Explaining the fine print
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Investing in artist prints are an affordable way to expand your art collection. However there are many different types of prints and there is a multitude of technical terms. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a giclée and a lino print? Or a limited editioned print versus an open edition? Well wonder no more; here are the answers to all your fine art print related questions in this printmaking glossary.
An aquatint is a type of etching in which a porous ground coats a metal plate, before it immersed in acid allowing an even or gradual biting (erosion) of the plate. The resulting image has a grainy and textural effect, rather than that of a hard edged line.
When referring to materials, archival means something suitable for long-term conservation. Archival paper means that it is an acid free, fibre based paper that may also be buffered. Archival pigment inks are light-fast inks, which, if kept out of the sun, will remain true for up to 25 years.
'Mi casa su casa,' 2014, aquatint etching.
The artist’s proof (AP) typically refers to the first print pulled by the artist, taken to see the current state of the plate during the production process. It’s similar to a test print. An artist may also produce a limited number of artist’s proofs that are identical in nature to the standard edition. Fractions may be used to indicate the total number of proofs. For example a piece marked A/P 1/4 means that is the first artist proof out of 4 that were produced.
Collagraphy is a versatile printing process in which a textured plate is inked up and put through a press. Different textures hold varying amounts of ink and print different tones and textures. Anything with a low relief texture can be stuck down and used: wallpaper, leaves, fabrics, doilies, tapes and threads etc. The collagraph plate is then varnished, inked up and put through the printing press, creating a reverse print.
This refers to paper made from cotton. It is good quality, acid free, long fibre paper that is considered archival. Not all archival papers are made from cotton.
Drypoint is a printmaking technique in which an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed needle made of sharp metal or diamond. Traditionally the plate used was copper, but now acetate or plexiglas (acrylic glass) is commonly used. The image is scratched into the surface with a metal tool creating burrs which hold the ink. A larger burr, will hold a lot of ink, producing a characteristically soft, dense line that differentiates drypoint from other intaglio methods such as etching which produce a smooth, hard-edged line. The incised plate is printed in reverse using a printing press. The pressure of printing quickly destroys the burr, which means that drypoint is useful only for comparatively small editions; as few as ten or twenty impressions.
'I can fly,' 2012, drypoint print.
Etching is a method of printmaking in which a design is incised by acid into a metal plate. The metal plate is covered in a protective layer, called the ground, which is scraped away using tools to expose the metal place. The metal place is then placed in nitric acid and the exposed areas are eaten away by the acid. The plate is cleaned and the eroded areas hold the ink and create the final design as it is pressed into paper. The plate may be placed into the acid a number of times to create varying gradients of darkness. The image is then printed in reverse, on damp paper and an indentation, known as the ‘plate mark’, is left by the plate’s outer edges against the paper. Typically hundreds of impressions (copies) could be printed before the metal plate shows sign of wear.
Intaglio is the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface and the line or sunken area holds the ink. It includes drypoint, aquatint, etching and engraving. This is the opposite to linocut printing, where the raised areas hold the ink.
Limited edition prints mean that only a certain number of prints are available. These prints are created by the artist and are signed and numbered. As they are limited in number they are considered more valuable, and cost more than open edition prints. While not being as valuable as the original, numbered editions have a high value because they are authorised and often signed by the artist, and after the exact number has been sold, they will not be recreated as a limited edition. A limited edition could be a set of prints, photographs or sculptures made from a single image off one plate, negative, or mold and numbered consecutively. Fractions are used to indicate the total number of prints. For example, a piece marked 20/100 is the 20th print out of 100 prints which were produced. Sometimes editions may vary in size, i.e prints from the same edition may be printed in different sizes.
Linocut is a printmaking technique, whereby a design is cut into linoleum (similar to the floor covering by the same name) with a sharp knife or chisel. The raised (uncarved) areas are the parts to show ink. The lino is then inked, a piece of paper placed over it, and then run through a printing press or pressure applied by hand to transfer the ink to the paper. The image is printed in reverse. Mutli-coloured prints generally require multiple layers of printing.
'Royalty,' 2014, linocut print.
When an artist sells open edition prints, there’s no predetermined limit on how many prints will be offered. With open editions, the number of prints that can be created and sold are unlimited. These may or may not be signed by the artist.
A giclée is a type of digital fine-art print most commonly used for reproductions, meaning a multiple print or exact copy of an original work of art that was created by conventional means (painting, drawing, etc.) and then reproduced digitally, via inkjet printing. While giclée printing is a type of inkjet printing, not all inkjet prints are giclée prints. Giclée printing produces a higher quality product, with a longer lifespan than a standard desktop inkjet printer. It means the inks are stable, pigment based inks, not dyes. Giclée prints are also called ‘pigment ink print on archival paper,’ or ‘pigment ink on cotton rag.'
Screen printing, also known as silk screen, is an ancient printing technique that was popularised by Andy Warhol. A stencil is placed in a frame, which has a layer of fine mesh stretched across it, forming a ‘screen’. A sheet of paper is placed below the screen, and ink is pushed through the stencil from above, using a rubber blade or squeegee. In addition to stencils, a photographic image can be reproduced on the screen using light-sensitive gelatines. Screen prints produce a visible, albeit sometimes very minimal, dot screen pattern. Multi-coloured prints generally require multiple layers of printing.
'Open shut them,' 2019, screen print.
Photographic print is a broad a term and historically referred to chemistry based prints such as those produced via traditional darkroom practices. Now days photographic prints can be produced with machines like the Pegasus, Lightjet and Lamda machines. Photographic prints are also called 'C-type' prints (C for Chemistry).
The printing press is a device that allows for the mass production of uniform printed matter. Typically a printing press employed by an artist uses a roller to apply pressure to an inked surface (or plate) resting upon the paper (or fabric), thereby transferring the image.
Works on paper
Works on paper include all artworks created on paper using a variety of media. It is a very broad term that embraces all kinds of printmaking techniques, as well as watercolours, collages, and drawings with pencil, charcoal, pastel etc. The common denominator is that the works use paper as a substrate.
Related article: Where to buy affordable art in Melbourne and beyond
About the artist
Leah Mariani is a Melbourne based artist, making paintings, prints and collage. You can follow her work on social media @leahmarianiartspace or sign up to future updates.
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