Prints are among the most desirable, and affordable, categories of art to collect. Printmaking is an unusual medium, in that it allows for the reproduction of the same image over and over again. Despite this, each individual print is considered to be an original, rather than a copy. This is because the printmaking process creates very subtle variations within each reproduction; every print is a unique piece, with its own micro-differences and idiosyncrasies.
Many prints are produced in a limited series known as an 'edition'. In this case, it is common for works to be numbered to indicate both the size of the edition, and the number of the work within the edition. Print 1/40, for example, would be the first in an edition of 40 and, depending on the technique used, may be viewed as a more high-quality impression that print 40/40. Occasionally, an artist may produce two to three additional 'proofs', created as tests prior to the edition.
There are a plethora of different printmaking processes. Each one requires a separate and particular set of skills, methods and materials, associated with a distinctive look and feel. Some artists specialise in one style, whereas others are able to work within multiple print media.
For some artists, such as Picasso, prints can represent a fantastic opportunity to purchase a work by a leading name at what could be a lower price point (see our top tips from leading gallerists to find out more).
Woodcut is the oldest printmaking technique, originating in the Far East and only later spreading to Europe. Woodcut prints are made by carving an image in wood, which can then be inked and printed onto paper, producing a negative of the carved image. You can often see traces of the wood’s grain within the print, creating tactile and subtle textures unique to each print. Edvard Munch and Paul Signac are among the most prominent European artists to create Woodcut prints, whilst Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is one of the medium’s most timeless expressions.
Hokusai (1760-1849), The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, c. 1829-33. Color Woodblock, 25.7 cm x 37.8 cm (10.1 in x 14.9 in).
Linocut follows the exact same principles as woodcut, except with a modern twist; they’re carved in linoleum. This is a much softer material than wood, which allows for more fluidity and cleaness. M. C. Escher was famed for his linoleum cut images.
M. C. Escher (1898-1972), Bookplate Bastiaan Kist, 1916. Linocut in red and black, 12.3 cm x 10.3 cm (4.8 . x 4 in).
Engraving emerged in Germany in the 1430s, developed from the processes used by goldsmiths to decorate metalwork. Engravers use a steel tool to carve their design into a sheet of metal, traditionally copper. The engraved plate is covered in ink, which is then wiped off the surface. When pressed to paper, only the engraved lines are inked. This method creates steady lines with clean edges, and is notoriously difficult to master. Engraving enjoyed a revival in the 20th century, featuring heavily in the work of Pablo Picasso.
Jan Norblin (1745-1830), Ecce Homo, c. 1780. Engraving on copper.
Etching is a more forgiving version of engraving, which favors artists with a skill set in drawing but little experience working with metal. To create an etching, the artist makes incisions into a sheet of wax-coated metal, before soaking the metal in acid. This corrodes any exposed lines, whilst leaving the wax intact. The metal is then inked and pressed. Rembrandt was revered for his mastery of this technique.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait in a Cap, With Eyes Wide Open,1630. Etching.
Unlike most printmaking styles, monotyping creates prints that are entirely unique, because most of the ink is removed during the first print, so they can’t be reused or reproduced. Artists draw or paint ink onto a smooth, non-absorbent surface (such as glass or copper), which is then pressed onto paper, creating the image in reverse. For inspiration when it comes to Monotyping, look no further than Edgar Degas.
Edgar Degas (1834-1927), Landscape with Rocks, 1892. Pastel over Monotype in Oil Colors on Wove Paper, (10.18 x 13.91 in).
Lithography is often considered the most complex or difficult printing process, since it’s based around the chemical repulsion of oil and water. To make a lithograph, an artist will draw directly onto a flat surface (traditionally limestone) using an oil-based implement, before coating the image in a water-based liquid. When oil-based ink is applied, it’s repelled by the water, meaning ink is applied only to the greasy parts. Artists working with lithography include Salvador Dalì and Vincent van Gogh.
Joan Mìro (1893-1983), Derrière le miroir no. 151-152, Lithograph, 28 x 38 cm (11 x 15 in).
Screen Printing has become one of the most ubiquitous methods of printmaking. The technique is simple; a stencil is stretched over a screen, and ink is brushed over the stencil directly onto the surface of the paper. This technique was especially popular among the Pop Artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Brushstroke, 1965. Screenprint on paper, 56.5 x 72.4 cm (22.2 x 28.5 in).