Print Primer: Understanding Art Prints

The word “print” connotes so many things that it’s not surprising that the public is confused when the term is used to refer to a work of art.
Yet the graphic arts have flourished for centuries, and printmaking is growing in popularity among contemporary artists. Less expensive than paintings, prints can enrich our lives, embellish our homes and make great gifts, but with so many media and techniques on the market — not to mention confusing names — how do we know what we are buying? To help you navigate the world of art prints, we did a little research to put together this basic primer. First, let’s define the terms. Generally speaking, there are two ways to imprint images on paper: photomechanical reproduction and printing processes that start with an artist-created matrix. It’s this second category that we want to focus on. Prints obtained via one of these methods are called fine art prints, original prints or hand-pulled prints.

“I prefer to call them hand-pulled,” says printmaker Margaret Craig, who chairs the department of painting, drawing and printmaking at the Southwest School of Art & Craft. “It clearly implies that the artist had a hand in their making. The artist is the one who creates an original matrix from which they are printed.” Depending on the method used, the matrix (sometimes referred to as the plate) can be stone, metal, wood, linoleum or even Plexiglas, but the important thing is that the design created on it is an original executed by the artist. More often than not, he or she is also heavily involved in the subsequent manipulation of the plate and the physical process of printing as well. In the past, a lot of art prints were simply black and white, but that’s certainly no longer the case. To give us a sense of the variety in content and technique that exists today, Craig gives us a little tour around two large tables covered with artworks produced by some 25 printmakers from throughout the country. Though conceived around a theme, the designs are as different from each other as any 25 paintings would be in a similar situation.

But what adds an extra dimension of diversity here is also the fact that these pieces have been produced by a range of different processes. There are lithographs, etchings, serigraphs, even digital prints. “This is like a cookie exchange for printmakers,” explains Craig with a chuckle. “I had Christmas yesterday when I opened all the boxes. Basically, I invited people to send one piece of work (in multiples) to exchange with others. It’s a great way to collect work from other printmakers. All of these will also be exhibited at the Mid America Print Council Conference in Fargo, N.D., in October.” What is noteworthy is that the submitting artists, including Craig, are not just doing a little printing on the side. Printmaking is their primary medium. The obvious reason for such a choice is that one can make multiple impressions (copies) of an image, but there are aesthetic reasons as well.  “You can achieve different effects with different techniques, effects that you may not be able to get in painting,” notes Craig. “Or put more accurately, with prints you can do everything that you can do with paintings and more.”

To begin with, each technique produces certain characteristic effects in the final product. A serigraph, for instance, usually features strong lines and color fields resembling commercial printing, while a woodcut may show features of its matrix, such as the pattern of wood grain and the texture of the wood surface. These characteristic features contribute greatly to the impact of a piece. Regardless of the method, further effects can be achieved by manipulating the matrix, the printing process or even the final print. In her own work, Craig uses a series of small, shaped copper plates on which she has chiseled out different designs that resemble the forms you would see in living tissue through a microscope. These are then combined in imaginative ways to achieve her unique, biologically inspired abstract prints “that mimic living processes.”

An excellent example of pre- and post-printing effects can be found in Atlanta-based printmaker Radcliff Bailey’s work, which was recently exhibited at the McNay. Not limiting himself in any way, Bailey combines several printing methods, plus elements of collage, painting, gold-leaf application, photos and even bits of velvet, to create his innovative pieces. “Printmakers today are really good in using all kinds of different materials and techniques in their work,” observes Kathleen Baker Pittman, a printmaker herself and a co-founder (with Le Green Schubert) of StoneMetal Press in the Blue Star Arts Complex. “Also, many traditional techniques have been upgraded and adapted with new technology. Some traditional processes used toxic agents and involved a lot of physical work. “For instance, etchings required the use of nitric acid (see sidebar). In the last 20 years, a new solar plate technology has been developed that eliminates the need for acids. Also today, we use water-based inks, and there are even soy-based inks, though we haven’t experimented with those here. One of our goals at StoneMetal Press is to reduce the toxicity of all the processes we use.” Fine art prints have a long and respected history. Though the earliest techniques were invented in the Far East as early as the 9th century, the first examples appeared in Europe in the 1300s, usually bearing images of saints, says Lyle Williams, curator of prints and drawings at the McNay Art Museum. With the rise of the middle class and a greater availability of paper in the 15th century, printed images became more prevalent.

