Printmaking Techniques

A Sheet of copper is covered with a wax film, and the image drawn through it with a needle. When dipped in acid, only the exposed lines will be bitten into (the rest of the plate being protected by the wax). Ink is forced into these grooves with a roller, and the rest of the plate is wiped off. Wet paper is placed on the plate, and the plate and paper are pressed together by passing through an etching press.

Like etching, aquatint is an acid based process. Instead of wax, a layer of bitumen dust is laid on a plate, which is then heated, causing the dust to adhere to its surface. When immersed, the acid attacks the copper around each grain, thereby creating a fine web of thin lines. The technique is most suited to imitating areas of tone, such as those found in watercolour washes.

What is an original print?

This is a tricky question. There have been many attempts to arrive at a concrete definition, many of which bear little relation to current artists' practice or the varied methods employed in printing studios. Artists often approach the making of prints in an experimental manner and (rightly) resist any imposed restriction.

A working definition is that the image has been made through and for printing and that it has involved the artist directly in all stages of the image formation. A key requirement is that the image could not be formed in any other way and that it realises the artist's vision for the piece. The artist is in the driving seat and their freedom of choice is sacrosanct.

Traditionally, original prints have been viewed as objects formed totally by the artist in which every mark appearing in the finished print has been made by the artist's hand alone. More recently it has become accepted that the involvement of skilled collaborators should be allowed within the definition.

Many original prints are a team effort involving papermakers, plate or stencil makers, digital originators or photographic technicians and printers. All these people are working strictly to the artist's instructions but they may make a contribution on a variety of levels to the finished work. The relationship between the artist and the printer is a complex one and has virtually limitless variations.

Original prints are usually made by hand using very high quality materials but these are not essential elements. Similarly, original prints are usually published in limited editions but the limitation of the print run does not, in any way, condition the image. An unlimited edition of original prints is quite acceptable, the only significant effect of the limitation is that it increases the price by virtue of scarcity.

An original print is an original print if the artist says so. The resulting work will not be a reproduction of a pre-existing image. It will stand alone without a point of reference.

What is a limited edition?

It is a run of prints in which the number of copies is finite. Usually all the sheets are identical but sometimes variables will be built into the edition. With all original prints each sheet is a performance. Sometimes the performance follows the basic script with bravura touches. The length of the run may have been restricted by the break-down of the printing matrix or more usually by the conscious destruction of the matrix. Normally the prints in such a run are numbered to show how many copies have been made. (See What do the numbers and
marks on the bottom of the print mean?

Many factors lead to the limitation of an edition, these include:

•  A marketing decision in which the publisher believes that only a certain number of copies will sell, or a belief that rarity will make the work more collectable.

•  A practical factor intervenes, such as a limited supply of a rare paper.

•  Technical complexity prohibits the making of many copies.

•  The printing matrix is very fragile and will only deliver a few copies.

•  A financial restriction applies. So, whilst the unit cost goes down on a larger run, the total cost increases. Some prints are very expensive to make.

What do the numbers and marks on the bottom of the print mean?

The edition number
Usually expressed as 1/30, 2/30 (and so on), shows that the print is from an edition of 30 copies. 1/30 does not necessarily mean that this was the first to be printed. It also means that there will only ever be 30 edition copies in existence.

The artist's proof
Sometimes only marked A.P., more usually marked A.P. 1/4 to show that this is one of four (or however many) proofs. These are the property of the artist and may be sold by them. The artist's proofs are in addition to the limited edition and are usually restricted to 10% of the edition number. So, on an edition of 30 copies, there would be 3 artist's proofs. Sometimes marked E.A. as in Epreuve d'Artiste.

Hors Commerce
A display copy (literally 'outside trade'). Typically marked H.C. 1/2, etc.

The final preparatory proof. It stands for Bon A Tirer, 'good to pull' . Sometimes marked 'right to print'. The edition run is matched to this proof.

A printer's proof. The artist usually gives each collaborating printer a copy of the finished work. These are often dedicated to the person.

The artist's signature
This is a sign of authorship and of approval.

Some papermakers include a watermark in the sheet. These range from the discreet to the more flamboyant. Some, like Fabriano, run down the whole length of the paper. They are another sign of authenticity and a mark of quality.

Chop mark - Blind stamp
These can be the mark of the printer, the studio or the publisher. All are useful because they reveal who has been involved in the creation of the piece.


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