Washington Printmakers Gallery often sells artist-pulled fine prints. What does this mean? With so many kinds of “prints” for sale, the subject is confusing. Is a printed reproduction of a museum work a print? What about a more expensive print which is mass-produced but signed by the artist?
Here are some of the basics about fine prints, printmaking, and print collecting.
Although most (but not all) printmaking processes allow the artist to create multiple images (an edition), each print (impression) in an edition is printed (pulled) by the artist (or by a print studio or atelier under the artist’s supervision) and is considered an original fine print. At Washington Printmakers Gallery we sell artist-pulled fine prints. This simply means that the entire process, including pulling the print, has been planned and brought to completion by the individual artist. In most cases the artist has also pulled the print. There are some exceptions, such as when an artist who is physically unable to lift and run a large lithographic stone through the press has relied on a master printer to work “as the artist’s hands” under the artist’s close supervision.
It has been standard practice since the late 19th Century for printmakers to indicate the number of prints in a particular edition and to number individually each print in that edition. For instance, 2/15 indicates that there are 15 prints in the full edition. The number 2 indicates that this is the second print that the artist has numbered out of the edition of 15. The artist may also designate some impressions – usually no more than 10% of the edition – as Artist Proofs, marked as A/P. These numbers or letters are usually written beneath or beside the print and constitute the artist’s guarantee that no more than the designated number of prints will be pulled. It is customary, once the full edition has been printed, for the artist to deface or permanently mark the plate or block from which the prints were pulled. This is called canceling the plate.
Artists who pull their own prints (as opposed to artists who work with a master printer or print studio) are rarely able to print the kind of uniform edition that a print studio is able to achieve. But WPG print collectors find that one of the pleasures of purchasing a print lies in comparing slight differences among various impressions and selecting the one they like best.
How do you pull a print?
In pulling a print, the artist uses pressure to transfer ink from a prepared surface (the matrix) to another surface (usually a piece of paper.) Each printmaking technique is characterized by a different way of creating the matrix and pulling the print.
Relief – Woodcut, linocut, wood engraving, color woodcut, white-line woodcut
In relief printmaking, the matrix is a block of wood or linoleum. Using knives and gouges, the artist cuts away lines and areas. When the artist rolls or dabs ink onto the block, the ink adheres only to the surface, skipping over the cut-away areas. To print, the artist places paper over the inked block and applies pressure – either by hand-rubbing or with a printing press – and in this way transfers the ink to the paper. As with most printmaking processes, the print is a mirror image of the marks on the block.
The various materials used in relief printmaking contribute to the characteristic look of each medium. In woodcut, the matrix is plank wood (wood cut along the length of the tree trunk, the way we normally see lengths of wood in a lumber yard.) In cutting into the plank, the artist is always forced to consider the grain; working with, against, or across the grain of the wood often yields an angular mark characteristic of woodcut. Linoleum, by contrast, has no grain, and as a result the artist can more easily carve out a mark which is fluid and supple. In wood engraving, the matrix is end-grain wood; the wood is cut in cross-sections across the tree trunk and pieced together where necessary. The most prized material for wood-engraving – end-grain boxwood – is increasingly rare and expensive, and wood-engravers frequently use end-grain maple or even plastic. As it true when cutting linoleum, the artist working with end-grain wood is not constrained by the direction of the grain. In addition, wood engravers employ a different set of tools – gravers, spitstickers and scorpers – each of which creates a distinctive mark.
Color woodcuts are created in a variety of ways. The artist can create multiple blocks, ink each with a different color, and print them in succession, one on top of another. The complex process by which each color is precisely superimposed over the previous color is called registration. An artist can also cut the block into pieces, ink each with a separate color, and then re-assemble and print the block.
Reduction woodcut is an exacting process in which the artist uses only one block. The block is cut and used to print the first color; that same block is cut down (hence the term reduction woodcut) and used to print the second color over the first. The artist continues to cut and print until all the colors have been printed. There is, however, no opportunity to go back to the first color, since the wood has long since been cut away. (For obvious reasons this medium has been called the Russian roulette of printmaking.)
Artists also add color by hand. White-line woodcut is a process where the artist cuts a line to separate each area of color, applies the colors by hand, and then pulls the print.
Intaglio – Etching, aquatint, drypoint, mezzotint, engraving
Intaglio (from the Italian world to carve) might be considered the reverse of relief printing. In a relief print, the ink is rolled onto the surface and not into the lines; in an intaglio print, the ink is pushed into the lines and pits and wiped off the surface of the plate. To pull an intaglio print, the artist must use a printing press in order to create enough pressure to force the dampened printing paper down into the inked lines.
The matrix in intaglio is a thin plate of metal (usually zinc or copper), plexiglass, or any other surface in which a line can be engraved. Each intaglio process uses a different method of creating permanent marks on the plate. In the traditional etching method, the artist first covers the plate with a protective ground, next draws through the ground, and finally immerses the plate in a mordant, such as an acid or ferric chloride. The mordant eats into the metal wherever it is exposed, creating lines and marks that correspond to the lines drawn through the ground. There are also a number of new products available which enable the artist to create an etched line without the use of a mordant.
