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  • James Stewart

What is an Original Print?

A Little History

During the Renaissance prints were made to distribute images of paintings to a wider audience throughout Europe. At that time they were merely reproductions of existing works. Only in Japan at such an early date did artists genuinely make print works, and in the West they were soon collected. Artists realised that there were exciting opportunities available to make prints both more unique and at the same time increase their output and income.

Rembrandt was one of the first to really embrace the medium, he pushed the boundaries technically, and took pleasure in the way he could record and preserve all the stages of the development of an image. See the Self-Portrait etching pictured. You can see from his whole oeuvre that he was the first artist to use print as a strong influence on his painting process, and vice versa.  

See also Goya’s Aquatints, Blake’s watercoloured etchings; the Lithographs of Daumier, Chagal, Lautrec and Bonnard; all of Picasso’s print work, where he truly pushed the print medium to new heights, Munch’s moody and simple woodcuts, the back and white graphic excellence of the German Expressionists, Matisse’s late silk-screens and litho, the Palmeresque etchings of Sutherland; the way Hockney, Denny, Blake, Hamilton and others pushed print to new levels in line with popular culture in the 60’s.

Contemporary Printmaking

Printmaking in the in UK is having something of a renaissance, with the growth of Print Studios all over the country, a multitude of Art Fairs that deal in print and an explosion of Artists who one normally thinks of as painters, who are all making prints in their own way, in series or unique new works that are still identified as theirs. Paula Rego, Auerbach, The Chapman Brothers,Howard Hodgkin and Tracey Emin, to name just a few, have embraced printmaking and in the process made their works available to a whole new audience.

See Jake Chapman's "Marriage of Reason and Squalor" etching with hand colouring above, printed to accompany his first novel of the same name.

So what is an Original Print?

An original print is a work of art created in an edition or multiple by hand and printed by hand, either by the artist or by a professional assistant (often called an artisan), from a plate, block, stone, or stencil that has been hand created by the artist for the sole purpose of producing the desired image. 

Although there are many of the same image in an edition, each numbered print is an individual part of the whole (and may vary to a greater or lesser extent from others), the whole being the edition. An original print is thus actually one piece of a multiple original work of art.

The artist traditionally keeps a separate group of prints aside from the edition marked as artist's proofs, normally about ten or less. These are marked AP, sometimes with an edition number after (such as: AP  2 / 5) to indicate how many AP's there are.

In addition when developing the image an artist may pull many experimental images before modifying the plates to achieve the finished product. These are referred to as state proofs, trial proofs, or color proofs. When the image is finally perfected the printer's proof or bon-a'-tirer (signed BAT or PP) is pulled. This is the image that the rest of the edition is matched to and there is only one of these. The artisan printer traditionally gets to keep the printer's proof.

Some people collect AP's or PP's only since there are usually fewer of these in each edition and so have more rarity value.

An original print is always produced as a limited edition, but not all limited editions are original prints.

The print left is an example of a mixed media print by Sir Terry Frost, RA. Two print processes have been used (woodblock and aquatint) as well as collage.

An original print is not usually a large editioned photographic reproduction of an existing image. This sort of picture is not much more than a mass market poster, unlike the Shell posters in the 30’s, The Cinzano posters at the turn of the Twentieth Century or the low tech prints that were used to advertise The New Wave Cinema in the 60’s, all of which are examples of a long tradition of mass market advertising that uses graphic print technologies in much more honest and effective way.

Today some artists use Giclee (literally Squirt, spurt or spray in french) to reproduce a painting or some other work in an edition. These would not fit the definition we have set out above for an "original" print since they would not constitute a new unique artwork in themselves.

[Note that for some digital artists giclee or ink jet is their only output]

Why collect original prints?

As touched on above artists like printmaking because it is a way of producing a new work, maybe using complex techniques as a multiple for many people to enjoy.

For collectors prints are a way of acquiring an artists's work whose paintings are already out of reach in terms of price.

As time goes by the prints can appreciate in value, and so become sought after in their own right. All the big auction houses now have edition sales, providing a healthy secondary market for prints.

