Understanding the Fine Print (January/February 2011)

Art Smart 
January / February 2011

By Adam Cave

Here at the beginning of a new century, one of the most important art forms of the last millennium is also one of the most misunderstood. Printmaking, despite its long history, confuses modern collectors more than any other medium. The complexity and variety of fine art printing techniques, combined with the advances in reproduction and commercial printing, have all contributed to this confusion. However, with some clear explanations and a little history, art collectors should have the tools to understand the prints that they see and more fully appreciate this fascinating art form.

Confusion starts with the word “print”

The word “print” these days can refer to anything printed in any manner; however, most fine art printmakers make works defined as original prints. The term “original” indicates that the artwork was conceived, from the start, to be a print. It is not a reproduction of a previously created artwork such as a painting. “Original” also reflects the fact that hand-made prints, although often multiples of a single image, are made one at a time, and no two are exactly the same. By contrast, reproduction prints are mechanically made copies in which a scan or photograph of any type of completed artwork is used by computers and commercial printing presses to produce facsimiles. Examples include limited-edition gicl�es, offset lithographs and posters.

Printing dates back over 1000 years to early Asian block prints, but fine art printmaking as we know it did not fully develop until the invention of the printing press in 1440. The press allowed artists to spend more time refining images and printing them with much greater consistency. Woodcuts and engravings by Albrecht Durer in the 16th century were some of the first works to demonstrate printmaking’s potential. In the 17th century, Rembrandt became as famous for his emotionally charged etchings as his paintings. This period also saw the growth of a new, educated middle class that wanted to collect art. Only royalty and the church could afford large paintings, but prints, by the very same artists, were affordable and highly collected. Increasingly, many now-famous artists subsidized their careers with print sales; Goya (18th century); Manet and Degas (19th century); Picasso, Dali, Wood, Benton, Hopper and Warhol (20th century). The good news for collectors is that while paintings by these artists are all but priceless, their original prints (and those of countless others) are far more affordable and are actively collected and enjoyed.

What is an “original print”

An original print is most often an image created with ink on paper where the ink has been transferred to the paper from another surface instead of drawn directly by hand. An artist inscribes marks on a primary surface called a matrix (a metal plate for example). These marks hold ink and, with pressure, can transfer, or “print” that ink onto a piece of paper. The resulting print is a mirror image of the matrix. Most of us have done rudimentary printmaking when we made potato stamps in elementary school. Stamping, woodblock printing, linoleum block printing, and wood engraving are examples of one of the three major categories of printmaking: relief printing. To make a relief print, an artist uses knives and chisels to carve patterns into a flat, smooth surface such as a block of wood. Ink is rolled on the uncarved surface and then paper is pressed down on the block with enough pressure to transfer the ink to the paper. Since no ink touched the carved out areas (below the surface) they form the negative space in the image and appear white in the resulting print.

Artists who prefer their carved marks to print black instead of white choose intaglio printmaking, which includes engraving, dry point, mezzotint, and etching. In the first three techniques the artist uses sharp tools to scratch directly into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. Ink is rolled on the plate and pushed into all the scratched grooves below the plate surface. The smooth surface of the plate is subsequently wiped clean leaving ink only in the grooves. The artist covers the plate with a dampened sheet of paper and puts both under a press, the pressure of which pushes the ink out of the grooves and onto the paper to create the print.

Since scratching delicate marks directly into metal is difficult, etching was developed, and is the most widely practiced intaglio technique. In etching, the metal plate is first covered with a thin layer of clay-like substance called a ground. With a stylus, the artist can easily and fluidly draw in the ground, exposing the underlying metal with each mark. The plate is then put into a bath of acid that etches grooves into the exposed areas of the metal. After taking the plate out of the acid bath, the ground is removed, and the plate is inked, wiped and printed using the same methods of the other intaglio processes.

The third type of original printmaking is planographic and includes lithography and silkscreen printing. Planographic techniques create images on the surface of a matrix without any carving or etching. Lithography is based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. The matrix is traditionally smooth limestone on which the artist draws with a greasy crayon. These marks are then chemically treated to attract oil and repel water. The stone is dampened with water and when ink is rolled on the surface it only sticks to the treated areas. The inked stone is covered with a sheet of paper and sent through a printing press to print the image.

In silkscreen printing, an invention in the early 20th century, the artist designs a stencil that is glued down on a fine screen. The screen is laid over a piece of paper and ink is forced through it. Since the ink can only get through the areas not covered by the stencil, the resulting image corresponds to the stencil design.

Proofs and editions

There are far too many types of original printmaking to mention in this article. However, almost all techniques fall under relief, intaglio or planographic printmaking and most allow for the repeated printing of an image multiple times. The resulting set of images is called an edition and each individual piece is a proof. Although no two hand- made prints are ever exactly the same, great consistency between the proofs in an edition is a sign of a printmaker’s skill. Some artists have no interest in creating editions at all and instead make singular prints called monotypes that cannot be repeated. Modern printmakers who do create editions will pencil sign and number each piece so that collectors know how many have been made.

Printmaking today does seem to be enjoying a renaissance, and collectors who understand the medium are in for an exciting time. Artists have more access than ever to the tools they need and they are creating deeply personal works in an endless variety of styles and techniques. Just as in earlier centuries, high quality printmaking by well-known artists continues to be affordable and can be a very wise investment. Collect today’s contemporary printmakers and you may well be buying tomorrow’s Rembrandts.


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