March 3, 1998
by Fred Marchman M.F.A., B.F.A.
Collecting original art may seem baffling to the novice. What IS original anyway ? How can a print be an Original ? What is a reproduction or a multiple ? What is a "limited edition" ? These questions may need clarifying for the novice collector-and for the novice printmaker as well.
New collectors of art may tend to confuse the various media and methods of artistic creation. Typically, they want the assurance that they are purchasing an ORIGINAL. This term "original" is easy to understand as it applies to painting and implies "one of a kind". No one wants to be fooled into buying a fraud or a forgery. And it is a genuine concern, especially with art by very famous masters of any era whose works have a somewhat established reputation or demand.
I once knew a shady art dealer in South America who employed some college trained art students to paint copies of the impressionist painters and early modern artists of the XX Century. It was said that he was attempting to pass these copied paintings off as the originals to whoever were gullible enough to assume that they were the original one-of a-kind works done by the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Utrillo, Pizarro, Picasso. Lautrec or other big name of that era.
One needs to consult the experts in cases where the provenance is suspect or there is a concern of forgery. A painting is considered generally rather difficult to counterfeit. But there are such deceitful "craftsmen" in the world who attempt to pawn off forgeries of say, impressionist and post impressionist paintings as "originals". Indeed, any artist of high note (meaning high banknote value) may be subject to risk. For artists of lesser note there is decreasing concern for the collector that he may be purchasing a forgery. At these "lower levels" there are competitions and imitations of one another among newer artists striving to raise their style out of the masses of other artists.
Thus, it may well behoove the serious collector of painting and sculpture and printmaking to go for less well-known artists' works whom they consider having an intrinsic appeal or quality. Thus, the collector helps himself to a kind of art he or she really appreciates and in so doing fertilizes the whole cultural field of aspiring and ascending artists out here in the provinces and hinterlands of America-or from whatever cultural scene.
Prints and reproductions vis a vis original paintings we will now consider. Hand- pulled prints by the artist are not reproductions. Reproductions are mechanically-made multiples-- machine-made as in offset lithography. Hand-pulled prints are typically in rather lower editions than reproductions due to laborious nature of hand printing. The length of a print edition is determined by the artist. Sometimes artists may do limited edition prints into the hundreds but rarely into the thousands. Generally, the artist's proof ( denoted thus: a/p ) handwritten usually in pencil in the lower central area of the print margin indicates that particular print is 10% or less, of the edition number. ( This rule does not apply in sculpture however, which I will discuss in future writing).
It behooves both collectors and artists to become familiar with some of these generally accepted rules and to be able to discern between the different types of printmaking. This is a matter of essential cultural education. I once knew a museum director from Boston who actually couldn't tell the difference between an etching and a serigraph (silk-screen print) or a pen & ink drawing. I was quite flabbergasted, as one needn't be much of a specialist to make such discernments.
When you see a print edition in numbers like 1/5, 3/10, 2/25, 12/50, 50/100, 75/150, you can probably assume these are limited editions done by the artist . The number to the right of the slash mark indicates the edition length, while the number to the left of the slash shows which specific print it is. When the edition numbers get above about 250, 500, 1000, 3000 or even more (!), then the perspicacious collector needs to consider reproduction-print category and the related value and pricing of prints done in the longer editions. This is not to say that reproduction prints are not really collectable, for they certainly are collected and are highly commercial to say the least. But, generally speaking the more identical multiples there are of the print, the lower the price of each individual print (reproduction). Sometimes this depends on the popularity and demand for the particular image or theme of that print. And there is a lively competition among artists for ideas and themes which will interest print collectors. This is especially true of the full color offset lithography "limited edition" prints, which to the artist doing hand-pulled prints, may seem like crass commercial unlimited editions.
Printmaking, it seems to me, is a hybrid art form with one foot in each of two worlds. One being the world of visual art and the other being that of literature or print media. It is worth mentioning that people began to collect prints in the form of etchings in particular which were copied from paintings. Because the paintings were only one of a kind, the only way the public could obtain ( a mere black & white) version of the beloved painting they saw in the museum was to purchase an etching or it or perhaps a stone lithograph print of it. That was in the 19th Century and the early 20th Century before the advent of modern-day full-color offset lithography.
Typically such reproduction "limited editions" commemorate great historic events in much the same way that engraving does in the stamp collecting world. The popular appeal of great football coaches, such as Bear Bryant, or great confederate victories, magnolias, azaleas or other subjects of widespread mass appeal, banal still life art, historic memories, sentimental themes, or even the erotic or sensual poster & calendar art-these subjects may lend themselves to very long editions-indeed unlimited or "open editions" in which the publisher intends to sell as many as possible, often without much regard for the actual length of the edition. Satisfying mass market demands being the main concern.
