by Jeffrey Grunthaner
What exactly are prints? An all-too-common misconception novice collectors tend to have is that all prints are reproductions — like posters hanging on a dorm room wall, mechanically reproduced and sold en masse. Yet the truth of the matter is that prints, even on those rare occasions when they do take the form of a poster, are original artworks in their own right. They bear the trace of the artist’s hand, as well as the marks of the printer he or she has chosen to work with. The prints made by our favorite artists are just as original as their sculptures, paintings, or photographs — there’s just more of them.
First and foremost, printmaking is an art. For this reason, original prints have been known to sell for over a million USD at auctions. Just recently, in fact, an etching by Pablo Picasso, La Minotauromachie, sold for a record-breaking $1.98 million. Of course, not all types of prints reach into the economic stratosphere in this way. As we will see, collecting prints can be a pragmatically inexpensive way to develop a respectable art collection. What’s essential is to know what to look for.
There Are Different Kinds of Prints
As every savvy collector should know, there are different kinds of prints available on today’s market. These include, but are not limited to, lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens, linocuts, drypoints, aquatints, mezzotints, and giclée prints. Among this variety, let’s touch on the ones that have had the most art historical significance: etchings, screenprints, lithographs, and giclées.
- Etching: Etchings are known for achieving extremely nuanced contrasts, generally using black and white as their palette. This technique was used by Old Masters and continued well into our time. Rembrandt originally pioneered it and his etchings have been described by the Morgan Library & Museum as “famous for their dramatic intensity, penetrating psychology, and touching humanity.”
In Rembrandt’s time as now, the technique underlying the making of an etching involves covering a metal plate with wax, and then scratching an image onto the plate with a
specially designed needle. Next, the artist immerses the plate in an acid that eats into the parts of the metal cut out by the needle. While submerged in the acid, the plate is generally “feathered,” or brushed by a feather-like tool so that bubbles don’t interfere with the corrosive effect of the acid. When the plate is removed from the acid, the wax is wiped off and ink is pushed into the grooves where the acid has eaten into the grooves made by the needle. All the excess ink is cleared away, except for what fills the grooves. Finally, a dampened paper is placed over the plate, and a protective cloth is placed over both. It’s in this configuration that the etching press is made to run over the plate, staining the dampened paper with the image cut into the plate.
- Screen Printing: With roots extending all the way back to the Song Dynasty of ancient China, screen printing today is mainly associated with the Pop artist Andy Warhol. In the 1960’s, Warhol used what was then termed “serigraphy” to recreate the sense of standardization he felt existed in and around the depiction of celebrity icons. As is generally the case when artists make prints, Warhol worked closely with master screen printer Michel Caza, who was himself a founder of “The Federation of European Screen Printers Associations” (FESPA).
The technique of screen printing uses a mesh to transfer ink onto a substrate, already primed to be made impermeable in places so that the ink can’t oversaturate the mesh. This is called a “stencil method” of printmaking, as a stencil is used to impose on a screen of polyester or other fine mesh blank areas not coated with the impermeable substance. Ink is then forced into the mesh openings by a fill blade or squeegee, creating a more detailed rendering of the design with each squeegee stroke.
- Lithography: Was first pioneered by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 19th century. His technique has gone on to influence many important 20th century artists, not least of which are Joan Miró, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. To make a lithograph, the artist first draws onto stone using a grease-based medium (called a “tusche”). The stone is then treated with a chemical solution that ensures the image will attract printing ink, and that blank areas will repel ink and attract water. A solvent is used to fix the image, and the surface is dampened with water. Oil-based ink is then applied to the stone with a roller, adhering only to the image. Finally, the stone is placed on a lithographic press and covered with damp paper and board — a pressure bar ensuring force is evenly applied across the image. The image is printed in reverse, with separate stones used for complex images of multiple colors.
- Giclée Printing: It came into existence in the wake of computer technologies becoming more and more readily available to artists. Graham Nash (of the rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young) was one of the first to successfully utilize computer printers for his printing business. However, in 1991, one of Nash’s employees, the artist Jack Duganne, coined the term “giclée,” to distance his more artistic printing method from Nash’s more business-like model. The word itself derives from the French word for “nozzle” (gicleur), and today refers any print made using archival inks, archival papers, and color quality control. Giclée prints are often an inexpensive alternative for digital artists who wish to make reproductions of their original two-dimensional artwork, while preserving the original rendering for themselves.
Buying and Collecting Prints: What to Know
There are a couple things the burgeoning collector should know when assessing whether a print is worth its asking price.
- It’s not wise for any aspiring collector to assume outright that the print is a first edition. A particular edition of prints may indeed have been printed from an artist’s original plate, woodblock or stone (and thus can still be considered an original print), many prints — similar to books — go through several editions.
- Talk to those who know. An experienced dealer will know how to assess a print by the type of paper it’s printed on, the absence or presence of watermarks, the overall size of the sheet and the consistency of the impression. Having said this, first editions are almost always more valuable, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, and consult with specialists. It’s not simply a matter of precaution, but an extension of being genuinely interested in an artist’s work that should guide one’s curiosity. Overall, the main thing to be wary about is buying a forgery while thinking it’s an authentic work. Since a print that was signed by the artist does increase its value, one should make sure that whatever signature a print bears is legitimate.
- Don’t assume that a print was really signed by the artist. Unscrupulous persons have been known to take a genuine print and forge the artist’s signature. Since a print signed in pencil by the artist is worth more than the same composition unsigned, one must be especially cautious if collecting works by A-list artists such as Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. But unsigned impressions aren’t always bad things. Savvy art buyers on a budget are known to purposely look for unsigned impressions of the same print — knowing that aesthetically there is no difference, while the savings are enormous.
Where to Buy High-Quality Art Prints
Today, the sheer number of art fairs devoted exclusively to prints is a testament to their increasing popularity. Founded in 1990, the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy is the oldest art fair that deals in prints and multiples. In New York, the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) annually hosts the Fine Art Print Fair, which is now in its 26th year, and where you can find a wide range of prints, from works made by old masters to modern editions made by contemporary publishers. By contrast, websites like ARTmine are great resources for purchasing limited edition prints online.
Whether buying prints online or at a fair, one should always note how many editions of a print series there is. A print from an edition of 100 is more valuable than a print from an edition of 1,000. Similarly, a monoprint, of which there is only one, will probably be worth even more. Make sure the price seems adequate to the rarity of the print. An artist will have decided well in advance how many prints he or she will make. Once an edition is completed, it can’t be added to, even if the prints happen to sell very well. Apart from the prints for sale, there are also artist copies or proofs, which are generally not available to the public. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no difference in quality between the numbered prints (print #1, #2, #3, etc.), and the artist’s proof.
Take care that your print is original. The most definitive method of determining whether a print is an original or a reproduction is by examining it in relation to what you know of its production process. If the print is supposed to be a lithograph, for example, there shouldn’t be a platemark. If there is the trace of a platemark, then what you have is most likely a reproduction. To reiterate, prints are made by an original process; a reproduction, however, is only photomechanically produced. The difference between an authentic print (a numbered member of a series) and a reproduction can generally be spotted by an expert and may even appear quite obvious the more one understands the technique behind how a print is made.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, or Hyperallergic. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.