The Recognition, Appreciation, and Display of Art Prints

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The Recognition, Appreciation, and Display, of Art Prints

This anthology is concerned with describing how to recognise different printed results, why one method is more fitting than another - to interpret an idea, how to conserve, mount, and display the printed matter.The term Art Print is used to separate commercial work, however old or distinguished, from work expressly designed for a limited run of numbered and signed (this is not always the case) copies. It is acknowledged to be, by all artists and craftsmen, something aesthetic pleasing about work produced by hand using the very basic of tools, materials and presses. Appreciation here is defined by: a knowledge of art history, medium described, artist craftsmanship skill and subject.

The Recognition of Linocuts and Woodcuts[edit]

Linocuts are simple in that the technique is not difficult and the material cheap. However, the process has all the trials and tribulations experienced by the more complicated methods of reproduction. The linoleum is made up of linseed oil, glue and cork that is backed-up with canvas. The lino cutting tools range from a knife, V shaped blades, a selection of gouges and a chisel. The reproduction qualities are ‘white line’, ‘black silhouette’, ‘white silhouette’ and ‘tone’ achieved by hatching a series of finer lines. The tools are held in the hand with the ball in the palm. The thumb and the first two fingers grip the tool just above the blade, whilst the little finger steadies the action on the lino. Place the first finger of the other hand on the blade itself and rest the other fingers on the lino. This will steady the cutting action and prevent slipping. Ink is mixed up on a hard smooth surface with a palette knife and applied to a hand held roller. The roller applies the ink to the linocut to achieve an even coating and the dry paper pressed by spoon, barren or print roller. This is the printer’s method the second is the Japanese where the paper is dampened. The linocut can be printed straight from the lino or mounted on a wooden block. Overprinting further colours increases complexity and diversity of the design. Registration requires the paper to be laid adjacent to lay and registration bars.

Woodcut prints give a similar impression to linocuts. They use similar tools that give a simple, bold reproduction when compared to other printmaking processes. However, woodcuts compare favourably, with all the other printmaking methods by giving freedom of expression. They show large shadow areas with very few mid-tones. The fine detail stops abruptly with no tailing off – which makes fading out impossible. The picture is frequently surrounded by a broad black border or frame – caused by the edge of the block. Relief prints are made from blocks in which the white/non image parts of the artwork are cut away to create valleys below the printing surface, leaving the image area to be printed standing proud ready to receive the ink.

The object of all printmaking methods is to make as close a copy as possible to the original. For the woodblock maker, as for all artist/printmakers, there is a freedom to produce their own interpretation. To improve the range and show fine detail other colours maybe cut as extra printings. As woodblocks can be printed alongside the typematter this was the favoured commercial method of book illustration for early books. The printed impression tends to have a squashed appearance with hollow centre typical of a potato printing. Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497 – 1543, ranks amongst the finest of draughtsmen more sensitive than Durer with greater universal appeal.

Generally woodcut book illustration was perfected in Italy – at a higher level than the German school, ‘their chiaroscuros, the most successful ever made by European print makers’, W. Ivins, Curator The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1930. Wood engraving can be mistaken for rather crude metal engravings. Usually a reproduction of pen and ink drawings. They are a great improvement in detail and variation of tone - than woodcuts, as outlined by: W M Ivins, Jr., How Prints Look, New York, 1943.

In 1777 a competition was arranged to see who could produce the best woodcut. It was won by Thomas Bewick who used copperplate engraving tools to cut across the grain of boxwood instead of with the grain. This allowed finer lines. However, commercially woodcuts lost out to metal engraving at about the same-time.

Recognition of Wood Engravings[edit]

Wood engravings and copperplate engravings produce prints by drawing out the ink from engraved sunken areas - gouged shapes or lines. In this instance the harder the printing surface the greater the detail able to be carved or engraved. This applies to all cut, gouged, scraped and chiselled surfaces. Engraved prints represent pictures and designs constructed from fine lines either standing alone or hatched or cross-hatched to give the impression of tone work. Wood engravings are represented as negative - mainly black, impressions. Thomas Baxter patented a method of overprinting colours using wooden blocks. A line drawing is first made to be used as a key, to register the numerous printings.

Recognition of Copperplate Engravings[edit]

An engraving can be assessed by looking at the broad areas of work – where the print is made to show straight or wavy lines – this occurs mainly in the sky. In the highlights and mid-tones, the lines thicken and taper to show the drawing – the light and dark areas. Further up the definition range towards solid black, the tones are crosshatched to produce even darker shades. The darkest shadows, nearest black, hold the detail well. It is the sharpness and fine detail which defines the process. Buildings were drawn mechanically using a parallel ruler, which in effect looked more like a technical drawing. Under a magnifying glass all lines appear to be slightly broken with a furry edge.

The edge of the print is ruled-up to form a border and usually signed and titled. The edge of the metal plate leaves an indentation in the paper and there maybe ink spots and a slightly grubby appearance caused by the printer not wiping his palm over the plate to remove the last vestiges of ink.

