Art of the print….


The Art of the print.


The  title of my musing about print borrows the name from the first of the two exhibitions celebrating 40 years of Belfast Print Workshop.   

Installed by Fenderesky Gallery ( Aug 3rd – Sept 1, 2017)  in an exquisite frameless  display of 14 larger prints downstairs and 52 of various smaller formats in the upstairs gallery, it contained  33 etchings, 18 silkscreens, 4 lithographs, 3 aquatints, 2 mezzotints, 2 carborundum, 2 mixed media, 1 linocut and 1 woodblock. Compared to the large number of known  printing techniques , nine  is a narrow sample.   Yet, not as narrow as some commercial online gallery, for ex St Judes, founded and run by artists/printmakers.


A second exhibition is planned for this autumn  at the Crescent Arts Centre gallery  ( see


According to their  publication  the Belfast Print Workshop  was founded  in 1977  by a group of artists printmakers Endhouse Prints, who  bought an etching press. Alas,  no  suitable premises to install it were available  in Belfast.   That year, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland moved into the Riddel Hall  and offered the group   the use of a kitchen area, an operating budget, and funding for  a printmaker -in -residence.  


Currently, its premises include a ground floor  gallery  at Cotton Court.  During the 40 years the organisation provided steady support for printmakers, including visiting artists from abroad and  graduates from the Ulster Polytechnic, later the Ulster University. While the  current Fenderesky exhibition left out daring  departures from  well established techniques, the sensitive frameless display is a veritable aesthetic joy.

Significantly, it stays faithful to one established contemporary definition of “original print”: each is made by an artist, numbered and signed.  Some carry titles. However, the  history of the print  and of imprint ,from earlier times and from not just European sites, challenges that definition. So does some contemporary development.


Print on its own is content- neutral.  Anything “original” does not rest on the presumption that it is always art.  Multiples are not entirely identical.  Digital prints and Iowa Foil Print do not carry the same clues that they are prints, than those made by a press.

Consequently, the lead may lie in definitions offered by practitioners.


As a caveat:

Early 16th C gave us an important number of engravings made by a philosopher Martin Meurisse, engraver Leonard Gaultier and publisher Jean Messager.

Meurisse’s acclaim as a designer of illustrated broadsides was also reported in the Hungarian travelogue Europica varietas (1620) by Márton Szepsi Csombor (1594–1623) who, while visiting Paris in 1618, was “anxious above all else to become acquainted with the celebrated, renowned, and highly intelligent friar, who with great mastery put the entire philosophy course on an engraver’s plate.”

This division of labour is similar to Japanese prints of Edo period, Ukiyo-e : artist + carver + printer.  Whereas more current sosaku-hanga  a single artist designs, carves and prints each image. They call these works of art creative prints.


Meurisse’s prints  were and are highly valued  all over Europe, made in absence of an artist in the process.  A sobering evidence that prints are multiples with various levels of aesthetic value, and if they are as good as these, even without an artist at their origin they are highly valued by viewers and art dealers alike.


A current use in some countries prefers the term “original print”  while in others they prefer the noun covering all artist’s prints as “graphics”.


What is meant  currently  by “original print”?


What if the the term original was indeed, as Rosalind Krauss argued, a myth?  Or at least so insecure as losing usefulness?  What if imagination wiggles it out of any definition? After all Hume is quoted here:

He also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’(A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40).


Take this example:

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage, made the “Automobile Tire Print”  , tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. x 22 ft. 1/2 in., It is kept in  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Would this fit this Belfast Print Workshop’s definition published in 2006 publication titled 25-25?


‘Original’ prints are images made by the artists from beginning to end, directly in or on the plate, stone,  wood block or other matrix. Each print is a work of art, one of limited edition and it is signed by the artist. Photo-mechanical  reproductions  of paintings and drawings are often described  as “Limited Edition Fine Art Prints”, but this term is misleading as they are not works of art – even if the have an artist’s signature and edition number – but are more a commercial fine art print.


