A PRIMER ON PRINTS
All the bases covered.
In a world of inkjets, the act of printing something seems as immediate as it is common. But when it comes to art, printing is its own practice requiring a great deal of patience and skill. So what exactly makes prints special, and how are they actually made in the first place? Here's a breakdown of the fundamentals.
Isn't printing a straightforward practice with modern technology? What makes art prints different?
In contrast to mass printing methods, art prints are made using any number of specialized printmaking techniques whereby ink is applied to a surface – a plate, screen, block or stone, called the “printing matrix” – worked by tools or chemicals, which is in turn pressed onto another surface (most often paper). Some of the most common printmaking techniques include woodblock, lithography, etching and screen printing. Whichever process an artist chooses, the final composition is carefully considered as every color must be applied individually and in perfect alignment to create the desired image.
I see prints of artwork all the time. Are certain prints more special than others?
Prints are not posters! Artists typically conceive of prints as their own specific forms of creative expression and collaborate with master printmakers who can help them navigate the particular technical processes of printmaking. This sets fine art prints apart from most of what's available on the commercial (poster) market, which are copies of works originally created in other mediums and reproduced, often digitally.
Are fine art prints made using special materials?
Yes! Quality prints are made with premium acid-free paper containing a high percentage of cotton or other natural fibers. The acid-free feature of the paper is critical for the work's longevity as it will help ensure the materials don't corrode over time. This paper is also selected for its ability to appropriately absorb any pigment applied to its surface, which often comes in the form of archival inks. Archival inks are made to be especially resistant to environmental factors (like sunlight) so they retain the richness of their colors and don't fade, even over a long period of time.
I've seen that prints come in editions. What does that mean?
Prints are made in batches by the artist, and each batch is referred to as an edition. Each edition has an edition size, which is the total number of individual prints it includes. Every individual print within an edition (known as an impression) is usually numbered – 34/100, for example.
If prints can be made in batches, is there any limit to how many prints of a work can be made?
Though there is often no technical limit to how many prints can be made, artists usually set limits for the number of impressions within each edition. After a predetermined run, it isn't unusual for the printing plate or block to be destroyed or defaced with "X". A print made from a canceled plate is called a “cancellation proof” and demonstrates that the image has been altered so that no further identical prints can physically be made. This scarcity adds to the value of fine art prints.