Introduction to Collecting Prints
Everybody knows that a painting is unique, one-off work of art, but the idea of an ‘original print’ is somehow confusing, because the word ‘print’ has become associated with posters and other photographic reproductions.
Some of the most commonly asked questions are “What is a print?”, “How are they made?” “How do I know it is original?”, “What makes the price?” and “How do I care for my print?”
So, I thought I would create a section in our ever growing website to help collectors, especially those buying original prints for the first time, by answering these simple questions.
What is a Print?
To put it simply, unlike a painting, prints are made by drawing not on paper or canvas, but on a surface such as stone or a metal plate, from which the image can then be printed a number of times. The surface is inked, a sheet of paper is then placed over it and the two are run through a press. The total number of prints that are pulled is decided by the artist and the publisher beforehand and this is called an edition. Each impression in the edition is signed and numbered by the artist. Once the edition is complete the original block, plate or stone is either defaced or destroyed so that no more can be made.
Original prints are often referred to by the technique that was used to produce them, such as etching, engraving and lithograph. These are explained in the Printmaking Techniques section.
How are prints made?
Original prints are hand-made by the artist, often in collaboration with a master printmaker, who would help with the technical aspects of inking the surface and running it through a hand-operated press. The development of fine art printmaking in the 20th century is indebted to the skills of these master printmakers – such as Fernand Mourlot and Roger Lacouriere, who enabled artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse to realise their visions for printmaking. However, these master craftsmen were constantly frustrated and delighted by the way these artists also broke centuries-old rules in their desire to find something new.
Publishers are also very important part of the history of printmaking and indeed, if it wasn’t for the support of the great Parisian publisher Ambroise Vollard, the careers of many of the great artists of the 20th century, including Picasso, would not have taken off so quickly.
An artist often enters into an agreement with a publisher to produce an edition, with the publisher covering the costs of the materials and the workshop time, in return for the right to sell the prints. Between them, they will decide the size of the edition.
How do I know it is original?
One key resource – for both dealers and collectors – is the catalogue raisonne: a complete catalogue of the artist’s work. Most of the major artists of the Twentieth Century have a catalogue raisonne for each aspect of their artistic production – prints, drawings, paintings etc.
A catalogue raisonne will give the following information: title and date of the work, the technique, the type of paper used, the size of the paper, the edition number, where the print is signed and whether the signature is in pencil, pen etc., the name of the printer and the publisher.
If the print matches the catalogue raisonne in every detail, then there is a very good chance it is original. One then has to check the signature to make sure that it matches the artist’s signature from that time (handwriting does vary over time).
The international art market decides the price, based on the principle of supply and demand. Original prints may exist in multiples of more than one, which can account for a difference of millions between the price of a painting and print by Picasso, but they are still extremely limited. If a certain print is in demand and the supply is no longer there, the price will go up. The market for the artists we deal with is very stable and a print by Picasso or Miro, Chagall or Matisse will always be a very good investment with prices going up significantly. Investing in art is a very good way to differentiate the portfolio as art normally follows different routes comparing with other markets and normally the art market is very healthy during recession times.
However, price also very much depends on the condition of the print. Works on paper are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by mishandling, poor framing, exposure to strong light and, of course, the passage of time. Prints in good condition are more sought after by collectors and therefore their prices are higher.
The artist makes a drawing on a suitable surface – such as a wooden block – and then cuts away all the space around it, leaving the drawn areas raised, or in ‘relief’. Ink is applied to the surface with a roller and then transferred onto paper either by passing the block through a press or rubbing it by hand. Since the cutaway areas do not take the ink, they appear white on the printed image.
Relief prints are characterized by bold dark-light contrasts. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut.
Woodcut is the earliest and most enduring print technique. While woodcuts were first seen in ninth-century China, they first became popular in the West in the 13th century and reached the height of their popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some of the most important works by the great German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Durer, are woodcuts. The form was revived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most notably bt the German Expressionists, who enjoyed its simplicity and directness.
Wood Engraving is an extremely fine form of woodcutting, using blocks made from the end-grain of the wood, which affords great precision and detail.