It is not obvious that a car tyre is that kind of matrix meant in the above wording, nevertheless, it functions like one. The image has not been made by either one of the named authors, it was made by a machine that makes car tyres.  However,the print was made by John Cage by using  a driven car as a press combined with the roller “from beginning to end”.  The musician  is known for a number of other prints  that depend on idea and a chance.  This example indicates that print is value neutral, and  has wider range that artist’s print. That makes an adjective like “original” or “art” or “artist’s” value laden.


The BPW  definition names photo-mechanical reproduction of paintings and drawings inadmissible as “original print”.  What about Angelo Garoglio fascinating visual photo-essay on Medardo Rosso’s sculptures? The definition  also fails to embrace  inventions by David Hockney, who enthusiastically works with various print techniques including polaroid,  the colour laser copies of other artists paintings, e.g. The Great Walls (2000)  and photographic drawings printed on paper  currently exhibited at Pompidou Centre, Paris, as art. Not as “ a commercial fine art print”.

The BPW  definition points out the misleading role of signature and numbering – as it can be used  both in what it deems works of art  and “Limited Edition of Fine Art Prints”. This in turn, makes signature and numbering not a  sufficient ground for a decision.

Nevertheless, with traditional techniques, the press makes  physical boundary around the image, even in white on white embossed print.


The BPW definition   assumes that every original print is ipso facto a work of art in a limited edition. A reasonable assumption, as it would be an intention of many artists, however, in practice,  there may be only one print, approved by the artist, signed and numbered. Being in an edition is an insufficient  and  unnecessary condition for something to be an original print and a work of art.  


Would another printmaker’s definition be more successful?

My second definition comes courtesy the Dublin Graphic Studio.


A graphic or original print is the printed impression produced from a block, plate, stone or screen on which the artist who conceived the idea has worked.Because the artist has chosen to render the idea in ‘print’, it is possible to produce a number of identical images, each one an original work by the artist. After the total number of prints in the edition has been ‘pulled’, the blocks, plates, stones or screens are defaced or recycled so that no further impressions may be taken.

In the past when great artists such as Durer and Rembrandt were working, the prints were unnumbered. In fact, it is only a modern convention to limit the edition, thus creating an increasing demand for the limited number and making them more desirable as an investment. There are many methods of making an original print, a few of which are explained in the next section – techniques.”


In their rather splendid alphabetic dictionary of terms the Dublin printers add this simpler version:


Original print is a print designed and printed by an artist or under artist supervision. The original print is the first manifestation of the image and not a reproduction. An original print is one in which the artist intended the work to be realized by creative printed means.


The Graphic Studio Dublin definition focuses on  creative printed means – could this approximate the japanese creative prints?


Their conceptual approach considers the three salient points for comparison: the concurrence of the author being an artist, having an idea  and working on the matrix to facilitate a set of near identical images.  It acknowledges the role of master printer, while it  assumes artist’s control.


It fails to issue controls over a person who is not an artist, like that  17th C philosopher above,  making an original print, especially, in the light of Joseph Beuys’s statement that Everyone is artist.  The conundrum is treated by the art market via  the institutional theory of art.


The GSD’s  definition is softer that the BPW’s one, its openness would allow for example inclusion of  inkjet (giclee) if it is an outcome of an artist’ intention. At the same time it runs against the whole theory of intentional fallacy.


Interestingly, it introduces the term “graphic”- familiar in other languages, but rarely in English.  The term has history and refers to history of print. Institutions have “graphic cabinets”, artists are named as graphic artists, their products as graphic art.  In 17th C the classification was governed by a technique. Vaclav Hollar(1607 Praha – 1677 London) is named as etcher and engraver in a recent research paper published by the Toronto University, which has a vast collection of Hollar’s prints.

Fenderesky exhibition evokes Hollar’s tradition by including an etching by Stephen Conlin inspired by Bohemia.  



