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The Artscope Introduction to Prints, Editions and Multiples

Enormously prestigious and highly significant across the art historical narrative, prints are a technically complicated and often misunderstood medium. This introductory guide provides a roadmap that helps to lay the foundation around this diverse method in art making, offering a better understanding of the sector's far-reaching potential. Please contact us directly about advisory services, and to discuss the many benefits of print collecting.


Andy Warhol and his assistants printing the infamous Campbell's soup can silkscreens. Courtesy of Hamilton Selway.
Andy Warhol and his assistants printing the infamous Campbell's soup can silkscreens. Courtesy of Hamilton Selway.

What is a Print? A Multiple? An Edition?


The three terms are frequently combined, but each refer to slightly different aspects of the overall discipline. A 'print' is a work of art whose image is created by transfer to a new surface, often paper or canvas. It denotes the method of art practice, whereas an 'edition' refers to the grouping of impressions that are made of the same image. A 'multiple' refers to one of these impressions, but more often describes sculpture or three dimensional works as opposed to works on paper.


Misunderstanding and/or misidentifying these terms and their various counterparts or iterations is an unfortunate and all too common trend within the world of prints, editions and multiples. It is a hugely complex and nuanced arena, causing confusion and risk where plenty of weak examples of prints inevitably exist alongside the strong ones. Incorrect information has been absorbed by the art world over time, subsequently fuelled by a snobbery that prints are not of the same value as unique art objects because there are more than one. Below are some additional key terms that characterise these subsets and help specify elements within such a wide ranging medium that hopefully provides some clarity.



Marc Quinn, 'Thermosphere', 2017. Digital print with silkscreen glaze. Ed. of 65. Courtesy of Manifold Editions.
Marc Quinn, 'Thermosphere', 2017. Digital print with silkscreen glaze. Ed. of 65. Courtesy of Manifold Editions.

Original work vs. Unique work


Recurringly, a print is classified as not an 'original' work, i.e. a copy. If the art object in question has been created by the hand of the artist (and/or by studio assistants under direction), it is an original work, no matter the size of the edition. A work is not original if it has been re-rendered by another artist or a machine, as an art history book or a museum gift shop poster might do. If this original artwork is part of an edition however, it is not considered 'unique'.


Limited Edition vs. Open Edition


An editioned artwork alone may not be unique, but we could describe a 'Limited Edition' as unique if referring to the entire grouping. A Limited Edition means the artist only made a finite number of impressions. It is not possible to add to a Limited Edition later on, as it would break down the historical and market value system of the edition. Some works are part of an Open or Unknown Edition, which can be added to without any promise of making the edition finite.


Monotype vs. Monoprint


These terms describe a subcategory. A monotype is a print that exists as 1/1, or a unique artwork that was made using a printmaking technique. A monoprint is considered part of an edition, but a monoprint might have a slight variation on it that differentiates it from the others in the grouping. This can feature hand-colouring, additional printing, or collage, distinguishing it within the edition but doesn't remove it completely.


Chris Ofili, 'All Seeing Eye,' 2021. Woodcut monoprint with raw pigments and gold leaf. Courtesy of Two Palms.
Chris Ofili, 'All Seeing Eye,' 2021. Woodcut monoprint with raw pigments and gold leaf. Courtesy of Two Palms.

Types of Printmaking Techniques


Printmaking is such a prolific medium with countless ways to make an impression using so many varied materials and processes. Especially as technology advances, the medium continues to evolve, and artists find new ways to regenerate the practice. Ambitious printmakers will also combine printmaking processes together to achieve addd richness and complexity. Detail is incredibly challenging in printmaking, and so an accomplished printer can be considered a hugely skilled artist overall. We've outlined several of the most common printmaking processes, although there are many more you are encouraged to discover.


Pablo Picasso inspecting an impression of 'La Minotauromachie'. Courtesy of Christie's.
Pablo Picasso inspecting an impression of 'La Minotauromachie'. Courtesy of Christie's.

