Printmaking is one of the richest, most popular artistic mediums that continues to enthrall today, responsible for some of the most iconic images in art history (Hiroshige’s wave anyone?), and artists across the centuries have used printmaking as part of their practice. Keep scrolling to find out why and how printmaking continues to capture artists and collectors, as well as what to look out for in the medium.
The greatest appeal of the print is the opportunity for repetition that it offers. Print works are imprinted from one matrix to another, allowing multiple copies of one image. This doesn’t exclude variation - certain printing methods can stand less reprinting than others as the plate degrades over time and use - but it enables a multiplicity of works. For artists this is especially important commercially, allowing them access to a wider audience and also to meet industrial or commercial demands. Advertising posters of the early twentieth century are perhaps the most famous examples of the commercial opportunities of printmaking - bold, graphic and uninhibited, they are models for the popular possibilities of print.
With that said, printmaking has railed against definitions that tie it to commerciality. Printmaking is also a technique, just like painting, collage and sculpture. It endears itself to artists, especially for its challenges and peculiarities. It is collaborative; artists work with professional printmakers or printing studios who are artisans in their own right. Picasso’s relationship with his printmaker Aldo Crommelynck was one of the most fervent, closest and productive of his life. The curiosities of repetition, the inclination towards perfectionism, make printmaking its own enchanting method.
Prints are not considered copies of one work of art, but multiple unique works, with variations of light, strength, and colour in each. The term ‘edition’ describes the series of prints produced from one plate, of which each copy is assigned a specific number within the series. Rather than printing a series of several copies, artists might also choose to print only one image in an edition which makes it a unique work or monotype.
At its most basic, printmaking is the transference of an image from one matrix onto another surface. Through its history - from textual reproduction to posters to printers - artists and artisans have developed different methods of creating prints. These can be broadly categorised into relief prints, lithograph/screen prints and digital prints.
Relief printing is the oldest category of printmaking, including techniques like etching, woodcuts and linocuts. The term relief refers to the way in which the image is transferred onto canvas, as the matrix is doused in paint or ink, and printed onto another surface, so that either those parts of the matrix that are raised or bevelled create the final image. In linocuts and woodcuts, parts of the matrix are chiselled away, whereas other methods such as Collographs build onto the matrix to create a raised surface which prints an image. Printing has its strongest history in the woodcuts of Germany and Japan, though artists today continue to use these techniques for the purity and connection to materials that they offer.
Screenprinting was famously adopted by Andy Warhol and his Factory, who churned out thousands of prints by this method in his lifetime. Eerily devoid of the artist's hand, screenprinting allows for strong blocks of colour across a greater surface.
Lithography, based on the principle that water and oil repel each other, similarly allowed for a more nuanced articulation of colour, replicating brushstrokes and softer tones which are difficult to achieve in other methods. An image is painted onto a stone with greasy paints, after which the stone is treated with acids and gums so that when the stone is then dampened the ink of the drawing is deposited onto the transference material.
Even more popular than screenprinting and lithography, digital printing is the medium with which we are most familiar with in modern life, as they can be created by the clunking desk-side printers that we use every day. It has been the greatest challenge to popular understanding of printmaking as a fine art. The first incarnations of digital printing were crude articulations of images into code, but the advent of inkjet printers removed this need for translation. Now, digital printing allows artists greater flexibility, with a shorter turnaround time for prints and a greater ability to adjust their digital image as they work.
Though the advent of digital printing has threatened the integrity of printmaking, artists and printmakers have still adapted the technique to create hybrid forms. Some artists release their ‘print’ to collectors as a digital file, to be printed with a 3D printer. Others have used digital printing to work with the oldest of printmaking methods, creating wood and linocuts via laser printing. Printmaking has always been one of the most technologically innovative artistic processes, a collaboration between artists, scientists, and artisans, and it is this flexibility that keeps it thoroughly modern, continuing to draw artists and collectors alike.
Prints are now so ubiquitous, and are particularly popular in the current economy for their accessibility, that their distinction (or disdain) from the rest of contemporary art is steadily being eroded. They are being understood less as a value category than a technical one, and it is evident from the calibre of the artists that experiment and work with print today - including Takashi Murakami, Georg Baselitz, and Yoshimoto Nara - that it continues to hold a powerful creative attraction to artists and collectors alike.
Prints are becoming ever more popular as a category for collectors, as auction houses see yearly rises in their prints and multiples categories. The medium offers a through-line in art history, from the early woodcuts of the 1500s to the digital prints of the 21st century, it is a category in which collectors can trace artistic movements and technique. There is an astonishing variety of work available in the printmaking category and, importantly, it often comes at a more accessible price point than unique works since it is part of a series. As such, a growing body of young or first-time collectors are making their first forays into collecting via printmaking. Prints are a fantastic entry point into an artist's oeuvre, and collectors across the world are connected by the editions that they share. So don’t be afraid to explore this side of your favourite artists' practice, or follow your curiosity for woodcuts or collographs, and see where printmaking takes you.
We hope that this guide has given you useful tips to start buying prints! Browse more of our limited edition prints here and open edition prints here. You can also check out more artworks on our curated art collection here. If you need additional guidance or have specific requirements, you can have a look at our art consultancy services, or chat with our expert curators on any page.
About the Writer
Stella Botes is an art writer and critic based in London, where she also works at Cristea Roberts Gallery, one of the foremost print galleries in Europe. Find more of her writing via her Instagram @gallerina_ldn
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