The Complete Collector's Guide to Prints

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The Complete Collector's Guide to Prints

Left: "Sarah" by Alex Katz, 2012, serigraph printed in colors; Right: "Vivian" by Alex Katz, 2012, serigraph printed in colors,
Concept Art Gallery

Prints are a great starting point for many new fine art collectors and for those wishing to expand their collections with low risk and the potential for high reward. Collecting prints also provides the rare opportunity to acquire works by well-known artists and masters at a much more reasonable price.

More than ever, collectors are looking at prints as works of art that are valued for the qualities and techniques only possible in printmaking. Copper, limestone, paper, wood, acid and ink are just a few of the materials involved that create textures and marks, which can only be produced by this process. Unlike most paintings, the indirect procedures essential to printmaking do not have immediate results. Each print is built in layers. An image is pressed without full control of its outcome. Marks are carefully planned and practiced with thoughtful appreciation of the material and its mysteries. The growing interest in the complexity and beauty of this tradition has ultimately led to significant recognition of a print’s value in today’s market.

Over the past decade, the prints market has closely mimicked the broader trends of fine art in that contemporary artists primarily in the Pop genre have excelled at auction. Prices for prints by contemporary Street artists, including KAWS, Banksy, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, have also continued to rise. At the same time, collectors of contemporary art are now showing an interest in iconic subject matter and artists from the past, including Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, Joan Miró, Edvard Munch, Rembrandt, and other masters who produced some of the most radical work of their day.

Below are some basic reference points to help new collectors better understand the various types of prints and what to consider before buying.

A Brief History

Considering where and who was involved in the creation of a print is an important and equally exciting aspect of collecting prints. Taking the time to learn more about the history of a particular printer studio or publisher can enhance one’s appreciation of the process and even provide inspiration for a collection’s direction.

Publishers can typically be identified by a stamp, which often appears as a logo and consists of a name and/or address. Though the printer is not always stated, except on lithographs, you can request this information from the seller. Some prints, especially older works, will feature a watermark—a symbol or logo that identifies the factory that produced it. Since watermarks are incorporated in the paper’s woven texture, they appear as translucent designs that can be recognized by holding the print up to a light source (just like a roll of film). Other stamps can identify a previous collector. Historically, many collectors made a habit of stamping or signing prints that they acquired. These are called “collector’s marks” and are key to identifying a print’s provenance and understanding its history.

The Basics

A print is a work of art, usually a work on paper, which typically exists in multiple, identical impressions from an inked surface, called a “matrix.” A matrix is the surface from which the printed image is pulled and can be created using various materials—the most common being screen, wood, metal, and stone.

Type 1: Relief Print

Relief printing involves the use of sharp tools to carve away an image or design on the surface of the matrix, leaving the raised areas to collect ink. There are typically two types of relief prints: woodcut and linocut.

"Mandela" by Roy Ndinisa, 2011, signed woodblock, DUMBO Auctions

Woodcut is a print created using a block of wood as the matrix. Areas of the wood are carved away to reveal a design; ink is then rolled along the raised areas; the design is transferred to a sheet of paper by using a printing press or by smoothing the surface of the matrix and paper together by hand in a technique known as “hand burnishing.” Since the carved areas do not receive ink, they will appear blank—in other words, the same color as the paper. The woodcut process can typically be identified by the visibility of the wood grain as well as bold dark and light contrasts.

Linocut is a print created using a block of linoleum as the matrix, which is often reinforced with wood. The linocut is handled in the same way as a woodcut, but typically results in less texture as it lacks the grainy quality of wood.

Type 2: Intaglio Print

Intaglio printing involves the use of sharp tools to incise a design or image into a metal plate, usually copper. After the matrix is inked, it is wiped clean, leaving only the incisions to hold ink. Another distinction in this process is that a press must be used to create an intaglio print, as extra pressure is necessary to force the dampened paper into the incisions to effectively collect ink.