Relief vs. Intaglio


Broadly speaking, most print techniques fall under one of these two methods. A relief process uses a plate where the material is cut away to create light areas, and what is left absorbs the ink to create the dark areas. The way the ink is transferred can be compared to a muddy shoeprint on a carpet. Woodcut is a relief process using wood, and depending on the grain, the result is quite textured, leaving traces of the wood markings in the image. Linocut is another common type of relief, and uses linoleum which is a softer material to carve and leaves a smoother mark in the ink.


Intaglio comes form the Italian verb intagliare, meaning 'to carve'. The printing occurs in reverse from a relief, where the plate is cut into with a drawn or scratched approach. The ink fills the cavity made by the carving before the plate surface is wiped clean, living the remaining ink inside the grooves only. As a result, the light areas are what isn't carved away. Etching and aquatint are the two main intaglio processes that use acid to burn into the plate and control the depth of the grooves: etching indicates a more linear style, where aquatint is used for tone. Both processes are often combined to create a more stylistically balanced composition.


Lithograph


There are complex types of printmaking that don't necessarily transfer ink as a relief or intaglio in the formal sense. A lithograph uses the immiscibility of grease and water to separate light and dark parts of the image, as opposed to carving or eroding the plate surface. An artist will draw the image directly onto a plate using grease pencils, before covering the plate with a thin layer of water that causes the ink to repel from the blank space, and adhere to the grease marks which create the impression. Carborundum is a relatively new technique that is similar, using glue and powdered stone instead of grease.


Joan Miró checking a lithograph plate. Courtesy of Christie's.
Joan Miró checking a lithograph plate, with impressions drying in the background. Courtesy of Christie's.

Screenprint

Screenprinting is a process using stencilling, where the image is composed by laying cut shapes on top of the paper (or canvas). A mesh screen is laid on top of the stencil and ink is pushed through, building the design with the ink that passes through the screen, unblocked by the stencil and through to the paper. Silkscreen is often specified but largely is interchangeable with screenprint.


James Rosenquist and James ReiJames Rosenquist and James Reid at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Sidney B. Felsen.d at Gemini G.E.L. Courtesy of Sidney B. Felsen.
James Rosenquist and James Reid at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Sidney B. Felsen.

How to 'read' a print


In summary, being able to put these terms together provides a solid account of the work in question, and are ultimately used to asses quality and value. If we assume quality and value in art are generally described financially, historically and/or creatively/technically, each term references these aspects of the artwork's identity. Detailed below is a print with its credit information, which when combined with background research on the artist and the movement, will help us begin to situate the prestige of the work (financially, historically, and creatively/technically).


Elizabeth Peyton, 'Thursday (Tony)', 2000. 2 colour lithographic print on silkscreened pearlescent ground, printed on Somerset Velvet 300 gsm. 62 x 49 cm. Signed, numbered and dated by the artist. Ed of 300.
Elizabeth Peyton, 'Thursday (Tony)', 2000. 2 colour lithographic print on silkscreened pearlescent ground, printed on Somerset Velvet 300 gsm. 62 x 49 cm. Signed, numbered and dated by the artist. Ed of 300.

Firstly, it is important to be aware of Elizabeth Peyton's prominence as a painter- her newer works currently sell in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, having steadily increased since she first gained recognition in the late 1990s. She is critically acclaimed for distinctive brushwork that is luscious and delicate, yet textured. Therefore, choosing lithography, the more painterly print process with components of silkscreening is appropriate to get an authentic sense of her iconic style. It is a limited edition and signed, numbered and dated by Peyton which is excellent. What might affect the value is that the edition size is 300. The larger the edition, the more common each individual impression. But overall, if priced accordingly, this work would be considered a good acquisition for the collector.

With so much more to explore across this fascinating medium, please email kate@artscopeintl.com for further information and for details around our advisory services.

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