How to Tell a Print from a Painting

Roy Lichtenstein, Moonscape, 1965

For an amateur art enthusiast, telling the difference between a print and a painting can be difficult, especially when the work is under glass and masquerading as a watercolor, or is a high-tech “textured” print meant to fool us with an application of convincing faux-brushstrokes.

Possibly the simplest way to tell a print from a painting is this preliminary question: Does the work bear a label indicating that the original hangs in a museum or other private collection? Does it seem “too good to be true?” If it’s by a famous artist and you’ve seen images of the work before, you’ve likely got your hands on a reproductive print – a beautiful object, but with no commercial value beyond decorative enjoyment. That said, any Antiques Roadshow fan knows that exciting fresh discoveries are made every day!

Telling the difference between a print and a watercolor can be just as difficult as determining if you’ve got an oil painting or a textured print. If you’re trying to tell the difference between a print and a watercolor, start by taking it out of the frame so you can really get a good, close look at the surface. If you’re worried about putting the frame back together, a local framer can usually help you take the work out of the frame and re-assemble it for just a small fee if you call ahead.

Once the work is out of the frame, use a magnifying glass and examine the surface, looking for tiny “Ben-Day” dots, such as those that are used to create areas of color in a comic strip. Roy Lichtenstein famously used enlarged Ben-Day dots in his artwork, as you can see above in the clouds and moon of Moonscape, 1965.
If you see dots like these under magnification, your work is a print. Unless it is contemporary and is a c-print, it is probably not an original work of art and its value is mostly decorative.

Another test is to closely examine the surface of the watercolor for textured areas that follow the pattern of brush strokes. If the paper is “rougher” in areas where there were more layers of paint applied to wet paper, there will be telltale surface texture. This is a good sign that the work is not a reproduction.

If you think your work is an oil or acrylic painting, it can also be a cleverly disguised print of an original work. In this case, topography is extremely important. To start, examine the surface of the work in “raking light,” or light that rakes across the surface at an angle, emphasizing the texture of the paint applied to the artwork. If it’s a print, the surface texture will be very smooth, and detailed areas that can only be achieved with several applications of paint will be the same height as the rest of the work.

Even if brush strokes are visible and appear to show variation, the examination does not end there! Do the brush strokes seem like an overall textured “glaze” that is textured but does not follow the design, or does the application of “paint” seem logical and follows the subject matter?

Examine the work for deep scratches in the textured surface that expose surface other than canvas underneath. Is the texture flaking off in a pattern that seems consistent with paint flakes (think of paint flaking off of an old barn, or an old window sill), or is it simply scratched or gashed in a manner resembling worn a book cover? If you see the latter, your item is likely a print; the former is a good sign your work is a painting.

Of course, if you’ve considered these options and are still unsure, submit your item to LOFTY for a free evaluation! With a few good pictures, we’ll be able to help you determine what you possess, and if it’s a reproduction of a well-known work, we will even help you identify where the original is located.