Thoughts on collecting original prints

A brief guide to collecting original prints

What is an original print?

Imagine you are back at primary school, given half a potato and asked to cut a design into it. I remember carving out a star shape. I dunked it in a tray of yellow poster paint, smeared it about a bit, then carefully pressed it onto a piece of paper. The result was a mirror image of my yellow star––very satisfying. And I could do it again and again, creating an edition, until the potato started to go fluffy and split. Each of those yellow stars on paper was an original print, and it was the print that was the work of art not the potato, the potato was just a tool, the matrix. The primary concept for an original print is the edition, after that the matrix is lost or destroyed and the print can never again be made: an etching plate is scored through; a lithographic stone is ground down; the screens of a screenprint, once used, are spent. All that remains is the impressions you pulled, the final realisation of your work––the proof.

Beware of reproductions they are not original prints. A reproduction is merely a photograph of an existing work by an artist whose principal aim was not necessarily to have it reproduced. The prints may be signed and sold in limited editions, but the original still exists out there and can be photographed again.

How are they made?

Understanding the processes by which original prints are produced enables us to distinguish them and shows us why they are special things and an art form in their own right.

It is one thing for a man to paint on a cave wall, it is quite another for him to print on it. Printmaking is art and civilisation combined.

The process requires tools and technique, experience, and more often than not, a collaborative approach. The journey from the first cut in the potato to the final proof is an edited and perfected one.

There are four main methods of printmaking:

1. Relief printing where the image is produced from the raised or uncarved portion of the matrix, such as a linocut or woodcut ––and good old potato cut. You can often recognise a relief print by the hard edges to the design, where the ink is thickest

2. Intaglio printing applies to all matrices that have been cut into or burnished, such as an engraving or a mezzotint; or ‘bitten’ into by acid, such as an etching or an aquatint. An intaglio print is easy to spot as it has a plate mark surrounding the image impressed into the paper.

3. Screenprinting also known as silkscreen or serigraph. This process uses stencils laid onto a stretched frame (screen) of silk, plastic or metal mesh. Ink is then forced through the mesh and onto the paper in the areas not blocked out by the stencils. Screenprints are often characterised by their bright, bold colours and thick inks.

4. Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in Bavaria in 1798. It is the process by which an image is achieved by drawing directly onto the lithographic stone or plate with a greasy material such as a crayon. The surface of the plate is then dampened with water, which is repelled by the greasy areas, and then rolled with ink, which is itself repelled by water, but adheres to the greasy areas. Look for the areas where colours have been overlaid in a lithograph to create new tones.

In each process the paper and the matrix come together in a press. This can be as simple as pressing down with the back of a spoon on your kitchen floor, or as complicated as an offset lithographic press which enables the image to be transferred onto a roller before being applied to the paper so that it is reversed again, therefore allowing it to be printed ‘true’ and not as a mirror image. It is also worth pointing out that each colour requires a separate plate or stone or screen. So a single piece of paper may have to go through a press 10 or 20 times, in perfect registration, each time tested and revised, in order to build up the final picture.

Why collect them?

Printmaking combines the quantifiable with the unquantifiable: a signature, date, edition number and publisher with the emotional communication of art. Sometimes it is that almost fetishistic, smell-of-a-new-exercise-book pleasure over handmade paper, ink and pencil shavings that excites us to collect prints.

Unlike a painting, there is likely to be more than one example of an original print––perhaps 100 have been pulled, a number which, over time, may be reduced by loss or damage. As with porcelain, condition is everything: the value of a print is severely knocked, both aesthetically and in price, if the image has a blemish or has faded, or the paper has been trimmed or torn. So you need guidance to know how a print is meant to be.

For every major printmaker there is what is known as a catalogue raisonné, a book that documents each print the artist has made, its matrix, date, dimensions, type of paper, edition size, printer and publisher––all delicious details to nourish the collector. The Albrecht Durer catalogue raisonné, for example, was compiled by Adam Bartsch and each work has a ‘Bartsch number’; Picasso has Georges Bloch, and Terry Frost, of course, me! So, armed with a catalogue raisonné (like Stanley Gibbons to the stamp collector), the print collector has something with which to measure and compare the things he covets.

Some images become more desirable than others and some very difficult to find, so you need diligence as well as a personal feeling for the work. The same inspiration that drove the artist to create his work in print may very well be the same that drives the collector to possess it.

Who to collect?

There is no right answer of course, and it isn’t always a question of who. Printmaking offers an enormous amount of scope. You can collect a particular artist or school, nationality, subject matter or printmaking process itself. For example, etchings are on the whole smaller and more intricate than screenprints (the process goes back to the 15th century, whereas screenprinting as an artist’s medium only really took off in the latter half of the 20th century). Some collectors concentrate on artist’s proofs (examples of the print, outside the edition, reserved for the artist’s personal disposal and generally inscribed ‘A/P’) and some collectors focus on a particular printing or publishing house, such as the Curwen Press, founded in London by the Reverend John Curwen in 1863 to publish sheet music and later expanded into a studio by his grandson, Harold and set up by Stanley Jones in St Ives in 1958 to embrace artists’ lithography.

Charles Sorlier, master lithographer at the Atelier Mourlot in Paris, wrote of Marc Chagall, his lifelong friend and collaborator:

He fabricated a mystical world of lovers, musicians and artists in his work. Chagall chose lithography as a medium that could offer him almost unlimited painterly freedom to explore this world. Since lithography is a technique where the artist can work directly on the printing plate or lithostone, the resultant prints convey the spontaneity of Chagall’s brushstrokes and drawn lines. Lithography also allowed Chagall to work in lush colour, which he viewed as his métier, and for which Chagall has become renowned. Chagall's lithographs are now among the most collected art works of the 20th century.

Henry Moore produced hundreds of etchings and lithographs. Like many sculptors and painters, he felt his work as a printmaker went hand in hand with his work as a sculptor––one informed the other. The etched line, the mark on stone and the process of editioning held similar resonances for him in both disciplines.

Andy Warhol chose screenprinting for very different but no less valid reasons: he just couldn’t make paintings fast enough, and he pioneered the idea of art being accessible to all; if an image was worth doing once it was worth doing a hundred times. But even Warhol would have been surprised to learn that in 2010 an example of the famous Madonna lithograph by Edvard Munch from 1895 (revisited by Warhol himself in a screenprint in 1984) fetched £1.2 million at auction in London.

There’s quite a market out there. Check condition and authenticity but, most importantly, collect what you love. After all, that’s why the artist made it.

Dominic Kemp

Author of Terry Frost Prints © Dominic Kemp 2011