Linocut is essentially the same process as woodcut, the only difference being that linoleum is softer and easier to use. Picasso began using the linoleum off his floor as early as 1939, but it was from the mid-50s that linocuts became an important part of his print production, as he imitated the bold designs and bright colours of the posters produced for the local bullfights near his home in the South of France.
Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning “to cut in.”: the image being cut into a metal plate (usually copper or zinc) using either a sharp tool (engraving) or acid (etching). The plate is then covered with ink and wiped, so that the ink remains only in the incised grooves. A dampened piece of paper is placed over the plate and both are then run through a press at great pressure, so that the paper is pushed into the grooves, picking up the ink.
The plate is usually smaller than the paper, so that the impression of the plate, or the platemark, remains on the paper – an easy way to tell an intaglio print.
The primary intaglio techniques are engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, and aquatint.
Engraving is a process in which the plate is cut into directly using a sharp-pointed tool called a burin. Shadows are created through cross-hatching. As the burin moves across the plate, metal shavings, called burr, are forced to either side of the lines being engraved, and are usually cleaned from the plate before printing. As such, an engraved line has a sharp and clean appearance.
Drypoint is a similar process to engraving, using a more delicate tool, and the burr is not scraped away before printing. The result is characterized by softer-looking lines than those in an engraving, although the burr soon flattens under the pressure of the press and so only a few prints can be pulled before the lines start to blur too much.
Mezzotint is essentially engraving in reverse. A spiked roller called a rocker is used to create a textured surfaced all over the plate, so that if it was inked and printed it would print in solid black. The artist then works from “black” to “white” by flattening (burnishing) areas so that they do not hold ink. This technique allows a great variety of tones and is ideal for atmospheric landscapes.
Etching starts with covering the metal plate with a waxy coating called a ground. The artist draws on the ground with a burin, exposing the metal beneath. The plate is then immersed in acid, which “bites” into the exposed lines, preserving the drawing. The ground is then removed, and the plate is inked, wiped clean and printed in exactly the same way as an engraving. and ink is introduced into the incised lines, and the plate is wiped clean. It is much easier to draw quickly on the waxy ground than it is directly onto the plate and this is why etching became the preferred technique for artists such as Picasso and Matisse who wanted to match the fluidity of drawing with the aesthetic possibilities of printing.
Aquatint is a form of etching process in which the plate is covered with a semi-porous ground, which allows the acid to bite through evenly, creating areas of tone on top of the incised lines. Because of this, aquatints can often look like ink-brushed drawings or watercolours.
Lithography was invented in 1798, as a way of making posters and reached it’s height in Paris in the 1890s, when artists like Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec used it to design posters for cabarets and revues. Lithographs were initially made on slabs of stone (usually limestone), although, in the 20th century, the heavy stones began to be replaced by sheets of zinc.
The artist draws on the stone or plate using a greasy medium, such as a wax crayon. The surface is then dampened with water, which is repelled by the greasy areas, sticking only to the sections of the plate that have not been drawn on. Ink is then applied to the plate with a roller and this sticks only to the greasy sections, as the water protects the rest of the plate. The stone or plate is then covered with paper and run through the press, printing the original crayon drawing.
Screenprinting was made famous by the Pop artists of the 1960s, who took this commercial process (used for printing labels and t-shirts) to make their art of consumer icons. It is essentially a stencil process. A fabric mesh (screen) is stretched over a frame, which is then placed on top of a sheet of paper. The screen is blocked out with a stencil. Most screenprints are made up of a number of layers – with each stencil allowing a different element or colour to be printed. Ink is then dragged over the screen using a squeegee, forcing its way through the un-masked areas onto the paper beneath. One of Warhol’s great innovations was to cover the screen with a photosensitive material and then project a photograph on it, turning the screen into the equivalent of a film ‘negative’ and thus allowing him to endlessly print the images of his favourite stars.
In a monotype, an un-worked metal plate is drawn on using ink and then pressed against a piece of paper. Usually, the ink will last for one strong and one weak impression – creating an ‘original drawing’ and a printed edition of one (hence the name).