Part IV: Original Prints
All the artworks we sell are original, and this extends to original prints. But when it comes to notion of originality, prints are a complex and thought-provoking medium. Not only this, but there is a multitude of techniques and terminology to take on board in order to really understand them.
I always think the true identity of a print manages to be simultaneously more obvious and more elusive than that of a painting or drawing. By definition, the print is a copy. And when produced in an edition of multiple copies, there is a series by which to help identify and define a print. Often, antique prints will have lettering which explicitly tells information such as artist, title, date and place of publication. Initially this seems to render the art detective’s job redundant. But whilst this information is given on a plate (or rather, from a plate), there is still much to be discovered about the work’s identity – an identity which is more elusive by virtue of the print being at once remove from the artist’s hand.
We recently acquired a very intriguing trio of engravings which exemplifies this contradiction. They are portraits of artists Velasquez, Masaccio, Il Pordenone – and their immediate appeal lies in their quality, both in execution and subject.
On closer inspection they were almost certainly 18th century – fine line engravings on quality laid paper. Each is inscribed with the name and dates of the artist depicted, so no mystery there. But further elucidating information was surprisingly absent – no creator name, no date, no place of publication… Were they therefore from a book perhaps, where this information would not be necessary?
The eyeglass revealed them to be colour engravings – the plot thickens! – and they are presented in an unusual manner: mounted with the inscription and decorative border trimmed and pasted on separately, then skilfully hand-coloured after mounting. Apparently Italian School, this pointed towards the engraver Carlo Lasinio (1759-1838), one the earliest Italian colour printers.
Ultimately the scrutiny paid off and we identified the book from which the prints originate, one of the first Italian books to be printed in the Dagoty-Le Bon technique.: "Ritratti Originali de Pittori Esistenti Nella Reale Galleria de Firenze", published in Florence by Niccolo Pagni and Guideppe Bardi, 1791-96, in an edition of only 100 copies. The book itself is extremely rare – only one (incomplete) copy survives in the collection of the National Gallery, Washington DC.
As is evident from this example, the production of a print can involve multiple people – the original designer, the engraver, the publisher – and this chain of creators can obfuscate the work’s authenticity. Albrecht Dürer was the first artist to truly exploit the commercial potential of printmaking, creating unprecedented numbers of prints and distributing them widely, and with this prolificness came the need to guard against unauthorised copying and piracy. Dürer twice went to court to defend the use of his trademark “AD”, and twice he won the case. However, although selling a falsely monogrammed print as a Dürer was deemed a crime, merely copying “AD” was not – so prints “after Dürer” could still be produced legitimately – and posed a further element of confusion to collectors.
There are many terms associated with the authorship of prints, which help in their identification. The earliest prints were not signed at all but by the latter half of the 15th century – like in the case of Dürer – artist were putting their name to their work.
Signed in the plate: The earliest form of signing, as in the case of Dürer, a signature or monogram is incorporated into the design of the print. Artists of later centuries have continued this practice, and in more recent decades this can be a conscious reference to print masters of the past, such as this example by Orlando Greenwood RBA:
Pencil signed: Hand-signing a print on completion came into common practice around the late 1880s and is now customary to denote authenticity.
Abbreviations used to describe the artist who drew or painted the original design:
Del. from the Latin delineavit meaning He/she drew it. This indicates the creator of the original design.
Inv. or Invent from the Latin invenit meaning He/she designed it.
Abbreviations used to describe the artist who engraved the print:
Exc. or Imp. from the Latin excudit meaning He/she executed it.
Inc. or Sculp. from the Latin incidit meaning He/she cut it.
As prints usually exist in multiple “original copies”, there are a number of terms used to define the different versions of prints, or proofs.
Matrix: This is the surface (metal plate, woodblock, lithographic stone etc) from which the image is printed.
Impression: This is the term used to describe each new version of a print produced on a new sheet of paper from a single matrix.
Edition: This is the total number of impressions produced of a particular image from a single matrix.
Numbering: The numbering of individual impressions in an edition started in the late 19th century, but only became standard practice in the 1960s. The number does not necessarily reflect the order of printing, as the prints are usually numbered after drying.
