With an incredible range of techniques and price points, the prints market provides collectors with a diverse selection of pieces suitable for any collection.
In addition to its impact on literacy and the dissemination of knowledge across borders, the development of the printing process revolutionized artmaking by enabling one person or workshop to create multiple impressions from a single manipulated surface, otherwise known as a matrix.
In the early 20th century, artists began to sign and number these impressions, or prints, to create a finite edition. Fine prints should not be confused with photocopies or Giclée (reproductions), which are printed in vastly greater and sometimes unlimited quantities using inkjet printers.
Generally, editions are considered less valuable than other mediums such as painting or sculpture because they are not a unique work of art; therefore, prints are a good way to begin or supplement a collection. Still, the value of a print depends on a variety of factors. Particularly old, rare, or fine prints are priced higher than others in the category.
Collectors interested in blue-chip artists who can’t afford the price of an original work by Warhol or Lichtenstein are increasingly turning towards prints. This surge in popularity caused the print market to grow considerably in the last decade.
“Collecting prints and multiples is a great way to begin collecting art on an affordable level. It is also a good way to augment a collection of other works,” says Lisa Thomas, Director of the Fine Arts Department at Stair Galleries. “Today, we see many collectors buying prints alongside drawings, paintings, and sculpture to round out a collection.”
A Brief History of Prints
The earliest examples of printing include cylinder seals, which were invented around 3500 BC in the Near East, and woodblock prints from China in the third century AD.
Methods of intaglio printing were used in Western art as early at the 15th century, primarily to reproduce paintings for publishing or artist reference. Early on, printmaking methods were also used in conjunction with moveable type to produce books and periodicals. The development of photographic and other photomechanical methods of reproduction rendered printmaking largely obsolete to publishers, but its utility helped the medium maintain its popularity with artists.
Printing techniques are tremendously versatile, capable of producing broad, thick gestures or fine, controlled details. Today, printmaking remains an important method of experimentation for artists who wish to broaden their practice.
Types of Prints
There are four basic categories of printmaking techniques that each produce a distinctive look.
Intaglio is the method of incising an image into a surface, most often copper or zinc. After applying ink and wiping the surface so that ink is held only in the grooves, pressure is placed on the plate to transfer the image to paper. The most common variations of intaglio include:
- Engraving: the process of incising lines into a metal plate with a sharp tool known as a burin prior to applying pressure in a printing press.
- Etching: a common practice by which the metal plate is coated with wax and then incised with the desired image. The plate is submerged in acid to deepen the lines before being coated with ink and run through a mechanical press.
- Aquatint: a process by which resin particles are fused to the plate in an effort to create tonal gradations prior to running the plate through the press.
- Mezzotint: a variation in which the plate is grounded and parts are gradually smoothed to create lighter areas in the resulting print.
Relief prints are the opposite of intaglio. Reliefs are achieved by applying ink to raised surfaces, resulting in a stark contrast between light and dark. Common relief print processes include:
- Woodcuts: areas of a soft wooden block are hollowed out before ink is applied to the raised surface. Artists can use a variety of carving tools to create fine lines and detail. Multiple layers of ink can be applied to create more colorful or intricate designs.
- Wood engraving: woodcuts created with a much harder type of wood and sharper tools so artists can achieve finer lines and more detail.
- Linocuts: a less expensive and more versatile relief can be made by using a linoleum block in place of wood. The smooth surface allows for more versatility when attempting color prints.
Lithographs are made using a technique that involves a porous stone drawn on with grease and then coated with ink and water. The ink adheres to the grease marks so an impression is left when the stone is pressed on paper.
The stencil process begins with the artist painting or transferring a design onto a fine mesh screen. Often, an insolvent material is applied to the entire screen and the original design is dissolved in water so the negative appears an opaque layer on the mesh. Once the screen is secured, paper can be placed underneath and ink applied to the mesh with a squeegee to transfer the design onto the paper. Common forms of stencil works include screenprint, serigraph, and silkscreen.
Building Your Collection
The most important consideration when collecting prints is to purchase images that you will love living with each day. Visit art fairs, galleries and browse online art websites to discover what aesthetically pleases you. Once you have a general idea of your interests, it is important to thoroughly research the artist, style, or period, in addition to identifying the guidelines by which you will base your purchasing decision. It may be helpful to begin collecting thematically, focusing on categories such as landscapes or nudes, or biographically, by identifying a particular artist or artists that you would like to acquire.