Hand-pulled prints usually done by the artists themselves include such media as woodcuts, wood engravings, etchings, stone lithography, serigraphs (silk-screen), collographs, linoleum cuts, and other kinds of intaglio and relief printing involving a multitude variations and methods. Artists can create variations upon an edition with direct control of the printing processes in the limited editions produced on etching presses, block printing presses or lithograph presses and by various methods off silk-screen printing.
Monoprints and monotypes are one-of-a kind transfer prints either from a block, a plate, or a glass which is painted on & transferred to paper. Marginal notations for these kinds of prints are indicated variously as: M/P, M/T, 1/1, "unique"-all indicating they are one- of- a- kind impressions transferred from some sort of printing plate onto paper.
The many processes & methods get fascinatingly complex and each artist, like a scientist tends to explore those ways and means that are closest to his expressive ideas. This is a general overview of printmaking and not a deep exploration of techniques here. My intention is to aid the collectors and novices to obtain a more comfortable grasp of the field.
Bibliophiles like to collect the short run works by well-known authors whose "minor works" in limited editions have a less-than mass audience appeal. For example, I have some limited edition books by Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac that I treasure because I collect these authors' books the way that some art collectors collect certain artists. Both artists and writers develop an audience or a following. The true fan is even interested in the minor works of their favorite authors and artists. Since I am a sculptor, I was fascinated by a little book I found in one of those great little bookstores in Greenwich Village. It was entitled "The Sonnets of Michaelangelo". I also found there a book of plays by Picasso-I never knew he wrote a play-they didn't cover these minor works in art history class. Likewise, I found a copy of "Ubu Roi" by Alfred Jarry-which I had been looking for. I had to have these little gems which were both unknown & unavailable in the Mobile, Alabama of the 1960's.
Limited edition book collecting is rather related to print collecting, partly because of the somewhat narrative nature of printmaking. I have in my collection, a book which exemplifies the sometimes symbiotic closeness of these two fields. "God's Man" by Len Ward which is an entirely visual book of wood engravings with no text. The narrative is entirely visual. An illiterate person could "read" this highly imaginative romantic tragedy which tells the tale of an artists' life in this corrupt modern era-it is a very moralistic story, yet still valid. It represents a tremendous effort in printmaking & goes beyond "mere" book illustration, since the plates tell the whole story without benefit of verbal elucidation. Book illustration itself gets short shrift generally as to its stature in the range of visual arts expression.
Margin notation helps the connoisseur to understand the specifics about a print. This can get a little "esoteric", but a general knowledge of these inscriptions is sufficient in most cases. Ask the artist if you don't understand what they mean. Or ask a printmaker. Some of these notes I've mentioned above. W/P means "working proof" and may mean the artist has drawn on the print to develop his idea. T/P means "trial proof", a preliminary stage of the development of a design on a plate. B/T means "bon a tiere" a French term used in stone lithography to denote the first "good pull" which is to characterize the entire edition. The use of roman numerals before the edition numbers denote the "state" of the current work-stage of the plate or block, for example: I 1/4, II 3/5, III 4/6 etc. Incidentally, the Arabic 1,2 or other low number to the left of the slash-bar may not necessarily mean it is a better quality print that those preceding it or succeeding it, nor may it even mean that it was the first print to be pulled in the printing order of that edition number. The quality and character of the print is going to vary as the artist/printer works through the edition and makes certain changes, improvements, mistakes, goof-ups, or even over-works and ruins or radically changes the plate for the better or worse. Such is the subtlety of hand done prints, so that the true connoisseur may wish to see other prints from that edition in order to compare his selection.
In etching ( also called intagio), these distinctions between one hand-pulled print and the next are perhaps subtler than in woodcuts or of relief prints due to such factors as the way the ink is wiped from the plate, the amount of ink, the pressure on the roller-drum, whether the print has been hand tinted after printing, or ink color altered during printing by such techniques as poupee (French term for applying different colors of ink to same plate before running through press).
I hope by now you are understanding better how hand-pulled prints are original prints as opposed to reproduction prints or open edition multiples.
It is this creative developing of the woodblock, the copper or zinc plate or reworking of the silk-screen stencils, at states and stages while printing that gives the hand-pulled print its distinct appeal and places the mechanical or photomechanical reproduction at such a distance.
Of course, you can always just buy the original oil painting, or watercolor and feel assured you have an "original". But the art and craft of printmaking, besides being its own unique genre, offers the collector the opportunity to collect more original art at lower prices than, say the one of a kind oil, acrylic or watercolor.
In this brief survey, I trust I have relieved you from some of the confusion about what is original as to collectableness in art and especially in the area of printmaking.
Now get out there shoppers...and collect!