This piece was originally published on Letternoon.com
The basics: What is a print?
A print is created by transferring marks onto paper. The artist does not draw or paint on the paper directly, but creates their image on another material such as stone, copper or wood and then touches the paper to this surface thereby transferring the image. This transfer process allows the artist to create multiple prints with the exact same image; each of these prints is called an impression and all the impressions together are referred to as an edition. When an artist is creating a limited edition, they decide to produce only a certain number of impressions and sign and number each one so that viewers/collectors know exactly how many impressions are in the edition.
Printmaking has been around since the 9th century and artists have developed countless ways to produce prints. Currently we have three different type of prints on Letternoon.com:
A silk screen (or screenprint) is made by sticking or painting a stencil onto a mesh screen, laying the screen face down on a piece of paper and then squeezing ink through the screen. The artist will place a large amount of ink at the top of the screen and then using a squeegee pull/push the ink down the screen over the whole paper. Areas blocked out by the stencil will remain white and everything else will become the color of the ink. When creating a multi-color image the artist will create a new screen for each color. Note: Yusef Alahmad will be coming to Letternoon soon!
A giclée print is an image that was printed digitally using an inkjet printer.
A lithograph is made by creating an image onto a plate/lithography stone using a special "greasy" crayon/paint. The entire surface of the plate/stone is then treated with a chemical so that only the image areas absorb ink. Ink is rolled over the surface and it is placed onto a sheet of paper, thereby transferring the image. The plate/stone is then re-inked and re-printed. A new plate/stone is created for each color in an image. Offset lithography adds one more transfer to the process: the image is created on a plate, inked, transferred onto a rubber sheet or cylinder, which is rolled over a sheet of paper, creating the final print. This is called 'offset' because the paper does not touch the original plate. Adding this extra step prolongs the life of the plate and allows for larger editions.
Due to the heavy inks used to create fine art prints artists need to use special paper that can absorb and hold the inks. These papers can be both machine and handmade, sometimes feature a "grain" or rough surface, and are heavier than papers used in commercial printing. Fine art papers also need to be acid free so that they do not discolor and breakdown over time.
- Fabriano Tiziano is a mould made paper made of 40% cotton, and cold pressed (meaning it has little bumps and is not a smooth surface).
- Hahnemühle Photorag is a machine made 100% cotton paper with a very smooth surface, ideal for photographs and digital prints.
- The Museum of Modern Art has a fantastic interactive tutorial that breaks down the four most popular printmaking types: What is a Print?
- The International Fine Print Dealers Association website has a section devoted to educating print collectors which explains the basics of the medium and a glossary of printmaking terms: Collecting Prints - Basics and Glossary.
- David Krut Projects, a gallery and print publisher based in South Africa and New York, also has a printmaking glossary which includes a lot of very helpful illustrations: Glossary of Printmaking Terms.