In this article we will try to clear up some of the most frequent doubts that can arise when buying art prints, especially by those with an interest in art but without any experience in this discipline.
Surely the first question to be answered is what is printmaking? Even though it may sound strange, the answer is not simple. Traditionally we've heard more about engraving than printing and, although the term that concerns us now is being increasingly used and known by professionals and collectors, it is quite common to associate both concepts. Engraving is one of many techniques that make art printmaking as the procedure to create serial images. When we state that it is not easy to answer the question considered, we do it basing on the breadth of the term. Because there are so many print mediums and so different to each other that providing a valid definition for all of them would be almost impossible.
So, what are the basic requirements that a printed image on a media should meet to assert it as an art print? With the aim to answer this question, the III International Congress of Plastic Arts, celebrated in Vienna in 1960 established the principles that an original fine art print should comply.
- The artist must be directly involved in the process of creation by making the stone or plate used to transfer the image.
- All copies composing the edition must be signed and numbered in a way that the precise number of the copy and the total number of units that make up the series are well indicated.
- It is an exclusive right of the artist to determine the final number of copies produced on each of the mediums used.
- Once the edition is complete, the plates must be marked or destroyed to avoid the creation of more copies.
It is also worth to mention two recommendations made by The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers on printmaking creation’s framework:
- Artist proofs must be limited to a 10% of the total edition.
- It won't be considered original fine art print those copies of artworks created by photomechanical processes, regardless of whether they are signed and numbered by the artist.
With all these said, we can't state that the reader not experimented with this subject has clear all doubts. But we won’t cease our efforts to do so. So let's keep going...
Which ones are the art printing techniques? As the list is really long, we will limit ourselves to discuss the most used ones. Of course, engraving deserves a special mention, perhaps because of the main place it has taken on the art development throughout history. Since Albrecht Durer on the XVI century, we can see how gravers such as Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix or Picasso have used this printing technique to express their art. But engraving is not a medium itself but a group of procedures, like the etching or aquatint, developed to transfer an image from a metal, stone or wood block plate to a medium, usually paper or fabric.
You can take a look to a brief explanation about the most frequently used engraving techniques on our Printmaking section. You can also find more information about other printmaking techniques such as lithography and screen-printing on this section.
In our effort to clarify the doubts that can come up to the novel art print buyer, we find it important to mention two terms that can be easily found in many artworks descriptions: carborundum and embossing.
Carborundum can't be considered a printing method as such, it would be more correct to say it is an additive technique. This is a process where materials are adhered to the work, specifically silicon carbide, to achieve a pictorial effect. Its appearance is sandy and it is to highlight the versatility of it when it comes to represent lines or textures. It has been used with great skill by Spanish engravers such as Antoni Clavé, Antoni Tàpies or Joan Miró.
Regarding embossing, it is a process in which some areas of the paper are provided with relief. For that, the plate is subjected to a greater bite or corrosion by the acid with the intention of giving a depth enough to create a relief on the media. In this case, the relief is produced at the same time as the inking process does, but it is also quite common to do the embossing by pressuring the plate without any ink added first, or by adding cardboards or other objects with the intention of creating a dry stamp, this is, creating a relief without any inks added. Gravers like Eduardo Chillida or Antoni Tàpies have used embossing frequently in their creations.
We could say that art printing arises with the artists' need to produce a certain number of copies of the same image. For that, they use a number of mediums that can range from the most traditional ones we’ve already mention before to most modern ones such as the offset printing. This last one initially arose a huge scepticism as a medium for the creation of artworks, perhaps because it was a cheaper and more industrialised kind of lithograph. Many decades have gone by since reckoned artists began to use offset printing to create their exhibition posters. Nowadays there are many the artists that use it, occasionally combined with other techniques, achieving high quality images and an outstanding colouring. This is the case of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who creates his offset prints with cold or hot stamp, a way to adhere the inks to the paper at low or high temperatures.