The nearest  historical collection of prints  is held by  The Armagh Robinson Gallery: 3700 prints, among them 180 engravings by W Hollar, sometimes bearing a name of another engraver/master printer  next to the Hollar’s name, title and date.  For a majority of  prints, e.g.  number P001804339,  Hollar is named both as engraver and artist.  Why that dual identification? Simple answer is that often engraver is not the artist who drew the image. The matter is complicated by the historical practice to make prints based on famous painting. So – the composition and theme is determined, say by Raphael  Santi, while transformation of it into

smaller scale in black and white  is done by another artist  on a plate, which is  often engraved and printed from by the master printer, etcher, engraver…. Hollar was etcher, engraver and artist/author of his prints  No wonder that a number of artists and galleries and British Museum introduce the term art print, as different from a  A/P, which means artist’s proof, the first print made( either by the artist or by the master printer)  for approval, for decisions about changes.

An interesting spanner in the works appeared online:

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince Flying Away, 2009, Art Lithographies,


The appearance of the word  ART in front of the printing technique  replaces the term “original” and as distinct from commercial  offset lithography.


Given that  artists use engravers and other master printers or technicians the existence of “artist’s proof” accentuates their overall control.  This makes possible the  the practice of art market to increase monetary value for  the aura of the artist’s hand touching the image.


Two salient points to conclude:

The term “original print” is more like an idea – does not have to be handmade by the artist, only supervised how it embodies the intention. Matrices were/are often (not always) handled by engravers and master printers.  The convention to limit an edition (expressed by numbering and signature) connects to art market, not just to the quality of the print.


Often William Morris and his Kelmscott Press (1889) are understood as inspiration for “fine art press movement” in England and environs.  The long term development in China and Japan had no discernable influence on this issue, despite the periods of “chinnoiserie” in western visual culture.


My third definition of original print comes from the other side of the Atlantic. A valid move as art practices during the 20th C ignored those distances, and internet offers an instant exchange.


It  assumes identity between original print and a work of art based on the condition that the matrix/plate is created by the artist with the intention to produce an image, while the execution may be done by a “professional assistant”.  


An original print is a work of art created by hand and printed by hand, either by the artist or by a professional assistant (often called an artisan), from a plate, block, stone, or stencil that has been hand created by the artist for the sole purpose of producing the desired image. The plates or stencils it is printed from bear no resemblance to the finished work of art, which means it is not a copy or a reproduction of anything. In fact, in all print media but two, the image on the matrix (what the print is produced from) is mirror image or backwards from what the finished work will be. The image reverses in the printing process so the artist has to think and draw backwards. Each print produced is technically a unique work although produced as a signed and numbered multiple. The technical term for this is monoprint. The original print is usually produced as a limited number of impressions, another word for print. The term for this group of prints is the edition. Although there are many of the same image in an edition, each print is an individual part of the whole, the whole being the edition. An original print is actually one piece of a multiple original work of art.


Signature and numbering is indication of an individual print of an edition. In addition, the definition introduces  artist proof  as separate from an  edition, an established practice. There are other types of proofs:  state proofs, trial proofs, colour proofs, printer’s proof, bon-a-tirer…


State proof, trial proof, stage proof, colour proof, artist proof …  all are highly valued by art historians and consequently by the art market, even though they are not  a part of a numbered edition.


Each is still an “original” print even if it does not fully embodies artist’s intention and gets corrected or changed in other ways.  This indicates that the process of the print is flexible to embrace various stages of print  both as sufficient and insufficient.   This sets art of print in the domain of drawings and paintings: E.g. Picasso’s numerous drawings for the painting  Demoiselle d’Avignon map the development of his intention and each is a work of art in its own right, like those various “proofs”.


After that, the print leaves the pathway it shared so far with painting  and becomes “multiples”, similar to an edition of bronze sculpture. The technique determines how many prints match the first one, how many pulls the master printer or the artist are happy with.


What if the artist feels inspired by the deformation, absences, spills at the end of expected edition? And wishes to either go on, or even take these “faulty prints home” and re-work?