Woodcuts and wood engravings were the first to make an appearance, but etchings originally invented to decorate the surface of armor soon followed. Lithography was invented in the 19th century. By that time, printers had already been experimenting with colors for a while, and printmaking had become more complex. Quite a few venerated painters from the past also made prints, among them Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Degas, Picasso and Francisco Goya. “In the 1960s, two printing shops, Gemini G.E.L. and ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions) encouraged a lot of American artists to do prints,” notes Williams. “These collaborative presses had a huge impact on American printmaking.” Among the “encouraged” artists were Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Buckminster Fuller. The medium has been growing ever since.

Nevertheless, printmakers are still a minority in the art world, says Craig. One reason may be that the craft requires considerable technical knowledge plus access to expensive equipment such as specialized presses. In San Antonio there are relatively few places where an artist can collaborate with an experienced master printer or even places that offer access to the equipment. This was the situation that Pittman and Green Schubert wanted to rectify when they established StoneMetal Press in 1991 as a modest establishment with a single etching press. Not intimidated by their limited resources, the two women also organized an international print competition in 1992, the first of its kind in the Alamo City. Called Hand-Pulled Prints International and still going strong, the most recent event, in 2007, was curated by McNay’s Williams and attracted hundreds of submissions from a number of countries. The next one is slated for 2009. Today, StoneMetal occupies fairly spacious premises that include the printing studio (with several presses), a gallery and office space. Local artists are welcome to use the studio for a fee. Though there is at least one other press in town that offers fine art printing services — the Hare and Hound Press — Pittman says that her gallery is the only local venue to exclusively exhibit and sell prints. Local artists who have shown there include well-known names such as Kent Rush, Vincent Valdez, Bernice Williams and Alex Rubio, among others.

Currently on display through Jan. 15 is the work of the late John Winkler, “etcher extraordinaire,” whose work is included in the McNay’s print collection. The artist’s daughter, who lives here, approached the gallery to suggest a show. “Since he worked mostly in San Francisco, we call the show ‘A Taste of San Francisco,’” says Pittman. “Forty of his prints will be included. It’s a unique opportunity for San Antonians to see this master etcher, and Lyle Williams will give a gallery talk Dec. 18.” Most of the pieces will be for sale. Which brings us to the question of price, limited editions, and the way to tell the difference between an art print and a reproduction. Most original prints are issued in “limited editions,” which means just what it implies, that the artist is issuing a limited number of impressions of a particular image/design. Editions tend to be small, say the experts, sometimes no more than 10 or 25 copies, and virtually none goes over 250.
Contemporary artists sign and number each impression, but the numbers may or may not reflect the order of printing. The Web site of New York’s Museum of Modern Art warns that the numbers may simply indicate the order in which the artist signed the copies. In some cases, however, the image begins to deteriorate after a number of pullings, explains Craig, so it is important to know how the numbering was done. Her own are one-of-a-kind prints because she combines her plates differently for each.

Monotypes are also “single prints” (see sidebar). Generally speaking, an artist may want each impression to be exactly like the previous one, or he/she may choose to slightly alter each one, making each print unique. New technologies have introduced a few new flies in the art print ointment, so to speak. Even experts have a hard time deciding whether digital prints qualify as art. Still, some like Williams believe that as long as the image is originally created by the artist, these prints are legit. Others are not so sure. Meanwhile digital elements are popping up everywhere with escalating frequency. Like elsewhere in art, prices depend on the reputation of the artist, but the complexity of the process contributes its share. Nevertheless, prints are by far more affordable than paintings. According to Pittman, contemporary prints range in price from $50 to $3,000, with most sold in the San Antonio market going for $150 to $450. As to how to differentiate between reproductions and originals, well, that’s a hard question, say the experts interviewed for this article. First, read labels, notes Pittman. The type of print should be identified on it. Beyond that, their advice is to educate yourself as much as possible by visiting galleries and museums. Your eye will eventually be able to pick up the characteristics of different types such as woodblocks, lithographs, etchings, etc.

