Prints & Printmaking 

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Everything you ever wanted to know about prints and printmaking!

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Prior to describing the many different processes that are used in creating a "print", it is important that the reader recognizes and understands the difference between the two major methods of printmaking, namely mechanical and manual. Therefore, the print is either produced by a mechanical process (often automated), or the printmaker (which may also be the artist) produces each print by hand.
Mechanically generated prints
Mechanically generated prints are reproductions of an original piece of artwork such as a drawing, watercolor, oil painting etc. – therefore, a photocopy would be an example of a mechanical print. A mechanical print may be identical in size to the original or it may be enlarged or reduced. In the mechanical process, the original is normally sold (or retained) by the artist upon completion of the printmaking process.
Manually generated prints
Manually generated prints are produced from a "master" that the artist creates specifically for the sole purpose of producing a print – therefore, a hand-pulled lithograph would be an example of a manual print. A manual print will always be identical in size to the "master" that is used to produce it. In the manual process, the "master" has almost no value as an original art form and is normally destroyed upon completion of the printmaking process.

However, it is not uncommon for artists to produce prints by using a combination of both techniques – see the section titled "variations".

A statement that will be used throughout this overview is "value quotient". It is not our intention to attempt to place relative values on one type of printmaking technique versus another, neither will we attempt to place relative values on the various print "enhancements". However, we will indicate items that increase the "perceived value" of a print over another, with all other things being equal, and these will be identified as "value quotients". Hopefully, this will help to answer the question as to why some prints cost more than other seemingly comparable prints.
The most common process used is a mechanical printing press and the correct name for a print produced by this process is an "offset lithograph". However, there is also a manual "lithographic" printing process which produces original prints and it is not uncommon for prints that are generated by either or both of these process to be loosely called "lithos". Any print that is described as a "lithograph" should include the qualifier "hand-pulled" or "offset", as there is significant difference in the "value quotient" of a hand-pulled lithograph versus an offset lithograph.

The development of digital technology brought about the ability to produce screens and even screenprints (serigraphs) mechanically and many of the serigraphs that are being produced today are mechanically generated. Digital technology also added the name "Gicle" (pronounced sh’clay) to our vocabulary. A "Gicle" is a mechanically produced print using a computerized graphics file and a high resolution, wide format, ink jet printer. Gicle prints are fast becoming the preferred method for producing limited edition print runs by many of the artists that historically used the offset lithographic process. Normally referred to as "print on demand" the Gicle process lends itself to producing small batches of prints as and when they are needed. When compared to the more traditional offset lithograph where all of the prints are produced at one time, the Gicle process eliminates the need for storing prints. In addition, Gicle printers accommodate a much broader range of substrates including canvas and cloth, and allow the artist additional versatility in the choice of print media.

With the advent of the electronic age, the ability to produce graphics and duplicate original images by mechanical means is constantly being enhanced, as is the ability to print those images. Many artists today work with computer-generated images and the use of inkjet, electrostatic and other processes are continually being improved upon and new processes developed. There are electronic techniques of printing on canvas, and even the ability to generate computer-controlled airbrush images. Many of the techniques that were once the hallmark of a hand-made print are capable of being reproduced using today’s Electro-mechanical technology. Many novice or first time buyers may be unaware that the "original mixed media on canvas" or "limited edition print" that they just purchased may have been enhanced or generated by a computer!

This type of print is normally referred to as a "fine art print", each print is generated manually, one at a time, and is considered to be an "original print". In this type of printmaking process the ink is transferred onto the paper using a stencil or screen, a metal plate, wooden block or some similar material. In many cases the screen, plate or block has been "worked" by the artist (or printmaker) to accept ink in a consistent manner to allow more than one print to be made. There are four major processes and these are as follows.

Relief Printing – Woodcut, Linocut & Letterpress. Printing from the top of an incision. In this process the artist creates the image by making an incision into the surface of the printing "block or plate". The ink is then applied to the flat surface only (taking care not to allow any of the ink into the incisions) and transferred onto the paper using a press.

Intaglio Printing – Etching, Drypoint & Engraving. Printing from the bottom of an incision. In this process the artist creates the image by making an incision into the surface of the printing "block or plate" which is "saturated" with ink and then the flat surface is wiped clean leaving only the ink in the incisions. The ink is then transferred onto the paper using a press.

Planographic Printing – Monotype & Lithographic. Printing from a single plane. In this process the artist modifies the surface of the "block or plate" such that certain areas accept ink and certain areas do not. The ink is then applied and transferred onto the paper using a press.

Stencil Printing – Silkscreen (Serigraph) & Pochoir. Printing using a stencil or screen. In this process the artist creates the stencils or screens and the ink is transferred onto the paper through the stencil or screen using a brush or squeegee.

