top of page

Original, Lithograph, or Print?

If you've ever gone searching for art, then you may already be familiar with the rare and wonderous occurrence (and when it does come along, you know it's going be a good day) of spotting just what you've been dreaming of. It fits the visual void in your home that you've been trying to fill and blends perfectly with your aesthetic. Any time you spot this kind of unicorn, pick it up to showcase in your home immediately-- before someone comes along and purchases it right out from under your awe-stricken nose!

Once you have your new artwork back home and gloriously displayed, you might like to learn more about your new masterpiece. One of the most important distinguishers of artwork is how it was created.

There are three production techniques that are good to know the basics of when you're evaluating art (for both cost assessment and for curiosity's sake). Let's look at them and learn a few ways to discern one from the other.


These beauties can be found far and wide throughout the second-hand retail universe. You will find all kinds of original works-- homemade paintings on canvas, professionally framed pieces that are one of a kind, commissioned sketches of homes and families, and even occasionally the complete gem of a better-known artist's original work that has been passed along for resell. Here are some starting points for identifying an original work:

Look at Layers

Pay special attention to the dimensionality of the painting you are looking at. Artists need to layer paint over paint (or any medium) in order to create designs and, unlike many reproduction techniques, you can generally see and feel the layers of paint upon completion in originals.

There is a reproduction technique called "Glicee" that uses dimension and texture, but it uses thick layers of paint applied over a high resolution image so although you will see layering of paint, the look will be notably different from that of an original.

Check the Edges

If the artwork is unframed or if you can see the edges of the art, check to see if the perimeter is perfectly straight or not. An original work usually won't have the straight lines of demarcation that a printed reproduction would have.

Hardware/ Backing

Consider what media was used to create the piece. If the original frame is present, the hardware on that can help you out as well. In these cases, you are checking to see if the timeline of the art is consistent with the media used to create it. Canvas thread count, brush bristles that may have dried in the paint, and the type of hardware used to hold everything together (nail vs. staples, etc.), can all give you clues about the authenticity and age of an item.


Hand lithographs combine art and science to create a unique hybrid of print and original. An artist creates the work (usually on stone) which is then reproduced using ink, chemicals, various tools, and a machine. Each color requires a new press and the process can require significant time to complete. Lithographs can be referred to with the oxymoron "original copies," since the artist has a hand in the creation of the copies.

Magnify It

Although it will not have the same depth and texture of an original, inks can easily overlap on lithographs. If you view the item close up with a magnifying glass (the zoom on your camera/ phone can also do the trick), the etchings of ink will are more randomly dispersed than the ink on a print. Because there are multiple runs through a machine, some of the ink can be layered as well. The ink patterns created during the process of lithography are natural and random.

Color Intensity

Lithographs tend to have an intense color, richer than that of a print.


Lithographs typically include the artist's signature.


Commercially produced copies of an artwork are referred to as prints. They often come in the form of screen, digital, or photographic prints. They are mass produced and more widely available for purchase. Although they generally are less expensive, they can have value (aside from the intrinsic kind!), especially if only a small number of them were made. Supply and demand will often dictate each piece's monetary worth.


A sure sign of a print can be seen under magnification, or sometimes even with the naked eye. When viewed closely, the pigments of color will appear as small dots and these small dots will perfectly align to create rows. When you see this pattern, it is an indication that machining was used to create the print.


Printmakers often leave their mark and/or copyrights visible on the piece. If there is no artist's signature, or if there is a printer's mark or copyright, that's a very strong indicator that you have a print.

Good Things to Know


Many copies of the same design can made when creating lithographs and prints. If you see numbering (ie: "17/500") on a piece, it indicates that the art is part of a printed (lithograph or commercial) edition of reproductions. The first number represents what place in line the print was created and the second number represents how many prints in total were made for that edition.


Typically an artist's signature will be located in the lower right-hand corner, although it varies with personal preference. Signatures can be either hand signatures or plate signatures. A hand signature is signed directly by the artist while a plate signature is a printed copy of the artist's original signature. Again, this is an area where magnification can help you to identify which of the two you are looking at.

Now that you know the basics, you can better identify just what type of unicorn it is that you are bringing home-- and always keep in mind that unless you are looking for an investment piece, anything that speaks to you and says "I'd look sooooo good in your houseeee!" is a treasure in its own right. Don't shy away just because it's got a copyright in the corner!

bottom of page