Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots

Edward Lear


What is a Print?

A print is a work of graphic art which has been conceived by the artist to be realized as an original work of art, rather than a copy of a work in another medium. Prints are produced by drawing or carving an image onto a hard surface (known as the matrix) such as a wood block, metal plate, or stone. This surface is then inked and the image is transferred to paper by the application of pressure, thus creating an impression, or print. The printed image that results is the exact reverse of the image on the plate.

Unlike paintings or drawings, prints usually exist in multiple impressions, each of which has been created from the inked plate. The total number of impressions made is called an edition. Artists began to sign and number each impression around the turn of the 20th century to ensure that only the editions they intended to make would be in circulation. Plates are not to be used in subsequent printmaking runs without the artist’s explicit authorization. The process of printing the edition is therefore just as important to the authenticity of a print as the act of inscribing the image onto the plate.

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The earliest prints were made in China in the ninth century, around the time that paper was invented. Later, contact between Asia and Europe facilitated the spread of this form of art-making, and by the fifteenth century printmaking had become popular all over Europe. After the introduction of moveable type in 1437, text and printed images began to appear in conjunction and were used together with growing frequency to create illustrated books. Prints also continued to be made separately and were considered their own unique art form, distinct from painting and drawing.

Traditionally there are two categories of prints: reproductive prints and original, or fine, prints. Reproductive prints reproduce a work created in another medium, for example painting. This kind of print was in high demand from about the sixteenth century forward, often used in artists’ studios as inspiration or to ensure consistency in representations of certain subject matter, such as religious or biblical scenes. The practice of copying a famous work of art using a printmaking process was not considered forgery and in fact was quite common. In the nineteenth century, with the advent of photography and photomechanical processes of reproduction, cheaper and more accurate reproductions of works of art could be made and so traditional printmaking as a form of reproducing a painting fell into disuse.

The second category of print is the original or fine print. This type of print is created by an artist to be a work of art in its own right. That is to say, the artist creates original compositions and visual imagery, rather than copying another work of art. Artists are trained in any number of printmaking methods to yield distinctive appearances in their creations. The artist's choice of a technique or a combination of techniques depends on the specific effect the artist wishes to achieve.

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Summary of Techniques

Intaglio Printing

The term intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning “to incise.” In this technique, acid or a pointed tool is used to incise the composition into a metal plate, usually made of copper, but sometimes of steel, iron or zinc. After the image has been drawn, the plate is covered with ink, and then wiped so that only the incised areas contain ink. The pressure of the press forces the paper into the incisions where they pick up the ink, resulting in the raised character of the lines on the impression. Because often the sheet of paper is larger than the plate, an indentation of the plate edges, or platemark, appears around the edges of the image area. The different types of intaglio prints are distinguished by the technique used: etching, aquatint, and photogravure are made using acid to corrode the metal plate, while engraving, drypoint, and mezzotint are made using a sharp tool to incise, or scratch, the surface of the plate. Often several different intaglio techniques are used in the same print to achieve variations in contrast and tone.

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Planographic Printing

In this method of printing the ink is neither pressed down into the paper nor raised above its surface, but lies exclusively on the plane of the paper. This means that with planographic printing the printed and non-printed areas on the surface of the print exist on the same plane. Planographic techniques include: lithography, serigraphy, pochoir, monoprints, monotypes, screenprints, digital prints, and counterproofs

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Relief Printing

Relief prints are characterized by bold contrasts of dark and light. In this technique the artist first sketches a composition on a hard, flat surface such as a wood or linoleum block; then the parts of the image that are not to receive ink are carved away from the surface, leaving only the composition visible on the top surface of the matrix. Ink is then applied to this raised surface with a roller. The raised image on the block is transferred to paper with a mechanical press or by pressing the block into the paper by hand. Since the areas of the block that were cut-away did not receive ink, they appear white in the printed image. The inked areas are slightly impressed into the surface of the paper from the force of the press and so appear indented into the paper. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving and linocut.

