Fine-art prints have many virtues, including aesthetic beauty, a long and proud past in the annals of art history, and
the element of spontaneity that figures so largely in their making. But for many collectors, one particularly enticing feature is the price
"Prints give people who might not be able to afford a painting by a particular artist access to original art," notes
Marjorie Devon, director of Tamarind Institute,
a center for fine-art printing at the University of New Mexico. "Paintings by artists we work with range from $10,000 to $50,000,
while a print might sell for $500. A lot of people who buy prints are learning more about art and may not have the confidence to spend
a lot of money. Or, it may be their entry into the market."
"Printmaking" is a broad term that refers to dozens of processes, from lithography to collography to monotype,
in which an artist makes images from a master. These procedures are complex, frequently used in combination, and are in a constant state
of revision and refinement, but regardless of type, share common characteristics. A fine-art print must be originally created for the genre,
not copied from work in another medium. (For example, a reproduction of a painting is not a fine art print). Artist involvement in the
creation and execution is an integral part of determining originality. Such prints are made in limited editions—in other words, a
specified number from a single master—and written documentation accompanies each impression.
Two of the most enduring, and distinctive, printmaking formats are etchings and engravings. Both are "intaglio" (Italian
for "cut in") methods in which damp sheets of paper, held under great pressure, draw ink out of recessed areas of masters or
plates. These plates are generally copper but can also be zinc or steel. The difference between these methods is how the plates are made.
In engraving, special tools of varying thicknesses and shapes are used to cut lines in the plate. Etchings, on the other hand, use a chemical
process in which the plate is first covered with an acid-resistant "ground," and then worked with an etching needle. The metal
exposed by the needle is recessed by the action of an acid bath. Newer techniques include photo etchings, such as those made by John Paul
Caponigro, in which film images are exposed on sensitized plates, and solar etchings, used by landscape artist Betsy Bauer and others,
in which sunlight exposes the images. In all these processes, the artist may transfer the image onto the plate from a drawing or work directly
on the metal.
Image: ©2004 Ron Adams
Lithograph, 29" x 41"
Courtesy LewAllen Contemporary
"In engraving, you'll have lines of varying thickness and generally a slightly richer line quality. Engravings
are traditionally made up mostly of lines," comments master printer Michael Costello, owner of Hand
Graphics in Santa Fe. Artist Ron Adams, who
says he is attracted to engraving because of its graphic, black-and-white quality and its close relationship to drafting, uses engraving
to create meticulously detailed human figures. Etchings are noted for their range of tones, bright highlights, and dense areas of
light. Perhaps the most famous etchers were Rembrandt and Goya, though etching is favored by myriad contemporary artists from Santa
Feans Michael Bergt and Ron Pokrasso to Eastern Europeans Nele Zirnite and Traian Filip (1955–1993).
One of the most prominent New Mexican printmakers, Gene Kloss (1903–1996), used etching in combination with other intaglio processes, notably aquatint, to create moody, mysterious depictions of the Southwest.
"Etchings attract me because of their immensely beautiful graphic quality," says Santa Fe artist and dealer
Frank Croft. "It's an age-old medium and artists create such a spirit in their pieces."
"Many artists have a real reverence for etching," echoes Tonya Turner Carroll, co-owner of Turner
Carroll Gallery . "It's a complicated
process. It's interactive. And there are many things beyond your own hand that factor into the final product."
Distinguishing between an etching and an engraving can be difficult for those with an untrained eye, but is not necessary
to make a good purchasing decision. Print collectors should use the same criteria as with other genres, assessing subject, composition,
palette, and so on, while being aware that subtle variations between prints are integral to printmaking. "If you're comparing
two prints within the same edition, look for quality indicators," Turner Carroll emphasizes. "Make sure the ink is not darker
or thicker in one section. I look to see which of two prints has a higher contrast, which tells me it's a better impression, and you
can sometimes see that pretty easily."
"You want the print to be rich," says Santa Fe artist and master printer Joel Greene. "If it looks dry,
grainy, or weak, there's something wrong." At Tamarind, a curator analyzes every print that comes off the press to make sure
it is of requisite quality. Study the piece to make sure there are no water stains or tears. Except in rare cases, such as the wood block
prints of Gustave Baumann which the artist cut to fit his frames, prints should have full margins. Mats and frames must be made of acid-free,
or archival, materials to prevent mat burn and even, in the worst cases, paper disintegration.
Size of the edition is a key determinant of value. At the bottom of each print there will be two numbers separated by
a line, similar to a fraction. The bottom number indicates the total prints in the edition while the top number is the specific designation
for that impression. Contemporary prints are numbered in the order they are signed so there is no particular significance to the top number.
However a print will be more valuable if the total edition is small. At Tamarind, for instance, editions are rarely larger than 20 prints.
Each print must be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity that delineates the size of the edition, size of the plate and paper, and
how the plate was canceled. Artists prevent their masters from re-use by cutting them in half, etching a large "x" over the image,
or punching holes.
Collectors considering the purchase of a print would be wise to buy from a reputable dealer who can clearly explain how
the print was made. Questions about edition size, ethics, and other issues can also be directed to the International Fine Print Dealers
Association in New York City.
"Print buyers should do their research," says Tamarind's Marge Devon. "If they're concerned
about investment value, they should research the reputation of the artist, where the artist shows, and where the print was made. What processes
were used to make the print? They can call a local fine art publisher, if there is one. Certain publishers print reproductions but represent
them as fine art."
Once the homework is done, however, a print should be judged based on its beauty and how much it moves the viewer. "Printmaking
is like a game of tennis," comments Tonya Turner Carroll. "You make a drawing and you give the drawing to a plate with a tool
or to acid. A lot is left to chance. And that can be thrilling."
108 Cornell Drive SE, Albuquerque, NM 505-277-3901
International Fine Print Dealers Association
485 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 212-759-4469
How to Identify Prints
by Bamber Gasciogne
Thames and Hudson, New York, 1986