Aquatint also uses a mordant but creates a broad tonal area. The artist covers the plate with a fine dusting of spray paint or a sprinkling of rosin dust melted onto the plate. When the plate is immersed in the mordant, the mordant bites around the paint or rosin particles, creating a tone instead of a line. In the case of line or aquatint, the longer a plate is left in the mordant, the deeper the bitten area and the darker the line or tone in the printed image. It is also possible to etch a photographic image – either a negative or a positive – onto the plate. This is called photo-etching.
Drypoint, as the name implies, creates lines without the use of a mordant. The artist draws directly into the plate, creating a shallow line with a ridge of metal or plexiglass on one side. This ridge, called the burr, is the metal or plexi that is displaced as the line is drawn (similar to the furrow of soil thrown up by a plow.) The ragged surface of the burr catches more ink than the shallow line beside it; indeed the burr prints a velvety dark line which is the characteristic beauty of drypoint. But because the burr is fragile and wears away after only a few passes through the etching press, the number of prints in a drypoint edition is usually very small.
In mezzotint, the artist uses a tool called a rocker to laboriously cover the entire surface of the plate with pits. If a print were pulled at this point, it would be almost solid black. To create an image, the artist uses a burnisher to smooth the rough metal down into lines and areas that will not catch ink. In other words, the mezzotint artist is creating a white image on a dark ground.
Metal engraving is another intaglio process that uses no mordant. The artist uses a tool called a burin to remove lines of metal from the plate. The line created by the burin is the most clear and clean of the intaglio lines. The etched line, bitten by the mordant, is slightly more ragged, and the drypoint burr line is the richest and most expressive of all.
Color intaglio prints are usually created with multiple plates, in much the same way as multiple blocks are used to create color woodcuts. It is also possible to add color by hand (or, more accurately, by finger) to selected areas of a plate before it is printed. This technique is called à la poupée.
In a collagraph, the plate is built up and manipulated by the artist, using a collage-like process which combines materials as diverse as cardboard, fabric, gesso, glue, string, sand, carborundum grit, and found objects. The artist can also draw lines into the gesso before it hardens. As a result, the plate may print as both relief and intaglio. Collagraph prints are usually pulled on a press.
Serigraphy is one of the few printmaking processes in which the pulling the print does not result in a reversed image. Serigraphy is a stencil technique in which the stencil is painted, adhered, or exposed to a screen of mesh fabric stretched tightly over a frame. The frame is set down on the paper and ink is forced through the mesh with a flexible squeegee blade. Where the stencils cover the fabric mesh, the ink does not reach the paper. As with other printmaking techniques, the artist may use multiple screens to create a color serigraph.
Lithography (from the Greek word for stone) is a process invented in the late 18th century by Alois Senefelder. The matrix is either limestone or a metal plate treated to simulate stone. The artist can draw on the smoothed surface with a wide range of litho crayons, paint with liquids, scratch into the drawn areas, and manipulate the image in innumerable ways. Lithography affords the artist a wide range of graphic and painterly freedom. The image is printed by chemically treating the stone to ensure that the drawn areas attract ink while the unmarked areas repel it. Ink is then rolled over the stone, printmaking paper set in place, and a scraperbar pulled across the paper to transfer the ink to the paper. Lithography is called a planographic process because, unlike relief or intaglio, all the ink remains on the surface plane of the matrix.
Monoprint & Monotype
Monoprint: Printmaking that has images or lines that cannot exactly be reproduced. There are many techniques of mono printing, including collage, hand-painted additions, and a form of tracing by which thick ink is laid down on a table, paper is placed on top and is then drawn on, transferring the ink onto the paper. Monoprints can also be made by altering the type, color, and pressure of the ink used to create different prints. Examples of standard printmaking techniques which can be used to make monoprints include lithography, woodcut, and etching.
The difference between monoprinting and monotyping is that monoprinting has a matrix that can be reused, but not to produce an identical result. With monotyping there are no permanent marks on the matrix, and at most two impressions (copies) can be obtained.
Monoprints are known as the most painterly method among the printmaking techniques; a monoprint is often regarded as a non-editionable kind of print and is essentially a printed painting. The characteristic of this method is that no two prints are alike. The beauty of this media is also in its spontaneity and its combination of printmaking, painting and drawing mediums.
The choice of paper is often of primary importance to printmakers. The most basic assumption is that the paper is archival. Beyond that, the printmaker considers such qualities as the paper’s weight, pliability, texture, durability, and color. Papers range from heavy, European-made papers which must be soaked in water for hours to render the surface pliable for etching, to hand-made Japanese papers which are so transparent that the image is almost as clear on the back as on the front of the print. The choice of paper can affect the look and mood of a print, and testing various possibilities is both a challenge and pleasure to many printmakers