Art Montana





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Collecting Original Prints

Collecting original prints can be a rewarding and enjoyable activity. Original prints by major artists are available in many fine art galleries and often cost less than paintings, bronzes, sculptures, or non-production ceramic works.

An original print is usually done on high quality, sometimes hand-made paper that is close to pH neutral so acidic activity will not easily change its color. Some of the finer papers are Rives™, Arches™, and Copperplate™ . There are quite a few other high quality papers designed for hand printing and most bear the watermark of their manufacturer somewhere on the sheet. Different papers are suitable for the many different print media. Some papers lend themselves well to hand printing lithographs; others are of a body that allows the deep embossing one finds in collagraphs and intaglio prints. Artists who use wood blocks often prefer the Japanese hand made papers such as mulberry or kitikata.

What distinguishes an original print from a reproduction is the artist's involvement in the process of producing the matrix from which the print is made. An artist will draw or engrave directly on a plate or stone or cut the wood block or build the collagraph plate to use the inherent qualities of the medium for the image. Thus each print medium has distinguishing characteristics. The artist's experience with a medium and understanding of the printing process creates a singular image that is repeatable, more or less exactly, throughout an edition. When a matrix is hand printed, each impression is unique in that it has variations created by the hands of the artist and in some cases, the craftsman the artist employs to print the image.

Hand printed editions are limited as far as the number of impressions produced. Many factors cause these limitations, but the primary limitations are:

  • Stability of the block, stone, or plate

  • Time required for printing

Most hand-produced matrixes are subject to wear during the process of printing. Thus impressions may be limited to several hundred or as few as one or two, depending on the material used. When artists sign the print, they usually indicate the number on the impression. For example 3/50 means that the impression was the 3rd one made in an edition of 50 impressions.

Photomechanical reproductions, on the other hand, can be produced in as large an edition as economics permit. A photomechanical reproduction requires no involvement of the artist in producing the matrix, though some artists might insist on being present during the press run to approve the colors as the image is printed. It is unlikely that a photomechanical reproduction would be printed by hand. They are usually produced on large commercial offset printing presses. The matrix is usually a photo separation chemically produced on a commercial printing plate, the same way that all commercial printed materials (including newspapers) are produced. Some artists may take this a step further by having a color separation made with more than four colors.

Occasionally artists will combine several processes to produce a single impression. Prints of this type are most labor intensive, require extensive knowledge of printing processes and seldom appear in large editions. A most common combination, for example, is serigraph (silkskreen) combined with woodcuts or lithographs.

Whatever type of print you choose to purchase, be aware that the value of the piece in most markets is determined by the artist's reputation, the craftsmanship of the work, its condition and its context.

For more reading on the subject of original prints, a good source is Fritz Eichenberg's The Art of the Print : Abrams, 1976. Eichenberg was known for his excellent wood engravings and commitment to the art of making original prints.


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