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Tacita Dean, 'Salt Domen', Photograph printed on fibre-based paper - section hand painted by the ar

Courtesy of the artist and Camden Arts Centre.

Susan Hiller, small study for 'Homage to Marcel Duchamp', archival digital inkjet print, edition of

Courtesy of the artist, Ingleby Gallery and London Original Print Fair.

Interior image of Matt's Gallery, London with E3 4RR Matt's Gallery Print Portfolio, September 2007,

Courtesy of Matt's Gallery and the porfolio artists.

A print is a two-dimensional art form created by an impression made by a method involving a transfer from one surface to another.

All type of prints come in multiples (except monotypes) to form an edition. Since the late 19th century, artists tend to identify each print with a number and signature. It is common practice for the maker to produce a limited edition of the image, which means there is a fixed quantity. The tools used to create the print are often destroyed once the edition has been completed.

The earliest example of a printmaking technique is 'Woodcut', which is a type of relief print developed in the Far East. Relief prints are made up of recessed areas, so that the raised parts remaining can be inked and used to create an impression. This type of print is created using wood, linocut and metalcut.

Nowadays, along with relief prints a range of techniques are used to create different type of prints.

The below techniques include the intaglio technique where areas in the plate are incised or chemically etched to hold the ink.

  • Engraving: A hardened steel tool called a burin is used to cut lines into the surface of a metal plate.The appearance of the incisions depends on the angle and pressure applied when using the burin. When the ink is applied over the metal plate it is retained in the incisions and the paper picks it up in the press to create the impression.
  • Etching: Like engraving, the indentations hold the ink, but these are created in a different manner. Lines are cut onto a waxy surface which covers the metal plate. The plate is placed in an acid bath, which 'bites' into the metal left exposed and thus traces are formed. The plate is then ready for ink to be applied and follows the subsequent steps in engraving.
  • Mezzotint: This type of print is a form of engraving where the whole plate of metal is roughened and then scraped and polished to different degrees, so that the ink also holds in varies quantities. With this type of print a good range of tone is achieved.
  • Aquatint: This intaglio method is similar to etching as acid is used to make marks in the plate. However, a powdered resin is applied in parts making them acid resistant. Removing a protective coat leaves textured areas and a number of acid baths are made until the darkest tones are reached.  
  • Drypoint: This print-type is a variant of engraving which employs the intaglio method. However, with drypoint a sharp metal point is used which creates ridges (known as "burr") in the lines made. This technique allows for the ink to leave a soft, sometimes blurry line.

When someone asks me, 'why should I buy editions?', the answer is quite simple: not doing so would be a failure to collect and consider many artists' work seriously or in depth.

Charles Booth-Clibborn, Paragon Press, London. Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector's Handbook by Louisa Buck and Judith Greer, Cultureshock Media, 2006

Other print techniques include:

  • Lithography: This type of print is based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water. Grease-based utensils are used to draw an image on limestone, aluminium or onto a zinc plate. The plate is washed with a solution that creates water-receptive, non-printing areas and grease-reception areas that draws in the ink. The paper when pressed against the other surface can capture fine graduations in shading as well as very small detail. 
  • Screenprint : This is a very popular print type as the finest detail can be captured as well as bold colour. To create the screen a stencil of an image is either attached to or created on a piece of fabric which is stretched over a frame. The screen is placed on top of paper, glass or any other suitable surface and then ink or paint is forced through the fabric onto the surface with a rubber blade.  Colours and other images can be added using separate screens to build up a complete image onto the surface. Modern technology means that the finest detail can also be transposed by using screens that capture an artist's image through UV sensitive emulsions and transparent films.
  • Monotype: Unlike all other print types monotypes tend to be one-off prints which are created by drawing or painting onto a smooth plate and then transferring the image onto paper.
  • Monoprint:This type of print is created by using a plate which has permanent lines or textures which can be reused.

Aside from the prints created as part of an edition, it is normal for artists to have a copy of the print as an Artists Proof (AP).  If the AP is inscribed with a message or dedicated by the artist they can be very collectable and as such more expensive than a print from the edition.

It is worth highlighting that each print is defined as an impression and an original since it is not a copy or a reproduction of another work of art. Digitally produced prints, in the form of giclee prints, where the technique has been used in order to conceive and create an image can be classed as an original. However, where the technology is used to make copies of reproductions of images from a different medium (i.e. a painting) this does not constitute an original print.

*image on section homepage: Mychael Barratt, 'Rousseau's Cat', Etching and aquatint. Photo Mychael Barratt. Courtesy of Obsidian Art.

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