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An edition is the total number of impressions made from a single plate. Usually the edition is made by the artist, sometimes in conjunction with a printmaker.

When an artist’s heirs give permission for the printing of an edition or second edition, it is known as a posthumous edition. Posthumous editions should be limited and documented just as in standard printing practice, though not necessarily hand-numbered. Editions that were pencil-signed in their original state frequently bear stamped signatures authorized by the artist’s heirs or the publisher in their posthumous state.

Restrikes are later impressions that have not been authorized by the artist or the artist’s heirs. While some restrikes are of good appearance, the excessive printing of the matrix tends to wear it out and many restrikes are only ghostly images of what the print is supposed to be. In the case of images that may be intrinsically valuable (i.e. Rembrandt etchings), the worn-out copper plate is often reworked several centuries later so that, while the restrike may be said to have come from the original plate, there is hardly anything left of the original work on the plate, even the plate’s signature often being re-etched by someone else.

A second edition is a later printing made from the original matrix after an edition of declared number has already been printed. Second editions are usually only made with explicit authorization from the artist and should be annotated as such. A photographically produced replica of the original print, whether printed in a limited edition or not, is not a second edition; it is a reproduction.

While the numbering of individual impressions can be found as early as the late nineteenth century, it did not become standard practice until the mid-1960s. Before steel-facing and other ways of preserving plates for longer print runs, the order in which the edition was printed was important. An intaglio plate, especially one containing drypoint lines, will degrade over time as the pressure of the press will dull the burr. As a result, the first impression is often crisper than the last and in turn, the edition should be numbered in order. Today, all limited edition prints should be numbered, and because of advancements in technology and a printer’s ability to print reciprocal, identical images, the numbering sequence is no longer intended to reflect the order of printing. Numbering is now transcribed as a fraction with the top number signifying the number of that particular print and the bottom number representing the total number of prints in the edition. The edition number does not include proofs, but only the total number of prints in the numbered edition.

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The category of print known as artist's proofs relates to a practice which dates back to the era when the patron of the print(s) provided an artist commissioned with lodging, living expenses, and a printing studio with workmen, supplies and paper. The artist was given a portion of the edition (to sell) as payment for his work. Today, though artists get paid for their editions, the tradition has persisted and a certain number of impressions are put aside for the artist. Artist's proofs are annotated as such or as A.P., or Épreuve d'Artiste or E.A.

Literally “ready to pull,” the Bon à Tirer (abbreviated as B.A.T.). is the final trial proof - approved by the artist - which tells the printer exactly how the edition should look. Each impression in the edition is matched to or modeled after the B.A.T. This proof is used principally when someone other than the artist is printing the series. There is only one of these proofs for an edition.

Impressions annotated H.C., short for Hors Commerce started to appear on the market as extensions of editions printed in the late 1960's. They may differ from the edition by being printed on a different kind of paper or with a variant inking; however, they may also not differ at all. Publishers sometimes use such impressions as exhibition copies, thereby preserving the numbered impressions from overexposure or rough handling.

A printer's proof is a complimentary proof given to the printer. There can be one or several of these proofs, depending upon the number of printers involved and the generosity of the publisher.

A trial proof is an impression pulled before the edition in order to see what the print looks like at that stage of development, after which the artist may go back to the matrix and make adjustments. There can be any number of trial proofs, depending upon how a particular artist works, but it is usually a small amount and each one usually differs from the others. In French, a trial proof is called an épreuve d’essai, in German, Probedruck.

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Signatures tell a viewer a lot about the authenticity and dating of a print and there are several different kinds of which buyers should be aware. The very earliest prints did not have signatures at all, although by the late fifteenth century many artists indicated their authorship of a print by incorporating a signature or monogram into the matrix design. This kind of composition is called “signed in the plate” or a “plate signature.” While some prints were pencil signed as early as the late eighteenth century, the practice of signing one's work in pencil or ink did not really become common practice until the 1880s. Today, it is customary for original prints to be signed. When a print is described simply as “signed” it should mean that it is signed in pencil, ink or crayon. A plate signature or a stamped signature should be described as such.