I am regularly surprised at Exhibitions to hear the comments people make when talking about prints; from "I wouldn't buy a print - I only want the original" to "..yes; but it's only a print". On the other hand I also once listened to two ladies discussing an original print and commenting on the delicate brushwork! I know it's going to be difficult but I would really like to educate everyone on what a print actually is. To this end I have produced a small booklet which I have been making available at recent exhibitions. The contents, laid out as an explanation of the various terms, are set out below.
The most important difference that I would like everyone to understand is between an Original Print
and a reproduction. Reproductions are widely available even at local art society exhibitions; and many are of excellent quality. I am not about to knock reproductions (I make them of my own work) and with the availability of modern ink jet printers they are fairly easy to make. The reproduction is an opportunity for the artist to make their work available at an affordable price; not everyone wants to spend or can afford to spend perhaps several hundred pounds on an original painting or maybe they just don't have the space for an original work that could be particularly large. It should be understood however, that a reproduction is simply a copy of the original and may be one copy of very many. Commercialy produced reproductions can run into thousands; although it's unlikely that many of us will be making more than a dozen or so prints of our paintings.
An Original Print is a work conceived from the outset as a print and doesn't exist in any other form, it is not a reproduction but a unique piece produced by the artist. It may be a one off such as a mono print or it may be a limited edition in which case the number in the edition will be indicated on the print.
The following notes go into greater detail and I hope will help to explain what the various terms mean. If anyone out there finds fault with anything I have said please do let me know; I hope that this will help to clarify, not cause confusion! Printmaking is a developing art even if it has been around for hundreds of years and artists are constantly introducing new techniques; so if you do come across something I haven't covered I would love to hear from you.
An Original Print
An original print is not mass produced at the press of a button on a fully automated press. The whole process involves the input of the artist from creation to completion. Unlike posters and reproductions, fine art original prints are an art form with a long historical tradition.
An original print is not a copy of anything else, it is an art work conceived and originated as a print from the outset. Sometimes confusion arises because commercially printed reproductions (of paintings, photographs and other designs) are often called ‘limited edition prints’. However they are often ‘limited’ to thousands of reproduced copies of the same image, and if the artist has any involvement at all, it is simply to sign them.
Original Prints are truly limited editions - with sometimes as few as one copy, (in which case it isn’t strictly speaking an edition) each has been hand printed by either the artist or a master printmaker using a manual press and hand mixed inks. Even if printed by a master printer the artist will be involved in every stage of the process, from making and proofing the block or plate to the mixing of colours and the hand finishing of every print. The prints will be numbered (1/20, 2/20, 3/20 etc. 20 being the total number of prints in the edition and 1,2,3 etc the actual number of the particular print), titled, dated and signed by the artist in pencil.
Best quality, acid free paper and archival inks are used so that the print will not fade or yellow (as long as it is properly handled) and the colours stay constant.
At the most basic level prints generally fall into one of two categories, intaglio, where the ink sits below the surface of the plate in etched or engraved lines and marks, or relief where the ink rests on the surface of the plate and the areas that have been removed print white.
An etching is a print or impression taken from a metal plate (usually copper, zinc or steel). The artist covers the prepared plate with an acid resistant coating and then draws into the coating with a variety of mark making tools. These marks expose the metal underneath the coating. When the drawing is complete, the plate is placed in a bath of Ferric Chloride or Acid. The Ferric ‘bites’ the marks made by the artist, creating small furrows and lines below the surface of the plate. The coating is then removed and the plate covered with ink which is then wiped with scrim (a stiff textile) until all excess ink is removed from the plate, leaving only the ink in the bitten lines and marks below the plate’s surface. To take a print, the plate is placed on the bed of an etching press and a piece of dampened paper is placed on top. The pressure exerted by the rollers as the plate is passed through the press transfers the ink in the marks and lines onto the paper. This manner of inking is common to all ‘intaglio’ processes, including Mezzotint, Engraving, Collagraph, and Photogravure. Aquatint is another intaglio process often used on an etching plate to create tone.
If the artist is happy with the result he/she will then print other impressions from the plate, signing and numbering each one. This is called an edition of prints.
A Mezzotint is also a print or impression taken from a metal plate. It differs from an etching in that the artist creates the image in the metal by hand, working from dark to light, without the use of acids. Before making the drawing, the plate is carefully prepared by a meticulous process; the artist takes the metal plate and using a ‘rocker’ (a toothed hardened steel tool) works the tool over the surface of the plate in a rocking motion; first in one direction then another (probably many times, each time changing direction). This covers the plate in a series of tiny teeth, or pitted marks; which, when inked in the traditional method of etching would produce a rich solid black rectangle the size of the plate.
To create the image the artist then scrapes and polishes the surface of the plate with a series of scraping and burnishing tools. The more pressure is applied through the tool to the surface of the plate the more the ‘tooth’ is removed. The more ‘tooth’ is removed the paler or whiter the image will appear in that area of the print. This process might be compared to removing charcoal from a drawing with a putty rubber. The plate is then inked and printed in the same manner as an etching.