Even with well known or established artists some editions are more sought after than others. This will depend on the composition, number in the edition etc. It  might be simply that the same impulse which helped the artist produce the image, is the same impulse that encourages collectors to buy.

If value in a print is what you are looking for, it pays to acquire prints as soon as they are published. Often the launch price is less than the price charged subsequently, then if the edition is successful the price will increase as the numbers available diminish (until the secondary market commences).

As with paintings it is difficult to suggest who to collect, our best advice in art mediums is to buy what you like, you have to live with it for many years and so it is advisable to buy a piece that you will enjoy. Then if the artist is or becomes well known or sought after the value should naturally increase over time.

What to look out for

When choosing to buy a print there are a few things to be aware of:

  • The smaller the edition the better.

  • The paper used is acid free, usually with a high cotton content rather than wood pulp.

  • The print should be signed and numbered, usually date as well.

  • The print has been published by a reputable printmaker/dealer 

  • Condition must be perfect, any flaws, tears, marks or sections of faded colour will reduce the value of a print

Zimmer Stewart Gallery Prints

At Zimmer Stewart Gallery we only show original prints, the artists represented range from emerging to established names.

You can see the full range of these in our online shop or just come into the gallery and ask to see them.

Short Glossary of Print Terms

Monotypes are unique, one off images, rather than other editioned prints that are made using a printing press. The artist simply paints an image in reverse on a metal or perspex plate, lays on the paper, the image on the plate is transferred through pressure from the press, from the plate to the paper. Monotypes are fast to make and can be exciting since you never know exactly how they will turn out (if at all). Colours can be layered up on each other by adding more ink to the plate each time the image is passed through the press, as long as the plate is successfully re registered at each printing to the same piece of paper.

Artists like Phil Tyler and Tom Hammick often use monotype as a way of leading them into what they will later develop as an editioned etching, woodcut, lithograph or silkscreen, or the use them as compositional tools for large scale paintings and sculptures. If they are numbered then 1/1 is used.

See Phil Tyler's Pears Monotype left.

Etching – A generic term for a whole range of processes that use acids with metal plates to create marks that retain ink. There are several sub-types: 

  • Hard Ground Etching, a process in which an etching needle is used to draw into hardened wax on a metal plate, without cutting into the metal. The plate is then submerged in acid, which bites into the metal surface only where it has been revealed by the needle. (See the etchings of Rembrandt, Freud, and Picasso’s Vollard Suite as examples.) The wax is then removed with white spirit or meths, and ink is wiped over the plate and forced into the etched depressions. The unetched and flat surfaces of the plate are wiped, and an impression is printed under great pressure onto damp paper.

  • Soft Ground Etching, where much tackier wax is used: By laying a sheet of paper over the plate and drawing onto it, the wax is lifted from the plate to the reverse side of the paper where the pressure of the pencil creates a mark on the paper. The resulting line drawing is much more subtle, slightly wider, and a lot of foul biting occurs where wax is removed by the pressure of the hand on the paper. This can create a much less exact drawing but a more tonally sophisticated and atmospheric image.

see the Nick Bodimeade etching 'Boy and Pig'.

  • Aquatint – A form of etching where the plate is covered with fine resin powder or resist, through which acid bites many tiny pockmarks in the metal. If an area is to be completely white, that part of the plate is coated with varnish. The tones produced, when the aquatint is gentle and has a short bite in the acid, can resemble those of a wash drawing, and they can be inked up in coloured inks to create flat colours when the coating of resin is more uniform, and etched deeper. Goya's series of mixed aquatint etchings, Los Caprichos, and his Disasters of War, and his Los Proverbios, are considered supreme example of this technique. 

  • Sugar lift. A wonderfully painterly and fantastically direct medium. Sugar and ink are painted directly onto a plate covered in resin. When dry, and covered in varnish, the plate is covered in boiling water. The heat from the water dissolves the sugar, which lifts away the varnish over it. This reveals the plate and resin underneath. The plate is then put in acid, and through the process, the marks that were initially made in sugar, hold ink. (See the prints of Bazelitz, Celia Paul).