"Canfield Hatfield, Plate 2" by David Salle, 1989, softground etching, ed. 49/60, Concept Art Gallery

There are four main types of intaglio prints, all of which can easily be identified by a visible platemark—a platemark refers to the linear indentation along the edges of a print caused by the press; it is a defining characteristic of an intaglio print.

Engraving is a print created with a particular sharp tool called a “burin.” As the tool moves across the surface of the metal, shavings known as “burr” are left behind along the incision marks; the burr is then cleaned from the plate before inking. Engravings feature deep or fine lines that can be identified as engraving marks by their round or tapered ends.

Drypoint is a print created by using a needle or other sharp tool to scratch a design into a metal plate. Unlike an engraving, the burr is not cleaned from the plate before inking and instead is left on the surface to catch extra ink. As a result, drypoint lines tend to be soft and velvety. Since the burr wears down with repeated printing, the drypoint technique may result in variations between early and later impressions and, depending on the artist, produce fewer satisfactory prints and therefore drypoint prints tend to exist in smaller editions than other types.

Etching is a print created by using a waxy substance known as “ground” to coat the surface of a metal plate. A design is then drawn into the ground using a special tool called a “stylus” to expose the metal. The metal plate is then submerged in an acid bath; during this stage the acid chemicals eat away at the exposed metal, creating deeper groves where the design has been made. Before inking, the waxy ground is removed. Etching lines usually feature blunt or rounded ends. Many artists, such as Picasso, favor this technique because it allows for a similar freedom to that of drawing and greater control.

Aquatint is a print that involves an etching process that produces areas of tone. Unlike an etching, which uses a waxy, solid substance to cover the matrix, an aquatint is created with a granular ground. When submerged in the acid bath, the chemicals eat away at the exposed metal as well as between the granules. Gradations in tone are achieved by varying the duration of the acid bath and/or by using different grained grounds. This technique is commonly used in combination with etched lines.

Type 3: Planographic Print

Planographic printing involves a process where the design rests on the flat plane of the matrix rather than in a relief or incision. There are two main techniques to this process; some require a printing press while others do not.

"Dachshund" by Hunde Ausstellung, hand-pulled lithograph, Rue Royale Fine Art

Lithograph involves a process based on the fact that oil and water do not mix. Using a greasy medium called “tusche” in either solid or liquid form, a design is drawn on a flat stone surface. The stone is then flooded with water, which soaks the stone, but is repelled by the greasy design. Ink is then rolled onto the matrix and adheres only to the greasy design as the other areas are wet and repel the ink. A sheet of paper is placed onto the inked stone and run through a press. Since its invention in 1798, limestone blocks have been used as the matrix; today, zinc plates are used (“zincography”).

Screenprint (or silkscreen) involves a process based on the stencil principle. A print screen is created with a fine mesh fabric, which is then stretched across a frame. A stencil is then applied to the screen to mark out areas of the design. Using a squeegee, ink is forced through the stenciled screen and passes through the exposed mesh onto the print’s surface. Stencils can be made with various materials, such as plastic, cut paper or glue. Sixties artists, most notably Andy Warhol, transferred photographic images to silk screens by using light-sensitive emulsions, which then hardened to form the stencil.

Less Common Techniques

Monotype is a singular type of print that is created by drawing a design in ink on any smooth surface. The matrix is then covered with a sheet of paper and run through a press. This technique only yields one strong impression, but sometimes, additional impressions of lesser quality are pulled. Edgar Degas is an exemplary figure who frequently utilized this technique.

Monoprint is another singular type of print, which is created by applying ink to a matrix that is already etched and inked. The result is an impression unique in appearance to all others pulled from the same plate.

"Snap 2" by Laurie Alpert, original monotype, OAC Gallery

What is an Edition?

An edition is the total number of impressions pulled from a single matrix. The artist and printmaker usually work together to determine the edition size. In the modern era, it became the practice of the artist to sign and number each impression in a given edition. Artworks, on paper or any other medium, created in a limited number is called an edition. ‘Multiples’ describes any edition of three-dimensional works and are often included in print sales.