A Polymer Gravure is a print impression taken from an etching plate that has been made by photo processing. The artist creates the artwork on acetate. This could be hand drawn or a photographic image printed onto acetate either photographically or digitally using a computer.
To make the plate, it first has to be given a light sensitive surface either by using photo-polymer film or using a commercially prepared plate (solar plate).
The image is exposed to the plate using ultra violet light. The UV light passing through the acetate progressively hardens the photo polymer, i.e. clear areas of acetate will allow more UV light through making the polymer harder, dark areas of the acetate allow less UV light through so the polymer remains soft.
The soft polymer emulsion is washed away to create an ‘etched’ level on the plate. The plate is then inked, wiped and printed in the same way as an etching. Photo polymer films can also be used to create ‘photo-etchings’ where the photo-polymer is used as the resist and the plate bitten in ‘acid’.
Prints made using Photo-polymer film can sometimes be seen described as ‘Intaglio-type’ (non etched) or ‘Photo-polymer etching’ (etched) .
A Collagraph is a print or impression taken from a collaged plate. To make the plate the artist takes a piece of card or board and covers it with ‘found’ materials to build up different levels of relief, texture and tone. The plate can also be cut into using a sharp knife, and even very fine incised lines will hold ink in the intaglio manner.
The plate is then sealed with a coat of varnish before being covered with ink and wiped. The plate is then placed on the bed of an etching press, covered with a piece of dampened paper, and run through the press. The pressure of the rollers combined with the damp paper draws the ink out from the surfaces of the plate resulting in an often richly textured print sometimes with a characteristically 3D embossed surface.
Collagraphs are often a combination of relief and intaglio processes. And a multi-coloured Collagraph plate can take hours to ink up and wipe before the print can be taken.
A lithograph can be printed from the traditional block of limestone used in stone lithography or from light sensitive photo-plates, zinc or polyester plates. Each material offers the artist a different range of marks and allows prints to be created with a wide range of individual qualities. Stone lithography is characterised by its direct drawn and painterly qualities with the image drawn directly onto the stone’s surface with a greasy ink or crayon enabling a rich variety of marks and textures to be created directly and spontaneously. Photo plate lithography allows high quality photographic or computer manipulated imagery on acetate to be exposed onto the plate. Likewise painted and drawn marks on acetate can also be exposed to photo-plates.
All lithographs are printed by first sponging the plate or stone with water and rolling oil-based ink across the surface with a roller. The water acts as a barrier allowing the oily ink to adhere only to the drawn or exposed areas.
Once inked the stone/plate and paper are run through a press under high pressure and the ink is transferred onto the paper. Inking is repeated until the entire edition has been printed. The process of preparing a stone or plate, drawing up a new image for each subsequent colour, inking by hand and carefully positioning the paper for each printing has to be repeated for each colour that the artist wishes to print.
A monotype is a unique print process in the sense that there is only one impression available. Monotypes are created by painting or rolling printing ink onto the surface of a metal plate or sheet of Perspex. Unlike other print processes, this lets the artist apply more than one colour at once. When the artwork is complete, the plate or Perspex is placed on the bed of a printing press. Dampened or dry paper is placed on top and run through the press. The pressure transfers the ink from the plate to the paper.
If the artists wishes to add more details or colours, the paper is trapped in the printing press, the plate removed and reworked before being carefully repositioned and run through the press again.
Painters sometimes favour this method of printmaking as it is very spontaneous and involves no printmaking processing which can take considerable time. A monotype is a unique print, in the sense that there can only be one impression, i.e. like a painting or drawing. Monoprints are similar although in the case of a monoprint the plate will have been worked into e.g. to give part of the image an intaglio line whereas a monotype, although it may be produced using a plate, the plate has not been changed in any way.
Woodcut, linocut and woodblock are all forms of relief printing. In all types of relief printing the image is carved out of the wood (or linoleum) with sharp knives and gouges, so that the image becomes raised next to the lower ‘cut’ areas. Once cut the printing block is inked up using a hard roller. The roller only inks the uncut areas and once inked, paper is placed over the block and pressure applied either by rubbing the back of the paper or by a relief press. What is particular to relief printing is that the cut areas remain as white paper, so the artist has to carefully consider what areas to cut away.
A woodcut may show a characteristic wood grain that may add to the aesthetic feel of the image and can be used to great effect when the right piece of wood is chosen with care. Many artists will these days choose to cut their blocks from MDF, Linoleum or vinyl flooring, modern materials that have their own characteristics. Blocks of very hard end grain wood are used to create Wood Engravings which when skilfully cut with especially sharp tools can produce very fine detail.
Japanese woodblock prints differ from other relief prints in that the water based ink is often applied to the cut blocks with brushes and each block is printed without a press. The paper is positioned on the inked block and rubbed hard through the back of the paper with a flat pad known as a barren. This allows for more variety and subtlety in colour and tone than is usually seen in a ‘rolled-up’ relief print, the results often have a softer watercolour quality.
