Most people remember the potato prints of their childhood with delight - cut out a shape, add colour and just like that, the same pattern is repeated a hundred times. Most art print techniques are about just that: in a hard surface - the equivalent of the childhood potato - creating surfaces where paint will stick and others where it will not stick, resulting in a pattern when the hard material is pressed against paper.
Art printing techniques are divided into four categories:
The log of a linocut by Ulla Wennberg
Relief printing is the technique of the childhood potato - removing material from the surface that you want to leave white and then adding colour to the high surfaces that are left.
Woodcuts and linocuts are examples of this technique. The printing plate is called the log and in this, the image is carved by removing excess material. The artists who work with woodcuts today are often keen to keep the specificity of the wood in the final print. In older woodcut however, the wood structure is often difficult to make out.
Intaglio works in the opposite way. The artist uses a copper sheet or another hard material to create the image. The submerged parts are the ones that later will be filled with ink, contrary to the relief print where the high parts are coloured. When the plate and paper are pressed together in the printing press, the paper absorbs the color from the cavities of the plate. Etching and drypoint engraving are today the most common methods.
Etching gets the name from etching with acids in a plate. First, the plate is covered by an acid-resistant foundation. Subsequently the artist removes the foundation in the places where he or she wants the acid to bite. This can be done with a plethora of different ingenious tools that give their own kind of expression. "Hard ground" means that the plate is treated with a mixture of wax, resin and asphalt, and then scraped away to bare the metal plate in the places where the artist wants the colour to adhere.
Another type of intaglio printing is dry point, a type of calcography. Here, the artist uses a sharp needle to carve the image in the shiny surface of the plate. When the plate is coated with colour, it will stick to the tracks that the needle has left; more color in the deeper cuts and less in the more shallow ones. In addition, the color sticks to the small traces of metal formed around the cuts. This creates one of the dry point's characteristics, the soft the lines.
Colour ready to be spread over the etched copper plate
The colour is applied to the plate
Excess colour is removed from the copper plate
The oily crayon repulses the liquid that has been applied to the limestone
Lithography is the most common planographic printing method. Lito means stone, and many lithographies are still today printed with stones. The artist paints his or her subjects with a oily crayon or a special ink on a ground limestone. The stone is coated with gum arabic that penetrates the only where the artist has not painted or drawn. In this way, the image is fixed to the stone after the gum treatment. When colour is applied, it sticks only where the gum has not bit, i.e. on the image drawn by the artist. A paper is applied to the stone and it is run through a printing press.
Over the years, printing plates have largely come to replace the lithographic stones.
Stencil printing means that the color is applied to the paper through a stencil. Silk screen printing is the most common method. A cloth, traditionally made of silk but these days often made from synthetic material, is stretched on a frame. Stencils cover the part of the fabric that should not be letting colour through. Today stencils can be prepared photographically, which gives extremely precise results.
Times are changing. The artist who 200 years ago etched with a sickle in a plate, is perhaps today clicking with a mouse on a computer. Digital high quality printing has become a way for artists working primarily digitally to get their works out into the real world. These prints go by many names, but ed. art has chosen to use the term "digital pigment prints". This is to emphasize that it is not about ordinary printing, but prints made high quality pigments that will remain lustrous over time.
Patrick Wagner, teacher at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Stockholm, showing a silk screen
Almost all prints sold by ed. art are numbered. The numbering consists of two numbers, eg 23/45. This cryptic code means that the image you are looking at has been produced, or is planned to be produced, in a maximum of 45 copies. The copy you are looking at is the twenty-third in order.
Sometimes numbers are replaced by codes such as EA, AP or PP. Outside of the numbered edition, print rules offer the possibility to make copies for the artist and the printer. EA stands for épreuve d'artiste, the English equivalent is AP, artist's proof. These two abbreviations mean that the work you are looking at is part of the share that went to the artist. If it says PP, it comes from the sheets allotted the printer, the printer's proofs. These prints should not exceed 10 percent of the numbered edition.
A few prints sold by ed. art are not numbered. This is because the artists in these cases for ideological reasons have chosen not to. In the seventies the practice of numbering prints was out of fashion, art should be free and not bound by bourgeois shackles. Today, things have changed, but some maintain the practice of not numbering. However, these prints are produced in a technique which in itself guarantees that what you buy is handcrafted and cannot be multiplied infinitely.
Is an artwork earlier in the edition better, i.e. is 2/50 better than 45/50?
No. It is true that, for example, copper plates can wear, but today they are either reinforced to keep for a larger edition, or the size of the edition is adapted to the longevity of the plate. Neither is it always the case that the print signed no 1 was the first print to be printed. It might very well be the other way around.
Some prints are unique and are not made in an edition. These are often called monotypes, where mono gives us a hint of what kind of prints we're talking about. Monotypes are often produced using an untreated plate or sheet of plexiglass, which is tworked on by the artist and then run through the printing press, to transfer the colour to the paper. The artist can not repeat this image in exactly the same way, which makes the print unique. Sometimes the artist chooses to number the prints 1/1 to emphasize the uniqueness.
Many artists who print their own editions, instead of working with a printmaker, like to experiment during the printing process, thus varying the print within an edition. Prints that are made from the same medium (i.e. plate, stone or silkscreen frame) and are similar to each other but not identical can be numbered with the edition number and the letters E.V. This is short for the French édition variable, variable edition.
Works sold in editions should be signed by the artist to ensure that the artist has actually been involved in the process of making the artwork. The signature, which should be on the actual artwork, front or back does not matter, shows not only that the artis controls the size of the edition, but also that the artist has seen each individual print and approved it. When printing editions, it is often a printer that produces the edition, based on a proof that the artist and the printer have jointly developed. But after the printing is complete, the artist should sign all the works, to ensure that each print meets the artist's expectations.