Dry Point - Is an engraving where a strong steel point mashed and dragged over a soft metal plate like copper, aluminium, or zinc to create the grooves. Perspex and card can be used, but the editions are tiny, before the press pressure destroys the readability of the image. The needle used has more of a cutting edge than the rounded point used when upon the etching ground. In drawing the design the needle tears up the copper and leaves what is known as a burr- a ridge of copper on either side of the furrow. It is this burr, which gives the quality to dry-point etchings when they are printed., a beautiful sort of double line that you can see in some of Picasso’s Vollard Suite.

See image of Gary Goodman's 'Girl with Dog' dry point with chin colle.

Chin Colle   A paper collage process in which coloured sheets of thin acid free paper are covered in starch glue or wall paper paste and placed over an inked plate. A damp sheet of cotton rag paper is then placed over the top, and the plate and papers are passed through the press as normal. Through the process, the etched ink image is printed on the coloured chin colle paper, which is stuck to the backing sheet by the pressure of the etching press. This is a great way to introduce colour or pattern to a print depending on the paper used. Kate Boxer uses chin colle a lot using hand made tissue papers as well as some hand painted ones, these can also make the print part of an "edition variable".

Woodcut/Linocut  This technique involves the use of a plank of wood or lino sheet on which the artist draws a design and then carves away the wood in the parts of the picture that are not to be printed. The raised surface retains some of the pattern of the wood grain which can show up in the finished prints. Only one or two colours can be applied to the plate at one time. For prints with many colors a separate block must be carved for each color, and must line up exactly, see also reduction woodcut below.

See 'Man in the Rain', linocut by Giles Penny.

Reduction Woodcut - Sections/areas of ply wood are cut up using a jig saw and inked up separetly. The pieces of this print jigsaw were fitted back together and printed onto the paper. All the pieces of wood have to be contained in a jig so that registration of the image was as spot on as possible for each subsequent printing. Then within each section more elements of the composition are cut into the wood, before they are covered in a new colour of ink and printed over the last impression. In this way, each cutting reveals the colour that was printed before. So by the end of the process, the wood block has been reduced to the final colour on the print. 

This is quite a complicated process and Tom Hammick (see his edition variable reduction woodcut 'Semi' left) has perfected this as can be seen by many of his recent woodcuts.

Lithograph - Marks are made on a fine-grained zinc plate or limestone using wax crayons, greasy inks and paint. The marks are etched into the plate or stone using a mild solution of nitric acid in gum Arabic. During the printing process, as long as the plate remains slightly wet, inked up rollers distribute ink onto the drawn marks. The water helps repulse the greasy ink from the unblemished areas of the plate or stone.

Screenprint -This is a printing technique whereby a mesh is used to transfer ink onto paper or other material to be printed on, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil. A blade or squeegee is moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the substrate momentarily along a line of contact. This causes the ink to wet the substrate and be pulled out of the mesh apertures as the screen springs back after the blade has passed.

Patrick Caulfield (see his 'Red Jug & Lamp') used screenprint for his graphic work following his introduction to the medium by Richard Hamilton and Chris Prater in 1964. 

Collagraphs - These are a form of intaglio print and so related to etching and engraving. (They should not be confused with collotypes  which are a form of planograph.) Sometimes they may be referred to as collage prints or collage intaglio. Collagraphs differ from etchings and engravings in two ways: 

  • Etchings and engravings are done on metal plates, usually copper or zinc. Collagraphs can be done on cardboard,  paper, wood, metal or plastic plates, or just about anything else that can be run through a press.

  • Etching and engraving plates have incised or cut into surfaces to produce the textures from which the image is printed. Collagraphs are collaged, that is, the printing surface is built up from other added materials.

See Feathers and Flowers a hand coloured collagraph with collage by Vicky Oldfield.

All of the printmakers mentioned in this article, and more, are represented in our online shop, so please take a look and contact us if you have any questions.


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