What is an original print?
Traditionally, an original print is handmade using ink, woodblocks, etching plates, lithographic stones and paper to create a distinctly printerly image. Each printmaking process has its own characteristics, its own look and feel, and the artist has chosen it for what it can offer. They use the plates, stones and blocks as tools to achieve their imagined vision. Like bronze sculptures and photographs, artist-made prints are ‘original multiples’ – artworks in their own right. They have the added advantage of being produced in editions, and thus accessible to a larger number of people, with no loss of artistic intent. (By contrast a reproduction, or commercial print, utilises scanning or photo process to replicate a pre-existing work.) In the early twentieth century screen-printing was added to the family of methods called Printmaking. More recently digital prints, where the artist has conceived and developed the image through the computer, have also become respected as original multiples.
In traditional printmaking the artist draws directly onto the printing element, eg. drawing with crayon and wash on litho stone and plate, carving woodblocks, scribing metal plates. A different printing element is made for each colour. The processing, trial-proofing and alteration stages follow during which the image is developed, refined and at times radically altered. The plates, stones or blocks are then hand-printed in layers over each other to produce the limited edition. Each finished print is then pencil signed and numbered by the artist to establish authenticity.
Oringinal fine prints are generally printed on high quality European or Japanese papers with light-fast inks so that they achieve the archival standards acceptable to museums and private collectors.
Woodcut is the oldest of the printmaking media and was developed first in China then in Europe during the Middle Ages. As woodcut pre-dates the invention of letterpress, early woodcuts often included text. A large proportion of the population were illiterate, however, so woodcuts were an important way of communicating ideas and information. Woodcuts were used as an art medium by artists such as Bruegal, and notably Albrecht Durer who also worked extensively with metal engraving. The Japanese developed woodcut printing to a fine art from the mid-1600’s; the work of Hokusai, Kunisada and Utamaro showing particular expression and refinement. In Europe, Munch and the German Expressionists revived the medium and later Picasso and Matisse pursued its variation – the linocut.
Woodcuts are made by carving with chisels into a timber or particle board surface to create a relief image. Ink is then either rolled or dabbed onto the surface and an impression taken by placing paper on the inked block and passing them both through a press. A different carved block is required for each colour.
Woodcuts often have a vigorous appearance with high contrast between black and white. They may show a woodgrain, but can also yield a flat surface. Because the block has a relief surface the paper is slightly embossed by the printing process.
The inventor of lithography, Aloys Senefelder, discovered in 1798 that the principle of repulsion between oil and water could be used as the basis of a printing medium. His initial discoveries were made on Bavarian limestone, the material that many hand-lithographers still use today. Photography was invented around 1820, and by the 1850’s photolithography was developed; it was this process that completely revolutionised print media in the nineteenth century. The process used in most lithography studios today is close to Senefelder’s original method.
The artist draws directly on finely ground but untreated Bavarian limestone or alluminium plate with greasy crayons, pencils and washes. This drawing is then treated with gum arabic and acid so the white areas will attract water and only the image will accept the oil-based ink.. During printing the stone is dampened with a sponge and inked with a greasy roller which delivers ink to the originally drawn areas. An impression is then taken by laying paper on the stone and passing them both through a press. Lithographs characteristically have the quality of granular crayon or undulating washes, but lithography can be adapted to a wide range of drawing techniques.
From the early 1800’s artists have used lithography as an expressive graphic medium, responding quickly to the beautiful, receptive surface of the stone and exploring its capacity for tonal and textural variation. Gericault, Dealcroix and Goya were some of the first artists to make lithographs and later in the century Toulous-Lautrec, Daumier, Degas, Redon and Munch worked with Parisian printers. The first half of the 20th century saw a gradual decline in skills and knowledge but some artists made work of note particularly Bonnard, Vuillard, Picasso, Chagall, Miro and Matisse. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw a revival of interest in the medium, particularly in the United States. Numerous lithographs have been made over the past 40 years that expand the use of colour and challenge the traditional notionns of scale. Contemporary artists who have worked extensively with the medium include Jasper Johns, Robert Raushenberg, Helen Frankenthaller, Robert Motherwell, Sam Francis and Frank Stella.
The acid etching of metal plates for printmaking developed from a process initially created for patterning gun metal in the early renaissance. The related method of engraving metal with small sharp tools had already been invented and continued to be effective for creating multiple images. Etching came into its own as an expressive medium at the hands of artists such as Rembrandt, Piranesi and Goya. The acid etching of copper, steel and zinc to create artworks still continues because of the incredible quality of line and the sensuous ink and paper fusing that the process yields.
When making an etching the artist first coats the plate with a protective waxy ground and then draws through the ground with a scriber, thereby removing part of the waxy film. The plate is placed in an acid bath and the acid eats into the exposed metal creating a groove. An impression is then taken by wedging ink into the grooves and buffing it off the surface. A dampened sheet of paper and felt blanket are placed over the plate and, as it runs through the press, the softened paper is forced into grooves thereby picking up the ink. This is called intaglio printing. Intaglio prints such as engravings, drypoints and etchings are easily identified because an embossed impression of the plate is left on the paper and the image is slightly raised. The variations, soft-ground and aquatint, can be used to create texture and tonal areas.
Fine artist prints are in most cases printed on either European cotton rag paper or handmade Japanese paper.
Cotton rag paper has been made for the last six hundred years in European paper mills, some of which still operate today. These traditional papers have good printing qualities being made of interlocking cellulose strands that offer a soft and absorbant yet durable surface. They are thus able to pick up all the nuances of the stone or plate surface in single or multiple colours.
Japanese papermaking is an art in itself and the careful choice and use of a Japanese paper can sensitively enhance by contributing texture and to the reading of the artwork.
Being low in acid these papers have good archival qualities and are of a standard suitable for museum collection.