Limited edition prints are primarily the result of a degradation of the print source, be it a silk screen, a lithograph stone or a wood cut to such an extent that a decent print can no longer be produced. After a certain number of prints the artist would decide that the representation of their ideas was not being met.
The artist would sign off on those prints that met their criteria, date them for the year of production and number them in the order they were printed. Each print was a little different from all the others with the greatest difference being between the first and last print of the series.
To a certain extent this was also true of printing from film negatives and although the number of prints being able to be pulled was greater it wasn’t infinite. And if produced by hand in the photographers darkroom there would also be slight differences between prints.
With advent of digital storage and computer printing the original artwork never comes in direct contact with the printing process. Consequently, aside from stuff ups by the printer, the same image can be reproduced a countless number of times with fidelity to its creator’s expression.
As more and more artists, working across all mediums, embrace digital storage of their creations and use those copies of their work to produce prints only prints produced by hand utilizing the old methods will need to be of a limited number. Any artist using digital technology who places a limit on the number of prints they can produce is just trying to manipulate the market with this artificially imposed barrier. When one considers the difficulty of making a living as an artist, to expect an artist who produces a popular work, that can exceed a run of 300 to 500 prints, to stop that income flow is a big ask.
That the quality and the longevity of top end digital prints exceed their hand produced counterparts is a given. The latest development in printing technology with pigment inks produce vivid colours and subtly of tones that are a match for what has gone before and if the claims of the major printer manufactures are to be believed their longevity exceeds that of their predecessors.
Where does this leave the serious collector who wants more than a mass produced artifact? Like the pre-digital artists the digital artist can check that the actual print does meet their expectations, digital printing isn’t perfect, a mismatch between the digital file and the printer interface can cause colour shifts and other strange things to happen. When the artist is satisfied they can sign off on the print by hand and date its year of production.
As with the limited edition print the collector will have a print they know has been approved by its creator and isn’t that what it is all about? That the artist may improve their income and be able to continue making their art is a win, win situation for all concerned.