I asked Brian Connolly whose exquisite silkscreen at Fenderesky Gallery surprised me.  He e-mailed me on 14th August


Re the print, I worked with the BPW Technician, (as I was an artist in Residence some years ago). The main process I utilised during my time in BPW was Photoscreen-printing. The technician helped me scan imagery onto screens, most of the rest I did myself, but had technical help if needed. (Some aspects of the screen prints were made using rubber gloves, instead of the normal rectangular squeegees. I was interested in the marks that the hands made and also it allowed me to control or select certain areas of an image when printing. I suspect that my approach in this regard would be thought as heresy by official/traditional print-makers!)


I also photographed some of the screens when they were being washed & cleaned, as bubbles came through the screen-mesh in places where the image was, these images I made new screens from and printed. See attached image – ‘Bubble Orary’ – (Not the best image of this work, sorry, but it will give you an idea of what I mean.)


As far as I remember the inks were water based inks, some silvers, blues and occasional golds. The paper was supplied by the BPW. They (BPW), still have a few of my prints for their archive, and I took home a good amount of them, which have been rarely exhibited. Some I have reworked at home – i.e. I have worked over the top of the images.


This is a disregard of the pristine insistence on “original” print, that stage has been reached and overruled by other than  printing techniques.  Is it still the print? Perhaps that explains the appearance of “mixed media” in the exhibition at Fenderesky.


In addition some  printing techniques, like Mylar (photo) Transfer in lithography, Giclee (inkjet), hand drawn offset lithographs, hand manipulated modified colour copies  etc  seem to weaken  the status of multiples.

The debate is polarised: one group insists that “original print” must be entirely produced by hand by the artist, i.e. direct control at all stages. Others prefer a dual process, the composition must be decided by the artist, and hand drawn,  but not hand printed.  Others still –  welcome free experiments with the artist’s direct control. John Cage famously embraced chance and accident in his prints.  The debate is going on.


“Today, artists will sometimes refer to a print as a “one-off,” meaning that the artist has made a unique print and no reproductions of it from the original matrix, often not even a proof. In this category one sometimes finds monotypes, monoprints, collagraphs, altered prints with collage or chine colle additions, or even hand-colored prints. There remain artists who are strong advocates of “artist’s prints” which are conceived, printed, signed, and given the edition number 1/1 by the artist. One contemporary printmaker says that she believes that “there is a natural sequence of actions and thoughts which cannot be approximated by the substitution of an artist/printer collaboration unless the artist is truly involved with the printer or assistant in every step of the decision-making and mark-making processes.”



An “original print” could be made by artist or  master printer/technician or anybody. The term considers each print from the same matrix as original, and identical  even if subsequent pulls contain slight deviations due to the fatigue inherent in  techniques and materials. It  tolerates differences among subsequent pulls. A commercial  print ( regardless of technique)  does not tolerate deviation from the first manifestation of the image, it prefers sameness.  

The term “original print”  is operational in art history for attribution, and to art market to set monetary value. This term protects the aura of at least some element of originality, but does not provide ,by itself, certainty  about intrinsic art value.


The term “Art print “  differentiates from  both amateur and commercial multiples. Yet,  the public  can be  easily confused with commercially produced prints of images. British Museum applies it in a narrow sense to prints made by artists, the internet is full of offers of “art prints” which are reproduction of other works of art. The range of the term   is  too flexible to be helpful to achieve a distinction between art and non art.


The terms “Artist’s print” and the Japanese “creative print” offer a direct  analogy to artist’s drawing, sketchbook, painting etc and is open enough to the choices artists may make in the future. Multiples or not. It does not rule out  limited edition, keeping flexible attitude to it. Sometimes following Rembrandt, sometimes the current  rules of numbering, at times  becoming  even a book or a  scroll  (Sonia Delaunay or Jill McKewn come to mind)


Increasingly, the term “graphic art” replaces the term “original print”.  Picasso’s Vollard edition still exists in plates and could be pulled as it was during Picasso’s life, by a master printer. The resulting print cannot be signed.  Would you still perceive it as art? I have done that.