This is a question that is often asked and the most difficult to answer, but the primary consideration should always be the "status" of the artist and the "collectibility" of his or her work. However, let’s consider some of the things that can enhance or reduce the value of a print when all other things are equal.

Hand-made versus Mechanical. Assuming the same image and size, issued in the same quantity, printed on the same paper, the hand-made print will have a higher "value quotient".

Limited edition. A very gray area - for an acclaimed and popular artist, whose work is in great demand, a limited edition of 350 prints (or more) may sell out the first day it is released. Unfortunately, if the artist is unknown, 25 prints may be overkill. However, all things being equal, the smaller the edition the higher the "value quotient".

Open edition. Sometimes an artist will run a "open" or "poster" edition of a limited edition print image. These are normally run in indeterminate quantities on lower grade paper and have extremely low "value quotients".

Press proof. A press proof is a print that was produced during the initial "setting up" of the printing process and is used by the print maker and/or the artist to check the accuracy of the process. It will be identified as a "press proof" (PP) and will not normally be included as part of the regular print edition. Press proofs often have all of the attributes and enhancements of the regular edition and can be a very good "buy". However, when compared to the regular print edition they will have a reduced "value quotient".

Artist proof. These are prints (produced after the press proofs) that the artist has spent considerable time and effort inspecting. Each print is individually scrutinized in detail to ensure that the print quality is to the artist’s satisfaction, and they are identified as an "artists proof" (AP). Artists’ proofs are normally produced prior to the regular edition, but additional proofs may also be "culled out" at intervals during the print making process. Artists’ proofs are a "tool" used by the artist to ensure the quality of the regular edition. However, as the number of artists’ proofs is small in relation to the regular edition, they will have a higher "value quotient".

Remarque. The little drawing that the artist adds to the border of the print will enhance the "value quotient".

Hand signed & Numbered. An original signature, date and edition number will enhance the "value quotient".

Paper quality. A print that is produced on heavy weight, top quality, acid free, hand-made, hand-torn paper will enhance the "value quotient".

Additional signatures. Many times an artist will produce a print that is signed by the subject or the people associated with the event. If these are original hand-signed signatures they will enhance the "value quotient".

Restricted issue. A print that has been produced for a business or organization and only made available to its members, associates, employees or guests and not offered for sale to the general public. Once again, all things being equal, the lack of availability will enhance the "value quotient".

Out-of-print Prints. A print that is no longer available from either the artist or their authorized distributor(s) and can only be purchased via the "secondary market". Out-of-print pieces will almost always be considerably more expensive than their original issue selling price. Most prints that were desirable in the primary market will have a considerable secondary market "value quotient".

A hand-made print, with the artist also being the printmaker, issued in an extremely small edition, with a remarque, hand-signed, numbered and dated, on paper that has also been hand-made and hand-torn by the artist. The artist has contributed significantly in the production of the piece. In addition, this print is then hand-signed by the subject and associated individuals and is either a restricted issue or out-of-print. Now we have added the desirability of the additional signatures plus the lack of availability to a "fine art print". Therefore, this print has plenty of "Value Quotients".
A color laser copy, unnumbered with an illegible printed signature, on regular copy paper. The only involvement by the "artist" was to inform the copy machine operator of the number of copies required from the "original" and who knows what that original was or where it came from?

A variation on this is the "stunning art print" that we recently purchased on E-bay to use as an example. The item description included the following " This is a rare and beautiful artistic expression…Unfortunately, my old digital camera cannot capture all of that…There are only 25 hand-signed, dated and numbered prints worldwide!!! Size is 8 ½ x 11 on thick paper…this will undoubtedly only rise in value".

We don’t disagree that it is printed on the heaviest stock that the color laser photocopier could handle, and it is also hand signed and numbered by the artist in an edition of 25. However, anyone that forked out their hard-earned cash for this piece hoping to put the kids through college from the proceeds of a future sale would be bitterly disappointed!

The extremely detailed 300 plus word description failed to include any mention of the printing process used to produce this piece…we wonder why! (The actual print and a printout of the E-bay description are on file at our office and are available for inspection). This type of "print" is very common in on-line auctions and a good tip is to watch for standard paper sizes such as 8 ½" x 11" or 11" x 17" or descriptive titles such as "mini print". These types of prints have zero "Value Quotients".

While both of these descriptions are real, it should be obvious to the reader that they are extremes and that a print from a respected artist or reputable print maker will lean heavily toward the first description and not the latter!