Related to modern fine art print techniques, we should also highlight the inkjet or giclée. The latter term is only used for fine art creations, using a really high quality printer. At first Iris printers were the ones used, but nowadays it is also very common to find Epson machines for creating serial works. Iris printers, worth more than 60.000 euros, use the standard CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) inks and have a chromatic spectrum higher than the offset printing, giving up colours with more saturation, strength and brightness.
It is inevitable that a printing method like the ink-jet, capable of producing such high quality results, is adopted by the artists as a new and interesting medium to create fine art prints. And just as it happened to offset, it is a technique that has generated scepticism. But today, many there are the prestigious artists that are using it. Thomas Ruff, Luis Gordillo, or Rafael Canogar, have worked with ink-jet printing these last few years. Artists such as the great Robert Rauschenberg worked with this medium before this new century. In particular, he used ink-jet in 1996 to create his Arcadian Retreat series.
Today's artists that do not yet have a large career, but that are increasing their recognition day by day, as in the case of Canadian Sandra Chevrier or Dutch Handiedan , use giclée in their editions, since it is a technique that allows reducing timings and production costs and still getting a high quality result.
Coming back to the principles stated by The III International Congress of Plastic Arts to define art printmaking, let's remind two aspects: works must be signed by the artist and numbered. Here is where many questions can arise to a novel buyer. Following we will try to shed some light.
In the case of original fine art prints, as we've already seen, each copy of the edition must by hand signed by the artist. It may seem odd that we emphasize "by hand", is there any other way to sing something? The answer is yes. It is quite usual to find etchings or lithographs in whose description points out "plate signed". This means that the artist signed the plate or stone and therefore the signature was stamped, along with the image transferred, on each of the copies that belong to the series. But in these cases it is very usual that the artist doesn't hand sign each of the copies, even though they can be numbered. This doesn't mean that these works with the signature stamped may not have any value, to determine this, we should take under consideration other factors, for example if it is an original edition created while the artist lived or if it is an edition created after the artist passed away and based on an already existing artwork.
As we already know, besides being signed, an original art print must be numbered. The artist must indicate the numeration of each copy of the edition and the total number of copies made. In case the edition has 150 copies it will be signed from 1/150 to 150/150.
It is usual that a smaller part of the edition is numbered using roman numerals. It is frequent that these copies are included in separate folders and are considered as luxury copies with a higher value.
We often see copies marked with A.P. inscription, in Spanish P.A. and in French E.A. These copies are artist proofs and, as we’ve previously mentioned, they correspond to a 10% of the final edition. Sometimes the artist points out that is an artist proof and in other occasions he or she numbers them the same way he or she does with the rest of the edition. For example, if an edition has 15 artist proofs, the can be numbered 1/15 A.P.
Very appreciated by collectors are the state proofs. These are done by the artist to check the evolution of the plate as if a sketch of the final work it would be. All of them are different and are marked as P.E. I, P.E.. II, P.E.III, etc. P.E. stands for "prueba de estado" in Spanish, this is, state proof. Famous are the state proofs by Pablo Picasso; through them we can see the evolution of a work in which each proof brings something new to the final image.
Another kind of marking very often found in fine art prints is H.C. or Hors Commerce, proofs out of commerce. They are done by the artist with the aim to donate them to organizations, institutions or just as gifts. Despite they are not made for commercial purposes, most of them end up for sale at galleries or auction houses.
Collecting ideas of all that has been exposed, we can say that those people interested in art prints should be very conscious of the great diversity of techniques that build this art discipline. They should keep in mind that this medium is constantly evolving and artists take advantage of this. They should know that there are no boundaries regarding the use of them and the combination between them. Also they should take care when it comes to value the appreciation or the exclusiveness of a work by its attributes of signature and numeration.
While we could keep talking about fine art printing and clearing up doubts about some other aspects such as the papers used or the way the artist can work at the studio, we rather devote some future articles with these issues and hope that this one can be useful to clarify the main questions raised by those who are interested in purchasing fine art prints.
If you would like to know more about how to preserve fine art prints and avoid deterioration, you can check out our article Preserving fine art prints.