What is a print?

A print is a work of art on paper created when a design matrix created on a medium (stone, wood, copper plate) is used to transfer ink to the paper. It is important to distinguish between an original print and a reproduction print. Some define an original print as one where the artist creates the matrix by hand as opposed to a photomechanical reproduction such as might be used to make a poster. This distinction is not as clear as it might be as prior to the 20th century photomechanical reproductions were not available. Artists were hired by newspapers, magazines and book publishers to create images that could be cheaply reproduced. By the definition above, these would be original prints however in the collecting world they are considered reproductions since they were based on another original work (such as a painting). The International Fine Print Dealers Association defines an original print as a work of art on paper which has been conceived by the artist to be realized as a print, rather than as a reproduction of a work in another medium. It should also be noted that in some cases the artist also makes the prints, while in others the artist, after creating the matrix, works with a master printer to create the prints. The artist personally reviews and approves each piece of the edition.

It is also important to consider another term limited edition print. Limited edition prints refer to a defined number of copies of a given work that are printed after which the matrix is destroyed. Limited edition prints may or may not be original prints. There are many contemporary artists that sell photomechanical reproductions of their artwork as limited edition prints because only a defined number of prints are made. Many of these print runs produce thousands of images, so the use of the term limited is somewhat suspect. Original prints are also printed in limited editions. In most cases the matrix is destroyed or cancelled after the print run. Sometimes these cancelled ‘blocks’ are reprinted—usually after the death of the artist. While not as valuable as the originals, as long as they are appropriately represented this is considered an acceptable practice.

For more information, see http://www.moma.org/interactives/projects/2001/whatisaprint/print.html.

Types of prints

Relief Prints

Relief printing is the oldest method of printing and has been in existence for at least 11 centuries (a Chinese printed book has been found dated 868). Wood block prints appeared in Europe in the 1400s. Albrecht Dürer was the first master of this technique in Europe. Wood was exclusively used until the invention of movable metal type (another form of relief printing) in 1450. The most common example today is the rubber stamp.

The artist must cut away everything that isn’t part of the image. A thick ink is applied to the surface and the paper is applied to the block. Transfer of ink to the paper is accomplished by rubbing the back of the paper with a spoon or spatula, or by using a traditional press. A plate mark is not created in this technique. To print in multiple colors, a separate block must be cut for each color. Construction of complicated images using multiple blocks represents the pinnacle of the printer’s art.

Intaglio Prints

Intaglio is the Italian word for incising or engraving. In these techniques, grooves are created in a metal plate. A thinner ink is used that flows into the grooves. The surface of the plate is wiped to remove excess ink. Wet paper is applied to the plate and is run through a press to create high pressure. This pressure forces the wet paper into the grooves and the ink is transferred to the paper. This technique results in a definite plate mark. Intaglio printing was first introduced around 1430 (although the concept extends back to cave paintings). The most famous early intaglio artist was Rembrandt. His etchings were extraordinary for the contrast of light and dark—a technique called chiaroscuro (an oxymoron that translates clear/obscure). Etching fell into relative disuse for a time until revived by James Whistler in the late 1800s.

Planographic Prints

This technique prints on the surface of the block. It is the most recent of the three techniques. Planographic print takes advantage of reluctance of oil and water to mix.

Using this process, certain parts of the surface can be made receptive to ink while other parts repel the ink and remain blank in printing. This gives a very even tone between all the printed areas. Variations in tone are achieved by the amount of paper covered in ink. This effect is so versatile that a good printer can achieve almost any effect.