Printmaking, in a general sense, indicates the transferring of ink from one support (usually a type of metal, linoleum, or wood) onto another support (usually paper). A defining characteristic of printmaking is the ability to make multiple images from one image. However, there is a large difference between a print produced through printmaking technique and a print in the most contemporary (digital) sense of the word. Printmakers often find themselves trying to explain the difference between these two processes— often to our exasperation! I remember quite well trying to explain to a suspicious individual that my print was in fact art, and that it wasn’t “just a print.” Nowadays, some may think of “prints” as images created using a printer, such as an inkjet digital print: a drawing or painting might be photographed and then printed through a digital printer. These prints might be well made, on beautiful paper and have wonderful colour and clarity; they are ‘prints’ of an artwork— but they are not original pieces. They are, to all intents and purposes, called “offset-reproductions” and are not considered original works (SCC Jurying Criteria).
Images produced through printmaking are also considered reproductions: however, each one is, in its own right, an original reproduction. Each print is printed from the same plate, yes: but the design on the plate is the printer’s own, produced through hours of drawing, carving and/or etching. As well, each individual print made from the plate is also inked by hand and pulled through the printing press by hand. Though most printmakers strive to make a consistent edition of prints (each print looking like the other), by virtue of human touch each print will be different in some way. Perhaps the ink is slightly thicker on the edges; perhaps the detail in a certain area appears softer than in the previous print. Human nature produces happy errors and individualistic quirks, and I think most will agree that is a valuable thing.
|Michael Peterson of Ink Slab Printmakers considers an etching that’s just |
been through the printing press
(Ink Slab Printmakers: Organization membership
with Saskatchewan Craft Council—Image by Michelle Berg of the Star Phoenix)
One of the differences between printmaking and offset reproductions is the ability to reproduce ad infinitum. In traditional printmaking, the plate (wood, linoleum or metal) wears down as it is run through the printing press: the edition will be limited, as the artist’s image begins to degrade at a certain point. A digital file, in comparison, has the potential to create thousands of reproductions.
A printmaker will usually note the edition (or number) of prints underneath the image itself; for example, an artist may write “4/8” on a print that is the fourth print in an edition of eight. However, a printmaker does not simply print eight pieces for an edition: they will print several trial “proofs” first, testing out ink colours, adjusting pressure, working further on details that are not printing properly… as well, an artist may pull 25 prints but only 6 or 7 make it to the edition! There is an incredible amount of labour behind each print.
For the reader’s information, here are the various ‘types’ of traditional prints (as defined in the SCC Jurying Criteria). These various ‘types’ are often described with the title and signature underneath the image.
“Trial Proof”: Impressions pulled during the attempt to balance the image aesthetically and technically; Trial Proofs will often show colour changes and/or drawing corrections.
“A.P”: One might see “A.P” written in place of an edition number. This stands for “Artist’s Proof” and indicates that the print has been kept by the artist but it deviates from the edition in some way. There may be a slight difference in ink colour, for example.
“B.A.T”: Another term which one might see is “B.A.T,” or “Bon A Tirer,” or, in English, “Final proof.” This print is the final “practice” print that the artist has pulled before beginning to print their edition. You might consider it the final draft, the best practice session before the recital begins!
An “Edition” print: consecutively numbered prints of an edition are those prints which are considered, by the artist, to be the best impressions pulled. The number (3/9, 4/9, 5/9…) indicates the order signed, not necessarily the order printed.
|“Once in a Blue Moon” by Paul Lapointe. Woodcut and Salt etching|
I should note that I do not mean to trivialize digital reproductions: there is such a thing as an original digital print! This is a subject which, however, gets invariably more complex and contentious at this point. Sometimes an artist will limit their digital prints the same way that a printmaker would. This would ensure that you, as a consumer of fine art or craft, would be purchasing a piece which is not mass produced. By “editioning” any series of work, an artist is publicly stating that they will not print that specific image beyond the edition number. I personally have some “fine art prints” which I adore; these were digitally printed by the artist themselves, signed in pencil along the bottom, and are part of an edition of 100 or 200. I love that I have these prints, since I could not afford the original drawing or painting or photograph—so now I can still enjoy the image and support the artist! Unfortunately many “fine art prints” made available by large corporations are mass produced with little to no control given to the artist or owner of that image. Sometimes these companies will state that a fine art print is a “limited edition,” with no suggestion of how “limited” that edition is— an edition of 10? An edition of 1,000? With conflicting views and vague definitions of “fine art prints,” it is to the consumers’ (and artists’) benefit to be conscientious about who is being supported. My best advice, then, is to know where you are buying your fine art print from. Is the print produced by a large company? If so, is the artist given credit? Does the artist seem to have an active role with the company? Or, is the print produced by the artist themselves and/or is it being sold by an organization or third-party company that you trust to pay the artist well for the value of the print? As consumers of art in the age of overwhelming digital reproduction, these are questions well worth asking.
To see some traditional prints (and examples of editioning!) in the flesh, come by the Saskatchewan Craft Council Boutique to see more dry-point etchings and woodcuts by Paul Lapointe.