As with all artistic efforts, many of the print making techniques can be combined in order to produce different effects. For example, in 1952 Clarence Hornung produced 500 sets of limited edition prints that were later used as the basis for his book, "Portrait Gallery of Early Automobiles". He produced the outlines of the images including the year of publication and the artist’s and the printmaker’s name mechanically as an offset lithograph; these outlines were then hand-colored using watercolor paints. Hornung’s artistic involvement was to supply the outline drawings to the printer and oversee the personnel employed to do the hand coloring.  Click here to view available Hornung prints.

Compare this technique to that of Ernest Montaut, who in the late 1800’s printed outlines of images, also including the year of publication and the artist’s and printmaker’s name. However, in Montaut’s prints, the outlines were manually produced using hand-pulled lithographs. These outlines were then hand-colored using stencils and watercolor paints. Montaut’s artistic involvement was to draw the image onto a lithographic stone that was used to produce the hand-pulled lithographs and also to oversee the personnel employed to do the hand coloring.  Click here to view available Montaut prints.

Hornung’s hand colored mechanical prints were not numbered but they were issued in a portfolio with a numbered certificate of authenticity assigned to the original owner. Similarly, Montaut’s hand-pulled lithographs were also not numbered. Therefore, once the Hornung portfolio was broken up the similarity between the two examples becomes even closer. However, which is the more desirable and which has the higher "value quotient"?

Undoubtedly, the Montaut pieces have a much higher "value quotient". Why? Because at the same price the majority of buyers would select a Montaut over a Hornung regardless of the process used in their production. Montaut’s lithographs are packed with action, drama, speed and daring, all of this taking place in scenic surroundings. Twisting mountain roads being covered at great speeds by the new-fangled automobile, their drivers and riding mechanics pressed to the limit of physical endurance in order to control these monstrous contraptions. The racing voitures and their drivers, the fashionable chauffeured limousines, the glamour of the occasion and the excitement of the event, are all documented in the Montaut lithographs. By comparison, the Horning prints have an almost engineering precision to them. However, this is exactly what the artist intended to present. Images that were accurate to scale and dimensionally correct with no distractions but yet almost clinical in their presentation. Which would you rather hang on your wall?

Finally, allowing that there has been a significant change in technology in the 50 years between the Montaut and Hornung prints are they both worthy of being called "fine art prints" or are the Hornung prints disqualified due to the outlines being produced by a mechanical process? We will let you be the judge!

If you have read this far we know that you are seriously interested in owning a piece of artwork, so pay attention.

Anyone who buys art as an investment is a fool, and we all know that a fool and his money are soon parted! The only reason anyone should consider purchasing a piece of art is because they like it. There will be some lucky buyers that will realize financial gains on a piece of artwork but they are few and far between. Therefore, our advice when purchasing a piece of art is to "buy what you like" and set aside any thoughts of financial independence from its ownership! Don’t forget this is going to occupy a prime piece of wall space for a long time and you may have to look at it every day! If you are very lucky the particular piece that you "must have" may be blessed with some "value quotients", if so consider this a bonus. However, never use the lack of "value quotients" as the basis for rejecting a piece that you really like - as you are now guilty of placing more importance on the "value quotients" than the image, and after all the image is the art!

Bargains! Like everything in life there will be some bargains that can be purchased below market, so if you aspire to become an art dealer these are the pieces that you should seek. Chances are that you will never be lucky enough to find any of the pieces you want in the "bargain basement", so your objective will be to purchase for resale. However, the art business is both fickle and fashionable and today’s hot item may well become tomorrow’s garbage. All of which reinforces the fact that investing in art in the hope of financial gain is a foolish pastime.

There are many pitfalls that face the novice buyer in his search for artwork. Mass produced reproductions that are copies of scarce limited edition and fine art prints are sold at ludicrous prices to the unsuspecting at on-line auctions. They may be inexpensive offset lithographs that include a printed facsimile of the artist’s signature or wording beneath the image such as "a serigraph by" or "a water color by…" instead of including the all important word "FROM a serigraph by" or "FROM a water color by…". Or they may be printed on high quality paper and have forged signatures and edition numbers, and are often sold to unwary buyers as original serigraphs or watercolors! The on-line auction is the breeding ground for these pieces and recourse is normally non-existent. Don’t forget that the ability to reproduce an image electronically and digitally is constantly improving, therefore, so is the quantity and quality of fakes, forgeries and reproductions. Every buyer has heard this statement many times, but it is still the best advice available on the face of the earth! Buy from a reputable dealer, that offers a return and refund guarantee. Preferably, this dealer should have a working relationship with the artist and have some provenance or history relating to the piece and be willing to provide you with a guarantee of authenticity. Granted, you are less likely to get a deal on price, but you are also less likely to end up getting stuck with a piece of junk that you paid far too much money for. The fringe benefit is that instead of bragging about how little (you think) you paid for that cheap and nasty laser copy, you can brag about the great piece of artwork that you just purchased!

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