Second Edition indicates that the print is a later impression of an original matrix, after an official edition has been printed. Second editions are typically authorized by the artist and should be annotated as such.

Posthumous Edition is a print made from an original matrix after the death of the artist. Posthumous editions are typically authorized by the artist’s heirs or by a publisher who purchased the original matrix from the artist. Posthumous editions should be annotated as such and are usually limited in some way, or else become limitless restrikes.

Restrike is a later impression from an original matrix that is not authorized by that artist or his/her heirs. While some restrikes may maintain a good quality appearance, excessive printing eventually leads to faded or ghostly images of what the print is supposed to look like.

What is a Proof?

Proof is the general term for any impression pulled prior to printing the official edition. In the market, they are often more valuable because there are incidentally fewer of them, making them more rare and, in certain cases, they can feature unique qualities in comparison to the rest of the edition.

Trial Proof is an impression pulled prior to the official edition to test what the print looks like. At this stage, the artist may return to the matrix and change it or proceed to print if satisfied with the result. A trial proof can be identified by the absence of any annotations.

Bon à Tirer Proof takes the French term meaning “okay to print” and designates a print as the final trial proof. There is only one of these for an edition and tells the printer what each print should look like. It is usually annotated “B.A.T.”

"9th Hole, Pebble Beach Golf Links 2010 U.S. Open Championship" by Linda Hartough,
artist's proof, grande giclee on canvas, FireRock Fine Art

Artist’s Proof comes from a historical practice of a publisher giving the artist one or more prints of an edition to sell as payment for their work. Though today artists get paid for their editions, the tradition has continued and a set amount of impressions are put aside for the artist; usually annotated “A.P.” or “E.A.” (Epreuve d’artiste).

Printer’s Proof is a complimentary proof that is given to the printer. Depending on how many printers were involved and the artist’s charity, there can be multiple printer proofs.

Hors Commerce Proof is an impression that is typically not for sale and is sometimes used by publishers for exhibition copies to preserve the original numbered prints from exposure and too much handling. These are typically annotated “H.C.”

More Inscriptions to Know

Numbering is a standard practice of numbering individual impressions that emerged in the 20th century. Today, limited edition prints are numbered in fractional form (i.e. 2/75), with the first number indicating the impression number and the second being the edition size. Though the market often values edition number 1/75 over number 75/75, this fraction does not necessarily indicate the order in which they were printed as prints are not annotated as soon as they come off the press, but at a later time, once the ink has dried.

Signatures are normally made in pencil or ink by the artist on original prints. An artist’s signature is a custom that was uncommon before the 20th century, so do not be alarmed if you are buying an older print and one is not visible. However, if the artist did sign his/her edition, any unsigned impressions of the same print are generally less commercially valuable.

"Tembo" by Arno Elias, 2015, signed, inkjet print, ed. of 12, Hamburg Kennedy Photographs

Chop is a symbol or logo that appears on each print of a completed edition, including all proofs, and identifies the printer or publisher.

Additional inscriptions that may appear on the printed surface include: the date of publication, the name of the volume or series for which the print was created, and/or a dedication to a particular individual or larger public.

What Increases a Print’s Value?

At a basic level, a print’s retail price or auction estimate is determined by the richness of its provenance, literature and exhibition history, as well as the size of the edition—prints from a limited or very small edition are valued higher. Other factors, such as whether a print has been handcolored with inks, pencils, acrylics, watercolors or gouache can also increase its value. Particularly with posthumous prints, a certificate of authenticity (COA) can influence value. A COA is an additional document created by an artist or artist’s estate to be sold with their works. It usually includes the artist’s information and/or signature and typically states the print type, edition size, and even the particular paper used.

Since prints—for the most part—are created in multiples, it is likely that at least one or more works from the same edition have a past auction record. This often makes it easier to grasp the market value and potential of a particular print compared to that of a one of a kind painting. Auction records for prints can be found on various online platforms and are important resources for new and experienced collectors.


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