The Joys of Buying Prints

Original Prints - Why Buy Them and What Should You Look For?

A good, artistically viable print is not just a reproduction of a popular image made by an artist, but an extension of his entire artistic vision. More and more often, respected artists are making prints because they see them as an integral part of their work. I know many artists who have gotten stuck in their painting, who then turned to printmaking as a way to break away from the rigors of their studio. More often than not, they later find themselves approaching their painting in a fresh and freer way.

The price level for original prints is normally substantially lower than that of unique paintings because they are multiples and on paper. However, there are exceptions. Occasionally a mediocre, small painting will cost less than an important, large original print.

As in any other aspect of the market, homework must be done. As is the case in buying any art, the most important aspect to consider is the quality of the image and how it fits into the artist's entire body of work. Some artists, even some of the most important, make lousy prints. Three things should be considered when assessing the price of a print: The cost of a print should reflect the size of the edition, if the piece is signed by the artist or not, and the condition of the print. Many color prints have faded over the years, or the paper has deteriorated. Another aspect to consider is the date of the print. An artist's work can change dramatically over the years, and often the market considers certain periods of an artist's career more valuable than others.

Three Basic Printmaking Techniques

Please note that these descriptions only describe fundamental processes. For more detailed descriptions andvariations such as collograph, aquatint, etc., click here.

1. Physical Change in Matrix:

Etching (Intaglio) - The artist draws into a cooper plate with a stylus. She then wipes the plate with ink so that the ink lodges into the etched lines. She then wipes all ink off surface of the copper leaving ink in the lines. Then the artist puts a piece of paper on top, puts it through a press which exerts pressure and the ink is transferred from copper plate to paper, just as the artist has drawn it.

Woodcut (Relief) - The artist carves away all areas of block of wood eliminating that which she does not want printed on paper leaving the shape of the image desired. She then rolls ink on the surface, puts paper on it and puts it through the press, transferring the ink from the woodblock to the paper. This is just like the potato print you made as a child.

2. Chemical change in Matrix:

Lithography-This was a process invented in the late 19th century by which the artist draws on a stone or metal plate with an oil based crayon. By taking advantage of the fact that oil and water don't mix, she then waters down her plate and, naturally, the water does not adhere to the areas drawn on. Then she rolls the plate with oil based ink (in any color) and the ink adheres to the areas drawn and is repelled by areas that are wet. Therefore, the ink only stays where the artist drew. Then she puts paper on top, pulls it through a press and the ink is again transferred from matrix to paper. This is the fundamental process of all commercial color printing.

3. Stencil (Silk-screen or Serigraph):

A stencil type process using a fine mesh fabric stretched on a frame. The artist blocks out all the areas he does not want to have an image with paper, glues or other materials. He puts the screen on top of a sheet of paper, then squeegees ink through the mesh. Like any stencil, the ink will only come through where the artist wants it.

Please note that in all of these processes, there is a different matrix or silk-screen for every color. Often, the paper goes through the press many times to achieve the combination of colors the artist needs.

Common Fallacies Regarding Prints

  • A signature on a print is important

    Not necessarily. Many of the tacky dealers have signed Erte, Dali, and Rockwell prints. This only indicates that the artist has signed the prints. It does not mean that the artist has had any input into their creation, that they are original, or have any value. Prior to the printmaking boom in the late 19th Century, many artists considered their printmaking unimportant (as did the marketplace) and didn't bother to sign their prints. Rembrandt etchings are never signed. However, often the existence of a signature is very important to the value of a print, and allows you to distinguish between a fine print and a well-framed poster.
  • The number on a print is important

    Not at all - In the typical printing process, no one keeps track of which sheet of paper is first or last off the press. In etching, it's necessary to keep your paper damp to better absorb the ink. After the print is pulled, it goes on a drying rack to dry out causing the sequence of paper to become all confused. In color prints - remember - the paper goes through the press a separate time for every color, so the one sheet could be the first for the red plate and the last for the blue plate.
  • However, the number of the total edition is very important.

    Today, this number is typically dictated by how many impressions you think you can easily sell. In the olden days, there was a physical limitation as to the number of impressions an artist could pull from a copper plate. The later impressions pulled from that plate became weaker as the copper wore down under pressure from the press. Nowadays the plates are given a steel coating to protect them and can be editioned infinitely.
  • Be aware that still you cannot always trust the edition number.

    Tacky prints are often made in many editions, with many kinds of edition numbers so that you will see the same Dali print in Roman Numerals on one kind of paper, in Roman Numerals on another kind of paper, and in Arabic Numerals on a third kind of paper. An honest dealer of tacky art - and there are many - will document for you the exact number and size of all of the editions.

New York State Law regarding the Sale of Prints

According to New York State Law, the sale of visual art objects produced in multiples require the following disclosure:

Name of the Artist

- If the artists name appears on the multiple, it should be made clear if the piece was signed by the artist. If the work is not signed by the artist, state the source of the name on the multiple such as whether the artist signed the matrix, or if the work is stamped with the artist's name by the artist or the artist's estate.

- Describe the process by which the multiple was made and whether it was made by hand or photographically.

Posthumous - If the print was editioned from the master after the artist's death, this shall be stated.

Reproduction - If the work is a photomechanical or handmade reproduction of another existing work of art this shall be stated and, if the work is not signed, whether the artist approved in writing of this reproduction.

Edition Size - Size of the edition of this print, and the size of all other editions taken from the same matrix, and whether and how all other multiples taken from the same matrix are numbered.