Original painting vs. Copies or Reproductions

Original art has been copied for centuries. Students would learn how to paint like a master by emulating a masterwork. Often reproductions have been used to provide a less expensive version of a popular painting. While only one individual or institution can own an original painting, thousands of people can own a copy or reproduction of that painting. With the advent of computers copying techniques such as giclee prints have become popular and are often hard to distinguish from the original.

Here are some basic tips that you can use to try to determine if your work is an original or a reproduction. If you’re still unsure please get the best photographs you can, forward them to us, and we will attempt to help you.

Please note: The Caldwell Gallery’s area of expertise is for original American and western European artwork created up until 1970. We are therefore unable to help evaluate, assess, appraise, buy or sell prints, copies or reproductions of original artwork. If you need assistance with this type of artwork we suggest an internet search for dealers who specialize in those specific fields.

You’ll need:
Magnifying glass or Jewelers loupe
Good light (preferably sunlight)

• Original paintings are most often executed on canvas, panel, paper or wood.
• Copies of original artwork is typically done on stock paper or cardboard. Occasionally reproductions can be printed on canvas and varnished in an attempt to emulate brushstrokes.

• With oil paintings you can often see and feel the texture of the paint. Watercolor paintings typically have impressions from the brush that shows up under magnification. Original paintings also can often have paint colors that overlap one another.

Vytlacil paint texture
In this close up of a Vaclav Vytlacil painting you can see the differences in the layers of paint thickness which is one indicator of an original painting vs. a copy.

• Look for pencil sketches under the painting (especially watercolors). Many artists sketch out their idea before they pick up a brush.
• Often there can be a rough or uneven application of paint at the edges of the work with the anticipation that this would be covered up by a frame. Older canvases are attached to the stretcher using nails.

Burkhardt edge
Uneven paint along edge with nails anchoring the canvas to the stretcher are both indicators of an original canvas.

• Copies of original artwork are typically flat and smooth.
• Sometimes copies are printed on textured paper that has “brushstrokes” pressed into the paper. Look closely to see if the brushstrokes match the painting image. For example if there is one brushstroke that goes from a white cloud and continues into the blue sky then that is most likely a texturized print, not an original painting as an artists would have had to change paint colors and therefore the brushstroke would have ended with the cloud.
• Photo-mechanical copies can often have a “dot matrix pattern” which is visible under magnification.

Julio de Diego, Blueprint of the Future
Blueprint of the Future, Julio de Diego

de Diego close up
Here is a close-up portion of the same painting showing unique brush strokes and paint application, especially visible along the fingers and the left portion of the blueprint.

de Diego dot matrix
Here is a close-up portion of the same section of the original from a photo-mechanical reproduction when the painting was photographed and printed as part of a spread in Life Magazine. Notice the dot matrix pattern.

• Copyright information in small letters is a good indication that the work is not original.

• Original works sometimes have labels from shows or galleries that are not removed because they help to tell the history of a piece. Some artists may also sign, title and date their work on the back (the back of a painting is know as verso).
• Lithographs, print series or limited editions are often labeled as such on the back.

Periera verso labels
Verso labels from an Irene Rice Pereira painting.

Breck verso
Back of painting showing original hanging wire and label. It is also clear that this painting was done on canvas as you can see the backside of the canvas along with the stretcher.