Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of prints where things aren’t always what they seem…
Purchasing a print is a great way to begin collecting art you love for your home. But how do you know if your print has value? How was it made? Is it unique or were 100s made in a factory? Will it stand the test of time?
The world of prints and printmaking can be a very confusing place. Let me guide you through some of the important facts so you can make an informed decision next time you are selecting art for your home or as a gift.
First of all, it’s important to distinguish between original prints and reproduction prints:
What are reproduction prints?
A reproduction print is a copy of an artwork, usually a painting. These days it’s done by scanning the original then producing prints as either lithographs or giclée prints. Lithographs are made using the same 4 colour process as most of our printed material – books, magazines etc. For fine art quality prints high grade paper and light fast inks should be used. Giclée prints, sometimes called Archival Pigment Prints, use a modern digital printing process again with high quality paper and ink. Many artists favour this process now as small print runs are possible. Read more about how my giclée prints are made here.
What are original prints?
An original print, sometimes called an artist’s print is one that is conceived of as a printed artwork by the artist from the beginning i.e. it is not a copy of a pre-existing artwork. In general one should expect to pay more for an original print than a reproduction print.
There are many hand-made traditional printing processes that artists use to make original prints. Each one has its own distinctive look due to the particular types of mark the artist can make with that medium. Here are some of the commonly used ones:
Printed from one or more metal plates. The artist draws into a resist layer then grooves are made using a chemical reaction. Ink is pushed into the grooves when printing. Find out more about etching and see a video of me printing.
Drawing into a metal plate with a sharp tool then rubbing in ink and printing.
The artist carves into a block of lino. Prints are made by rolling ink over the block and pressing it onto paper. More than one block can be used to create multi-coloured prints.
A similar process to lino-cut but it can show the wood grain to good effect.
This is a very fine type of wood cut that’s done on the end grain of lemonwood or box wood.
Creating a stencil (either by hand or using photo-mechanical processes) on a fabric mesh stretched over a frame. The printing ink is pushed through the mesh onto the paper below. These are often multi-colour which involves making a number of different stencils that are printed in layers.
I mentioned this before as a factory process for making reproduction prints. But it can also be used to make original prints by using the old-fashioned method of printing from a stone or zinc plate by hand.
This involves creating a textured surface by cutting and sticking, usually on cardboard. The printing process is similar to etching: the ink is pushed into all the grooves and textures then pressed very firmly onto paper using an etching press.
Monotype or Monoprint
This is a special category of print as it uses hand-made processes that result in only one image being produced so it’s just as unique as a painting. This may mean that it is priced higher than original prints that are in limited editions. See my article on the monotypes I produce.
Limited Edition prints
The term ‘limited edition’ can be applied to both original prints and reproduction prints. It means that a certain number have been produced and the artist has signed and numbered each one. The artist then has an unspoken contract with his or her customers to not make any more than stated. However, it is traditional to have a small number of Artist’s Proofs (signed A/P) which are for the artist’s own collection but do sometimes get sold. The number should not be more than 10% of the edition. I usually make two.
Open edition is another way of saying unlimited. The value of individual prints is greatly reduced due to them being available in large numbers. This is really no different from a poster.
The value of prints
Obviously, the smaller the edition, the greater the rarity of the print which usually means they are more valuable but it very much depends on the artist’s reputation, experience and the desirability of their work. The laws of supply and demand come into play here for determining the market value. An artist whose work is selling briskly will be able to increase their prices. My prices have increased a number of times in the last ten years due to high demand but I'm conscious of making them accessible to as many people as possible. That's why I have a range of reproduction prints and original prints.
Old master prints can fetch very high prices because of their dwindling supply and the notoriety of the artist. These prints will have an investment value but for contemporary work, it's impossible to know if they will have a high market value in the future. The art world can be a very fickle place. My advice? Buy the art that you love to live with and brings you joy. This will give you years of enjoyment and that's priceless!
How long will my print last?
Collectors usually want to know if their print will fade or discolour over time. Most original prints should be made with artists’ quality ink and special printmaking papers which should mean they have a very long life span. Rembrandt’s etchings are still looking good!
Anything printed on cheap paper, or containing collaged elements that are not archival grade eg newspaper or ink-jet prints probably won’t last long. The paper may go yellow, the inks fade and the glues may cause discolouration.
Reproduction prints should last a lifetime or more if they are printed to a fine art grade using light fast inks and acid free paper. All my giclee prints are made to the highest standard. Read about them here.
All prints should be hung out of direct sunlight. A bright room is fine: it’s those shafts of direct sunlight that do the most damage. Maybe steer clear of the bathroom if it gets very humid as that might encourage mould.
Trends in printmaking
The world of printmaking is an exciting place where very creative and innovative artists experiment and break the rules! Digital technology has led to a creative out-pouring of new concepts in printmaking which may not follow the traditional definitions I’ve given.
One persistent issue is whether printed digital art that is not a copy but conceived of creatively using computer software should be categorized with original prints. Personally I think that it is a fine art medium but it should be categorized separately from traditional handmade original prints so as to avoid more confusion in what is an already confusing area. But there are, of course, all manner of cross-over and mixed media possibilities that simply evade categorization.
I hope I’ve shed some light on a tricky subject and that it will aid your appreciation and enjoyment of prints. If you have any comments or experience to share please leave below
My etchings collection
My giclee prints collection
Original monotypes available for sale