Mychael Barratt, Time & Tide and Rhys, Street Scene - Somerset & Wood Fine Art
Second edition: This is a second run of prints produced from an original matrix, authorised by the artist.
Restrikes: Any printings from the original matrix made after the first edition, these are not authorised by the original artist and are often low quality due to the matrix being worn down.
Posthumous edition: Printed after the death of the artist, these differ from restrikes in being limited editions that are usually authorised by the artist’s heirs or are produced by a publisher who purchased the matrix from the artist.
Types of proof
Trial proof: A first tester proof, after which the artist may go back and change the matrix.
Bon a tirer proof: If the artist is not printing the edition, this is the final, approved trial proof, which the artist signs off before handing over to the printer.
Printer’s proof: a complimentary proof given to the printer.
Artist’s proofs: a number of impressions are put aside for the artist him/herself, a tradition which originates from when the artist was given a portion of the edition to sell as payment for his work.
Finally we come to technique. Sometimes difficult to identify, particularly in more recent years when artists have often combined techniques. The type of print technique used not only tells you about a prints creation but can also be revealing about its age, origin, purpose and the effect an artist is trying to achieve.
As this name suggests, the printed image is produced by the area of matrix which stands up in relief. The artist draws a design onto a block of material which is then cut away, the remaining raised areas receiving the ink for transfer of the design onto paper. Examples of relief printing are:
Woodcut: The earliest of all print techniques, first seen in 9th century China. Woodcut prints were popular in Europe from the medieval period onwards, of which Dürer was a master. Woodcuts (or frequently termed woodblocks) of exceptional quality have been produced in Japan from 17th century onwards.
Albrecht Dürer Woodcut Japanese Iris – Somerset & Wood Fine Art
Wood engraving: These are similar to woodcuts but are produced from the end-grain of hard wood rather than the side-grain, making them more expensive to produce and also more finely detailed.
Linocut: This is printed in the same way to a woodcut but from linoleum. The lino has no grain so the resulting print is less textured than a woodcut.
Intaglio, from the Italian “intagliare”, meaning “to incise”, is a process by which an image is incised with a pointed tool or bitten with acid into a metal plate. The grooves fill with ink, which then form the image when printed.
Engraving: A pointed tool called a burin is used to incise a design into a metal plate. When printed, the lines have a sharp and formal appearance.
Drypoint: A needle or other sharp tool is used to scratch a design into a metal plate. The resulting printed lines have a feathery appearance and the greatest variation in line, from delicate hairline to heavy broader sweeps.
Mezzotint: This technique creates areas of tone rather than lines. It does so with such subtlety of gradation that mezzotint is the most successful for creating prints after oil paintings. A rocker (a spiked tool) is passed over the metal plate, then areas are scraped or burnished to they hold less ink – thereby producing paler areas. This is a reverse engraving process, working from black to white.
Etching: A metal plate is covered with a waxy “ground” which is then scratched away with a stylus. The plate is then immersed in acid, which bites away the exposed lines. This method is closest to drawing an image in pen or pencil, and the resulting image has a freer effect than an engraving.
Aquatint: Like, mezzotint, this technique creates areas of tone. Aquatint is complex process whereby a granular ground is spread over the metal plate, which is then bitten away by acid. Variations in tone are created by the variety of microscopic cracks and pits made by using grounds of different grain size, and multiple bitings to create darker tones.
Lithography: Lithography was invented in 1798 in Germany by Alois Senefelder. An oily medium is used to draw a composition on a flat, ground stone. Water is then washed over the stone, which is repelled by the oil but stays in the areas free of oil; then ink is applied to the stone, which is repelled by the water but sticks in the oily areas. The ink is transferred to paper by passing through a press.
Serigraphy/Screen printing: This process involves a stencil, used to mask areas as ink is applied through a printing screen, or stretched meshed fabric. The resulting print is usually bold, with blocks of colour.
Monotype: As the name suggests, this is a one-off print with an edition of one. A design is drawn with ink on a smooth surface, which is then transferred to paper through a press.
Monoprint: This is also a one-off print, this time created using an etched and inked plate, with additional ink added to the surface of the plate in a way unique to that single impression.
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