In screen printing a fine fabric mesh is stretched tightly over a frame. Traditionally meshes were made of silk, hence the term ‘silk-screen’ although modern meshes are made from tougher polyester mesh. Images are made by blocking areas of this mesh with stencils and then are printed by pushing the inks through the screen mesh using a squeegee. The simplest type of stencil Can be made from cut or torn paper applied to the screen mesh, today however, artists more commonly use far more sophisticated light sensitive emulsion stencils as they can produce greater detail and a wide variety of marks and textures. To prepare the screen, the screen mesh is coated with the light sensitive emulsion.
When dry, the screen is exposed to the artwork (which has been drawn or transferred onto acetates/tracing paper) by using an ultra violet exposure unit. After exposure, the screen is washed with water to produce a durable stencil of the image for printing.
To print, the screen is attached to a printing press and coloured ink is pushed through the mesh onto the paper using a squeegee blade. Each layer of colour is printed individually, with a new stencil or acetate created for each colour, and care must be taken to register each layer of ink on top of the previously printed colours. If the artist is happy with the result he/she will then print other impressions in the same way, signing and numbering each one. This is called an edition of prints.
As ‘IT’ becomes more and more entrenched in our daily lives, printmakers are increasingly using computer software as another tool in the image creation process. Where the integration of photography with printmaking has become standard practice, the creative possibilities of using software to manipulate and transform imagery are now becoming increasingly common.
There are currently two common ways computers are used in printmaking, hybrid-printmaking and all digital. In hybrid-printmaking the computer is used in the first stage of the process to manipulate and transform imagery, allowing scope for changing scale, darkening/lightening, enhancing, transforming etc. before printing out images onto acetates. These acetates are then exposed onto light sensitive plates or screen coatings to enable the images to be printed by hand, often in several colours, using traditional print making processes. Alternatively, the all digital approach is exactly that, with the final print being a high quality printout; the three best-known types being Giclee or Iris (types of high quality ink-jet) or Lambda prints (computer output printed using a photographic process).
Acceptance of all-digital inkjet/Giclee prints as fine art original prints is relatively new and is dependant not only on the quality and longevity of materials (light fast inks and acid free papers) but also on the intention of the artist to create something new through interaction with the medium. For many the skill and experience required to manipulate the software is akin to the skill required to manipulate a ‘physical ‘ printmaking medium.
The introduction of digital printmaking has once again been cause for the terminology and definition of original prints to be redefined: printmaking is constantly evolving.
Original Digital Print or Reproduction
An original digital print has been printed by an artist or under the artist’s supervision using archival quality materials and the artist has signed and numbered each print.
Reproductions of original artworks differ in that they are not part of an original edition but are copies usually of an original artwork in a different medium. A reproduction may be made of any type of original artwork using a photomechanical process such as scanning or photographing the image. A facsimile is a reproduction created to the same scale and appearance as the original. Whilst the same high quality printing techniques may be used to produce reproduction prints these are not considered original artworks produced by the artist, who may not even have been involved in the reproduction process in any way.
Glossary of Printmaking Terms
An edition consists of a number of prints produced from the same plate(s) or screens. The prints are as close to being identical as possible and have been published at the same time. Original prints are usually signed and numbered in pencil, this may be on the front of the print but can also be on the back. A print with the edition number 3/20 is the 3rd print in an edition of 20.
Alongside any prints forming part of an edition there may also be signed proofs indicated by the following letters:
AP (Artists Proof)
These are prints of an equal quality to the edition but are intended for the artists personal use. Where a print is never printed as an edition, a few A/P’s printed by the artist may be the only existing prints. A/P’s will exist only in much smaller numbers than the edition, with 5 being the maximum.
TP (Trial Proofs)
These are proofs printed prior to the production of an edition in order to test and refine the matrix and technique.
BAT (‘Bon a tirer’ French term meaning good to pull)
This is the proof chosen by the artist to serve as the standard for the edition.
VE (Varied Edition)
A varied edition is made up of a number or prints that are different versions of the same image printed from the same matrix. This variation may be apparent in the paper used e.g. Colour, image placement etc. Or where inking makes it impossible to produce exactly identical copies. These are labelled VE and numbered using roman numerals e.g. VE iii/X
The following Printmaking Courses are regularly run at White Cottage Studio:
Introduction to Etching using ‘safe’ printmaking techniques
Introduction to Drypoint & Collagraphs
Introduction to Polymer Gravure and Solar Plate printmaking
Weekly workshops for those wishing to continue with their
Please use the contact page to request details:
T: 01264 392411
White Cottage Studio
All of my prints are produced entirely by me, in my own studio, using fine art acid free papers and light fast pigment based inks.
Mounted Prints are backed with conservation board which should be placed between the print and the back of your picture frame, this will protect the print from any contamination from the frame.
All of my mounted prints have been mounted to a size to fit standard frame sizes normally available in every High street.