I do not doubt that art market will oppose/resist  weakening of the term “original print”. It is there to indicate higher price, not  aesthetic experience.


The terminology in most languages reflects both  that hierarchy and ensuing insecurity  how we recognise something as art.

Institutions are trying: Victoria and Albert Museum in London  houses 500 000 objects “ encompassing  both fine art and commercial  production”.  Their list the following: Caricatures and cartoons; Costume prints, including fashion plates and fan leaves. Designs for the decorative arts, including a comprehensive engraved ornament collection; Ephemera and commercial graphics, such as advertisements, packaging, stationery; Fine art prints from the Renaissance to the present day; Greeting cards; Illustration; Posters; Playing cards; Portraits (including the Seligman Bequest of portrait prints); Prints illustrating social history and religious symbolism; Reproductive prints; Topographic prints; Trade cards; Wallpapers and decorative papers.  I find their following statement mildly amusing:


The V&A sometimes buys particular prints not just because they are marvellous prints in their own right but also because they tell us about things that our visitors are interested in or throw light on other areas of the V&A collections.

This begs two questions: how the interest of visitors becomes known and measured. , and what criteria are sufficient to establish the “marvellousness”  of a print? If greater numbers of visitors are to determine the collection – it may end up pretty mediocre. What is marvellous for me may appear unpalatable to another viewer, even amongst the professionals in the field.   

The above statement of V&A collecting policy throws the light on the insecurity of evaluation.  There is no improvement on Immanuel Kant’ s  hope that an aesthetic judgement will respond to  the intrinsic value of every work of art. Understandably,  the market will insist that the aura of certified authorship as paramount. That is undermined in real terms – when an artist does not sign the print. It is still an original print, and art print, but as it is not signed and numbered, its money value reflects the insecurity of aesthetic judgement. The authorship of an artist is not guaranteed at all stages of the production. Philosophy offers an institutional theory – if an institution admits  something as a work of art, than it is. So that allows V+A collecting policy to be what it is.

The  British Museum applies  also the institutional  theory by having  one  Department for prints and drawings. Pairing prints with drawings insinuates the importance of the touch of drawing hand, thus artist as a printmaker  seems to accentuate the significance of art print. Please, note the shift from “original print”(which may or may be not art) and “art print”.

On their website it reads:

The Department of Prints and Drawings contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world. There are approximately 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.The collection covers the history of drawing and printmaking as fine arts, with large holdings of the works of important artists such as Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt and Goya. There are also large documentary collections of historical, satirical and topographical prints, as well as important collections of printed ephemera, such as trade and visiting cards, fans and playing cards.The department also has the most extensive reference library in the United Kingdom relating to the history of prints and drawings, comprising about 50,000 books, periodicals and sale catalogues. There is a small collection of illustrated books, but the national collection of these is in the British Library. Oriental drawings and prints are kept in the Department of Asia. They  have a category  “printmaking as fine art” which enables them to  admit a print of Raphael’s paintings done by Raimondi  – thus a reproduction.

In conclusion: the term  “artist’s print”  guarantees an artist’s intention to  use printing techniques old and new and not yet known. It admits in  John  Cage’s driving over the paper,  Durer’s unsigned prints, Japanese “creative prints”,  Brian Connolly’s mixed techniques,  inkjets, David Hockney’s openness to anything that makes thoughts and feeling visual.

Note – survey of  current auction houses enlarges the range of terminology  by a ” gallery print”

Note 2: the second  part opened at the Crescent Arts Centre on 8th October, 2017  with a small catalogue ( with a shorter version  of the post above)  titled  40 years of Belfast Print Workshop. (continues until October 29th 2017)  The exhibition display is made up of the archive and current practice. Twenty seven artists chose one of they own print and one from the workshops rich archive.




About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Art of the print….

  1. Cheers Slavka. Very interesting survey of (Fine Art) Print Making Processes, through the ages!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.