“The best place to start when collecting prints is identifying an artist or art movement that you like and jump in with something moderately priced to get your feet wet. The nice thing about prints is that they exist in multiples so, unlike a unique work, if you are outbid, you may be able to find another example,” says Thomas.
Below is a helpful list of terms you might encounter as you prepare to build your collection:
- State: the state of a print refers to the stage of development of the matrix. Artists will work on the matrix, print several impressions, and then choose to edition those prints, even though he or she may continue to make changes to the composition.
- Artist’s proofs: annotated with an “A.P.”, artist’s proofs are a tradition based on the practice of using part of the series to pay for the assistance of a master printmaker or studio fees. These prints are set aside for the artist but sometimes show up on the market.
- Trial proofs: experimental intermediate impressions created while the artist is still making adjustments.
- Bon a Tier: annotated “B.A.T.”, this is the impression that the artist is satisfied with, and serves as the final trial print. Meaning “ready to pull,” these prints are used when the artist is working with a master printer and are not included in the edition.
- Hors Commerce: prints annotated with “H.C.” are an extension of the edition used for experimentation by the master printer. Changes to the matrix are not made at this point, and this type of print is typically made to assess the effect of a different paper.
“Printmaking techniques can be complicated so I always recommend reading about how prints are made to help understand how the artist’s hand was, or was not, involved in the production of the print,” says Thomas.
Building a collection is possible on almost any budget, as long as you enter the market from the right place. Here are a few tips to stay within your price range:
- Visit print fairs or galleries, which usually represent a wide variety of price points and often hold demonstrations of various techniques or presentations by experts in the field.
- Look into younger artists. Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) candidates hold open studios at universities prior to graduation each spring. Often their works are of high quality and available for purchase.
- Online marketplaces like Invaluable are an exciting way to acquire new works, and buyers can feel confident in the provenance and research invested by the house prior to public auction.
Establishing & Maintaining Value
Factors that can determine the value of a print include demand for the artist or series, edition size, and condition.
No factor impacts the value of a print more than its physical condition. Like all works on paper, prints are fragile and easily affected by environmental factors and improper handling. Assessing condition carefully prior to purchase is important because conservation efforts can be expensive and many types of damage are not reversible. Some condition issues to be avoided are:
- Foxing: brown spots on the edges that happen as a result of environmental exposure. Foxing is difficult to remove and often continues to worsen without treatment.
- Fading or yellowing: discoloration that appears when prints are not protected from exposure to light.
- Paper curling: curling that occurs when prints are exposed to damp conditions.
Before framing and displaying your prints, consider these tips:
- Ensure proper framing and glazing by working with a reputable professional framer, using archival materials.
- If you are not ready to professionally frame and display your prints, store them in acid- and lignin-free protective enclosures in a cool, stable environment away from direct light. Attics, basements, or anywhere with the potential for uncontrolled exposure to heat, light or damp conditions should not be used as storage spaces.
- Whether glass or acrylic, glazing should protect your print from UV rays and pollutants, and the use of glue for support should be avoided.
Tips for Buying at Online Auctions
You can now easily buy prints online from an art and antiques marketplace like Invaluable. Be aware, however, that sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. To ensure you’re making a quality purchase, consider following these guidelines:
1. Request a Condition Report & Other Identifying Documents
- What does the documentation prove? Are the sources credible?
- If applicable, who authenticated this artist’s work? Who paid for the authentication? What warranty is extended to you in the case that the authentication is later revealed to be false?
- What is the history of the item, and who has owned it?
- Has it been altered, or is it fully intact?
- What damages or restorations exist?
2. Register to bid several days in advance.
Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in bidding with. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
3. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or galleries.
- How does the auction house handle taxes?
- Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer or retail price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house, dealer or gallery with questions?
4. Ask Follow-Up Questions
If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.
5. Research Past Prices
Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
6. Don’t Bid Unless You’re Sure
All sales at an auction are final. Once you have successfully bid and won your object, the auction house or gallery can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.
Ellis, Margaret. The Care of Prints and Drawings. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1995.
Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Janson, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson. A Short History of Art. Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2004.
Stallabrass, Julian. Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Wagner, Ethan, and Thea Westreich Wagner. Collecting Art for Love, Money and More. London: Phaidon Press Inc., 2013.