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 a matrix) such as a wood block, metal plate, or stone. This surface is then inked and the image is transferred to paper or another material 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 same inked plate. Artists began to sign and number each impression around the turn of the 20th century to ensure that only the impressions they intended to make would be in circulation. The set of identical impressions (prints) made from an individual matrix created by the artist, either working alone or in conjunction with a master printer are called an edition. 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.
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: original, or fine, prints and reproductive prints. Original or Fine Prints are 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.
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.
Summary of Techniques
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 copper, but sometimes 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 the sheet of paper is often 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 image into 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.
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
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.
Editions, Proofs, and Signatures
When a set of identical impressions is made from an individual plate or group of plates it is called an edition. Editions can be made by the artist, either working alone or in conjunction with a master printer. Proofs are any impression pulled before the official edition. A “Bon à Tirer ” (abbreviated as B.A.T.and means ready to pull) is the final proof approved by the artist and is the proof to which the entire edition is matched. The edition number does not include proofs, but only the total number of prints in the numbered edition.
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 it was possible to preserve the surface of a plate for longer print runs, the order in which the edition was printed was important. In todays practice the numbering sequence no longer reflects the order of printing, although the work is still done by hand, master printers are highly skilled at producing identical impressions for an edition.Nmbering 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.
Signatures tell a viewer a lot about the authenticity and dating of a print. 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.