Going to reputable galleries or established dealers also helps. Additionally, hand-pulled prints often have surface texture that reproductions don’t exhibit. Sometimes the print will bear the print shop’s embossed stamp. You can also research an artist’s output or enlist the help of a knowledgeable person. It takes a little preparation. “Printmaking is both aristocratic and democratic,” says Williams. “Aristocratic, because it does require some sophistication and knowledge on the part of the buyer; democratic, because it makes art more accessible to more people.”


Fine art prints can be created by using three basic methods: relief, intaglio or planographic printing. Below are brief descriptions of the most common print types in each of the three categories.

Woodcut — This is the oldest printmaking technique, practiced in China centuries before it was introduced in Europe in the 1400s. The matrix is a block of wood on which an artist creates an image by carving away the areas that are not part of the design. As a result, the image appears in relief (raised). These areas are inked, covered with a sheet of paper and printed either in a press or by rubbing a special flat tool over the back of the paper as it lies face down on the wood block.

Engraving — The artist uses a sharp tool called burin or graver to cut his design directly into a metal plate (matrix). The recessed areas (the image) are then inked while the rest of the plate is wiped clean. The technique can produce complex, detailed compositions with characteristically strong, clean lines.

Etching — An intaglio technique that uses chemical means in the preparation of the matrix (plate). The metal plate is first coated with an acid-resistant waxy “ground,” and the artist creates the design by drawing through this waxy coating with an etching needle. The plate is then immersed in an acid solution that reacts chemically with the exposed metal created by the lines of the drawing. The image is thus etched onto the plate. After the remaining waxy ground is removed, the plate is ready for inking and printing. This method allows for more artistic flexibility than engraving.

Aquatint — The name means “water tint,” implying a watercolor-type quality. It is an intaglio technique that etches whole sections of a plate rather than just lines. This is achieved by using sprinkled resin as ground instead of a uniform waxy one. When the plate is dipped in acid, the latter “bites” between the particles, creating a granular texture. Tones can vary depending on how long the plate is left in the acid solution.

Lithography — The image to be printed is created on a flat stone or metal surface using greasy crayons or greasy ink. Thus, it is a planographic process. The plate is washed with water, which is repelled by the greasy design but retained by the rest of the surface. When subsequently inked with a large roller, the opposite happens: The ink sticks to the design while being repelled by the wet areas. To make a print, a paper is placed on the surface, and the whole thing is run through the press. Lithography allows for painterly effects and a greater aesthetic freedom than the older techniques and remains popular among contemporary artists. (Lithography should not be confused with off-set lithography, which is used in commercial printing.)

Serigraph — Serigraphy is one of the newer printmaking methods often used for commercial purposes under the name silkscreen. Still, legitimate artists have adopted the technique’s basic principle, which uses a screen of fine silk or other porous material stretched over a frame. Stencils are placed on the screen, which in turn is placed on top of a sheet of paper. When the surface is inked with a squeegee, the ink penetrates through the material onto the paper except where the stencils block its passage. The stencils themselves are created and arranged on the surface by the artist to form the desired design. Serigraphs often feature large, flat areas of different colors. To create multicolored images, the artist must repeat the printing process several times, each time using a different stencil.

Monotype — A monotype is the exception among prints, as it is a one-of-kind print rather than one of many. To make it, the artist paints the image on a smooth glass or metal surface, which is then printed only once. Though a second weak impression can be made, the image will already show degradation when compared to the first impression.

Colotype — This kind of print is produced by applying all sorts of texturizing materials onto the surface of a plate in order to achieve a variety of effects, as each material will absorb ink differently.

Digital Prints — These are controversial. Some galleries and curators do not see them as “original” and certainly not “hand pulled,” but others are willing to cut them some slack. Though the printing is done by ink-jet printers, the images are still being conceived by artists, say the latter, albeit with the help of software. Many contemporary artists use digital or photo-transfer elements in their prints. Before 1990, computer images were often transferred to traditional plates before printing.

Sources: The Art of the Print, San Diego Museum of Art; What is a Print? Museum of Modern Art; Hand-Pulled Prints International XIII show catalog, StoneMetal Press.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

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