Edition prints are a great option for digital artists who create artwork entirely on their computers. Since there is no physical ‘original’ piece (other than the photoshop file which would be entirely useless to most people), digital artists can still sell their artwork at a reasonable price to cover the cost of creating their art and allow their clients to receive something special and of exceptional quality.

Uriel   - available as Open Edition prints on  Etsy

Uriel - available as Open Edition prints on Etsy


Open edition prints

As you may have guessed, open edition prints have no limitations on numbers, as a result they tend to be the cheapest option and their open nature allows the artist to print limitless quantities depending on demand. In order to keep costs down the artist may print these on their own printer, the paper might not be acid free, and the ink may not be archival quality — if you see these items listed then expect to pay a little more for your print in order to receive a print that will have a longer life. Non-archival inks will eventually fade and discolour over time, especially in bright sunlight, so bear this in mind if you want your print to be placed on a sunny wall!

So that’s it in a nutshell! I hope this helps provide some pointers to keep in mind when you’re considering your next art purchase! You can see my available selection of originals, limited editions and open editions on my Etsy store. As always feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments.