Crafts & DIY

What Is An Artist Proof?

We often find ourselves puzzling at the tech world and all its impenetrable jargon, but it’s not just newer fields of study locked up by adamantine lingo.

The ancient world of art is in many ways just as tricky for the average person to grapple with, and the term “artist proof” is a prime example of the confusion that lies ahead for hopeful collectors.

Although I’m not a fine artist myself, I am an artistic soul and have always surrounded myself with art buffs, people who have dedicated the majority of their lives to studying art in higher education or indeed forging successful careers in the art world themselves.

So, I thought, who better to consult on the topic of artist proofs?

Not only did I learn what artist proofs are and why they’re necessary, but how they can be a little, shall we say… controversial at times.

Reading this article before you start your collection could completely change the course of your artistic journey!

Defining Artist Proofs

The problem with most artist proof definitions you’ll find across the web is that they try to explain everything in a couple of sentences.

To really get a grasp of the concept, it’s best to break it down into the following sections.

What Kind Of Art Requires “Artist Proofs”?

The first thing to understand about artist proofs is that the term can only apply to mediums in which printing is integral to the creation of the art — In other words, not sketches, sculptures, or paintings. Proofing strictly refers to art that utilizes plates of some description to print the impression.

What Is An Artist Proof?

Historically, an artist proof was any print of an unfinished piece, and while this is still technically the case, these days, it’s common for artist proofs to represent the finished work as well, and from this duality, some more specific subcategories have sprung.

For instance, when the print shows an unfinished impression of the art, this might also be referred to as a working proof or a trial impression.

What’s The Purpose Of An Artist Proof?

The purpose of an artist proof is to give the artist an idea of how the work is going.

By making prints early, they can see how the art will look on the plate, block, or stone before they finish the piece, thereby providing an opportunity to amend certain aspects of their work.

You can think of it as the printing equivalent of a writer proofreading the first couple of paragraphs of an unfinished story.

However, if the artist proof is a complete impression of the final product, it is simply for the general use of the artist, meaning they could put it on their wall, use it for advertising, repurpose it for new studies… you name it. If you don’t have the time to find an artist proof, you can always use the art projects your kids create!

Can Artist Proofs Be Sold?

Here’s where thing’s get a little more complicated. Traditionally, and still to some extent today, artist proofs are not to be entered into the market.

They are – as the term suggests – for the artist alone, either to help them create a better final product or for them to keep for personal use, but why then do we see artist proofs for sale from time to time?

Well, it all comes down to unprecedented market demand. Let’s say, for example, that an artist advertises a limited run of 100 prints of one of their pieces, and after a year or two, all 100 have been sold.

What happens if the piece becomes so popular that even after selling out, galleries, dealers, or individuals are asking for more?

While the artist can’t simply do another run of the same print without diluting the meaning and value of the previously released limited run, there are a few approaches they can take to capitalize on the market demand.

One unpopular option is to do a new print but number them differently, with Roman numerals for example, and call it something like “Edition Two”, but this is pretty dicey, as it still, in my opinion, diminishes the significance of that initial run.

My artsy companions said that they would never do this, but every one of them knew of people that had used this approach.

A better option is to make subtle changes to the original before printing the second run, say, a change of colors, for instance, thereby creating an actual second edition.

During my correspondence with the artists in my life, they reported that this is a much more common and reasonably acceptable route but that they themselves would much rather try to capitalize on the popularity of an earlier piece to push something fresh.

This way, they could stave off artistic stagnation and refine their craft, all while diversifying their portfolio.

Another commonly taken route is – you’ve guessed it – putting artist impressions up for sale, as this neither diminishes the original run nor requires any extra work.

But there’s another reason why an artist might prefer to put their proofs on the market rather than developing a new limited run or working on something else altogether… they sell like hotcakes!

What Is An Artist Proof?

What’s The Art Market’s Fascination With Artist Proofs All About?

For some collectors, the insight into the artistic process provided by a proof is more precious than any of the completed versions of the piece from the limited run.

It lifts the veil on technique and approach in a way that simply isn’t possible in other art forms, making them remarkably valuable to those who have an interest in printed art specifically.

What’s more, being that artist proofs typically only make up around 10–15% of the original prints, they’re technically rarer than the pieces released as part of the limited run, and as I’m sure you know, scarcity and value often go hand in hand.

And being that the artist proofs have been owned by the artist themselves up until they’re sold, the association alone can increase interest and prices significantly. If you are looking to save a bit of money you can always frame your art yourself for cheap.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should An Artist Sell Their Artist Proofs?

Whether the sale of artist proofs is a good or bad thing comes down to the discretion of the artist.

While some might consider it, in a way, a break of artistic code, if you’re a poor, starving artist trying to make a name for yourself, codes be damned!

Are There Other Names For An Artist Proof?

In what seems like an attempt to increase the opacity of the art world, you may see “epreuve d’artiste” used instead of artist proof, which is simply the French translation, but even more likely are the abbreviations AP and EP that stand for artist proof and eprueve d’artiste respectively.

Are There Any Similar Terms To Artist Proof?

You’ll likely come across the term “printer’s proof” on your exploration of the art world as well. These serve the same purpose as artist proofs but they’re for the printer rather than the artist themselves.

They’re essentially trial runs to see if everything is in order before the official limited printing process begins. If you would like to see how to make art prints, read that here.

Hors de commerce is another common related term.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, it’s French, and it translates as “out of commerce”, meaning the corresponding art is not meant for the market (much like an artist proof), the difference being that hors de commerce is a broader term referring to any reason for a piece not being for sale.

This might be abbreviated as HC.

Final Thoughts

Artist proofs are a rather complicated matter and hotly debated topic among artists and collectors alike.

While they’re not technically meant for market inclusion, we humans always pine for the things we can’t have, and if the sale of proofs benefits the artist, it can’t be considered a wholly negative action.

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