Buying original limited edition prints is one of the best ways of acquiring modern art at affordable prices.
What exactly is a limited edition print?
Printmaking is a technically and physically demanding process which produces a wondrous variety of marks, textures and colours.
Prints are not reproductions, they are original works of art conceived and created by an artist who is deliberately using the chosen medium to create an effect that could not be achieved by any other process.
Contemporary and multi-layered in their production, printmaking enables artists to experiment, with many using a wide range of techniques in their practice or even in a single piece to create prints that span from the simple to the intricate, geometric to linear, graphics to abstract and everything in between!
As the printmaker is free to make countless creative adjustments to the various printmaking processes each piece becomes entirely unique. And while the very nature of printmaking means that multiple prints can be made from the original source (known technically as a matrix or plate); printed artworks are generally produced in limited editions to make each series unique to a small volume of pieces.
So, do you know your screenprint from your drypoint? Or your etching from your collagraph?
The terminology can be overwhelming so here’s our guide to a few of the most common printmaking techniques to help you understand exactly what you’re looking at!
Often used with etching to give larger areas of tone to a print. Tiny particles of resin adhere to a metal plate which is then exposed to acid which eats away around the resin dust leaving a fine speckling in which ink can then find a ground to stick to and be forced out onto paper using a press.
A collagraph, which is derived from the French word ‘coller’ meaning ‘to stick’, is the printed result of a variety of materials glued together on a base made usually of metal or card. This is then inked up and printed.
Etching (or intaglio print)
An etching is a print taken from a sheet of metal, usually copper, zinc or steel, into which the image has been bitten with acid.
The metal plate is initially covered with a 'ground'. The artist then draws the image through this ground, thus exposing the metal surface. The print is then immersed into an acid bath. The acid etches away the unprotected metal, creating grooves, which can hold ink. The plate when ready is placed on a press under tremendous pressure forcing the ink contained in the grooves onto the paper.
Screenprint (serigraphs or silkscreen print)
Screenprints made by forcing ink through a tightly pulled mesh (silk or similar) stretched around a wooden or metal frame. Areas are blocked off with filler or stencil from a hand-painted or photographic design. The open areas of the mesh will allow the ink to reach the paper underneath.
For each different colour used a different screen needs to be made. Thus a print with more than 1 colour becomes a feat in aligning the areas of the image exactly. A technical process, you need to be able to think backwards to allow different colours to sit effectively on each other and make your design the “wrong” way round for it to print the right way around!
With the technique, the zinc plate is built upon rather than built into. Acrylic paste and carborundum grit is applied to the plate which builds up a very densely and defined image. This is then inked up and put through the printing press, which exerts a great deal of pressure onto the paper underneath it to create both a colourful and embossed final image.
A lithographic image is created with a waxy utensil on a zinc plate or on slab of limestone. The surface is wetted and rolled up with ink. The ink adheres to the waxed surface but not the dampened areas surrounding it. As the image lies on the surface and not in grooves little pressure is needed during printing, consequently lithographs do not normally have platemarks.
The image is scratched on the plate surface with a sharp needle. Depending on the force and angle used, fine, sharp pieces of metal are thrown up on either side of the line. This ‘burr’ holds ink, as does the furrow created by the needle. The result is a warm, almost blurred line and because burr wears quickly its presence can indicate an early impression.
A plate is roughened with a fine toothed tool, known as a mezzotint rocker. When inked, this surface prints a rich, velvety black. The image is created by smoothing or ‘burnishing’ areas to produce lighter tones. The process is unusual therefore in creating a white image from a black background.
From the French verb 'to spray', giclèe refers to a superior ink-jet technology, spraying fine droplets of ink to create an image of superb colour reproduction.
Giclèe prints have been tested to 70 years for light fastness and often they are printed on archive quality paper which ensures a much longer lifespan than other ink-jet prints.