Given their relative ubiquity, the mystery surrounding prints and printmaking is somewhat surprising. Essentially a picture made so that it can be reproduced multiple times, prints have been collected and produced for centuries. In the middle ages, surfs and nobles alike appreciated woodcut or engraved playing cards or images of the Christian deity. Photography’s emergence in the early nineteenth century saw the decline of printmaking for educational purposes, but the rise of more imaginative, inspired techniques in accordance with the aesthetics of the day. Today, most people have engaged in some form of printmaking in elementary school art class, and prints are inexpensive, popular decorations. Still, the myriad of printmaking processes and the resulting prints perplex both print connoisseurs and historians—perhaps because until relatively recently, prints were not considered valuable art objects.
That prints were not considered important, authentic artistic creations is owing to the fact that they are inherently reproducible, and therefore easily accessible to all classes of society. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the nineteenth century, the Church and State held tight control over artistic creation and output, decreeing that painting and sculpture were the highest forms of visual expression. Prints, though appreciated by the cultivated classes, were largely perceived as expository tools for the illiterate masses, instead of unique art objects. In the fifteenth century, woodcut prints captured popular imagination as this relief print process illustrated the first books. The Chinese invented the woodcut print around the ninth century, but it wasn’t until the advent of paper that printmaking flourished for educational means. The relief process is a technique in which material is removed from a surface with an instrument, such as graver, in order to create a design. Once the artist is satisfied with their design, he or she dips the carved surface into ink or paint before impressing it onto a surface, commonly paper. More familiar than the woodcut is the children’s craft in which an apple is cut in half and dipped in paint, then stamped onto paper. Besides the relief process, the Middle Ages ushered in ink printing processes, termed intaglio printing processes. Such processes are perceptibly tempered by the artist’s hand, but were regarded as a lesser art well into the Middle Ages.
Albrecht Durer (1471-152), critically acclaimed as the pioneer of printmaking, succeeded in creating a more refined medium and method. Durer’s works betray a meticulous attention to his materials, as well as his understanding of how material affects composition. Working largely prior to the Reformation, Durer embellished Biblical scenes with an ornate, precise line never before achieved in prints. Instead of simply carving away material in rudimentary blocks, Durer’s woodcuts seem stroked by complex, sinuous lines. Durer also delved into intaglio printing, relishing in engraving’s velvety textures. The woodcut virtually disappeared around 1600, as intaglio processes such as engraving or etching thrived as illustrative instruments. Intaglio prints are made from metal plates that are incised so that the ink rests in the incisions rather than on top of the surface as it does in relief processes. The metal plate, typically copper, is then warmed and put through a press, the pressure drawing ink from the incisions onto the paper. An incised design can be printed as many times as desired before the metal gradually wears away, greatly effecting the artist’s image. Paper and ink choice greatly influence the print’s final appearance. Among the first artists to realize printmaking’s infinite aesthetic possibilities, Durer’s legacy, ultimately the elevation of both relief and intaglio printmaking, reaches through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the prints of today.
“A print is a finished composition and an end product of the creative process, and in this respect stands closer to a painting than to a writing…The great prints of the world are not reproduced drawing but works of art deliberately created through the medium of printing,” writes prints scholar Antony Griffiths in his authoritative Prints and Printmaking. Today, printmaking technologies afford artists infinite aesthetic possibilities. Descended from Durer as much as Andy Warhol, who used screen printing to attain a particularly mechanical aesthetic as well as concept, contemporary printmakers savor cutting-edge digital processes as well as traditional methods such as woodcutting or engraving. Prints can be easily attained at every price point and aesthetic. Just as it has for centuries, print-collecting is universal. Prints routinely garner prices in the millions at auction, but yet are also available to the novice collector at low cost.
The myriad of printmaking process are complex, but an understanding of printmaking and artists who purposely choose prints as their mode of expression, in recognition of its unique background and potential, is a deeply enriching reward.
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This article was written for ARTmine by Leah Triplett.