Recognition of Mezzotints and Aquatints[edit]

Both these intaglio techniques aim to produce a crayoned effect similar to pencil on rough paper - to reproduce a sketched pencil drawing, charcoal, and crayon and watercolour paintings. Essentially these were art forms that could only be produced for a limited run. The ink was applied by hand with a dabber pressing the ink into the cells. Finally the plate is wiped clean with a muslin cloth and then polished using the palm of the hand. This is a lengthy process, each inking-up, each printed copy, gradually wears away the surface of the plate making each proceeding copy show greater detail. That is a general effect for most print art forms which partly explains why the finished copies are numbered. When multi-coloured prints are produced they are inserted – stuck onto plain pages, or into printed frames, within a page of type. The printmaker tries his best to reproduce the original in such a way that it is difficult to tell them apart - to make a facsimile. To do this requires a number of etching using hard and soft grounds.

Mezzotints are worked in reverse – from soft dark tones to faint highlights. Their exponents worked between 1620 and 1820. They are rare to find and most expensive the style known as the English manner. The important point to look for is the sharp edged specks, often produced with roulette. Look for the impressed plate mark this will indicate that it is an etching not a lithograph.Aquatints are a much softer effect - look very much like a continuous tone photographic print – showing a full range from dark to light, with soft vignettes.

Recognition of a Lithograph[edit]

Coloured lithographs under 40x30 inches are called chromolithographs, lager sizes are posters. Prints made for the art market are chromolithographs are not much larger than 30x20 inches, and often a great deal smaller. There can be no mistaking the impression, for they show thin, transparent colours, with a fairly large tonal range, the image is broken up by a random grained, crayoned appearance. Various techniques are available to the artist to achieve any special effects needed. They range from airbrush to Ben Day medium work… crayons to stump work, sponge and scraper. Litho colour art prints tend to look soft - without hard lines, edges and shapes, the detail in highlight and shadow is indistinct - caused in part by the multiple printings.

Recognition of Screen Printing[edit]

This is the perfect medium for the aspiring printmaker for it is relatively cheap to set up the process. They are obvious to the collector showing broad areas of flat colour which is slightly raised on the surface giving no fine detail. It takes a lot of skill to get the best out of the process and its unique form… making sure multiple printing is registered perfectly.

Identifying the Printing Process[edit]

When assessing a print in an auction room, hanging on a wall, or stacked on a market stall, every clue to its provenance is a step towards giving it a value. You will have to be prepared to identify the printing process – knowing what each process is capable of doing whilst giving it a rough position in printing history; some idea about papermaking will stand you in good stead. Understand and recognise hand production methods whilst using a magnifying glass – knowing what process to eliminate and what it is likely to be.

In the 1900s artists instigated a practice known as signing proofs or prints. The signature or monogram written or printed at the bottom of the print close to the work balanced alongside the name identifying the picture. Engravings too were inscribed giving all the information about the print – Delineavit delin meaning draftsman and Sculpsit sc the engraver. Take care that false signatures are not added to increase its value! Collector’s marks written, stamped, or embossed, applied to prints - to give an owners identity. Like the signature and title all these identifying marks help give a guide to value.

All intaglio prints bear a plate mark where the pressure of the press on the damp paper creates an indentation. This mark should be located for it gives a clue to the printing process. If possible it should be shown in the picture area – be exposed by the mount. Try and see if the ink is sitting-up off the paper. This embossing character caused by the ink vehicle soaking into the paper leaves the pigment sitting on top. Lithographs drawn on stone also can have the indentation showing but is normally too far from the picture area. Take care looking at coloured prints. Having colour is rare being very expensive to produce and only done to illustrate technical plates for scientific reasons to help identify species of plant or animal. Ordinary etchings were rarely coloured – the colouring maybe new, applied by brush and water paint. Colouring does not increase the value of the print and can detract, and lose its value, if too bright and heavy. See if you can detect any printing on the reverse. This would indicate that it was removed from a book, cut out from a newspaper or magazine which would reduce its value.

The Backing[edit]

Turn the picture over and look at the back. Does it look original or has it been renewed… Is it the same age as the frame. Look at the means of securing the backing board. Are the nail heads protruding and are they going rusty. In the Victorian past well framed prints had the whole of the back covered in brown paper and more than likely the framer would put his label on or stamp it. This might give the correct date of the print or value by a collectors mark. It is highly unlikely that the print is pre-Victorian even though the frame is original.

The Frame[edit]

The quality of the wood frame might give you an indication of the original value or the print. No-one would pay a lot of money to have a poor print framed. The wood or moulding maybe inappropriate – it also maybe part of its charm. Look at the hanging wire, does it look old… if its string then the print has been re-framed. The method of tying the wire to the screw-eye or hook will show how carefully it’s been framed and cared for.

The Paper[edit]

The quality of the paper, the print is printed on, will give a clue as to provenance, and age. Etchings should contain the indentation of the plate. The quality of the impression will show whether the print is a proof or part of the original run. The cleanliness of the print will show the craftsmanship of the printer. Most old prints were printed on a hand made paper, woven paper is soft, called laid paper uncoated with a visible fleck. The woven paper is thin when held up to the light and might show a watermark. Watermarks were introduced in 1380. Countermarks – a smaller mark, made in 1670, often made in conjunction. The wire marks of the drying rack should show. Wove paper developed in 1755 does not show any drying marks. Engraving paper and lithographic transfer paper is dampened for printing. Over hard papers or papers coated should not be used except for modern printmaking and copying.

Proof Impressions=[edit]

Whatever the process: the fist copies taken from the table or press are trial ‘pulls’ – to see if the work is printing correctly, the machine has been set up well, the paper is suitable – in the correct condition, and the drawn matter is all that it should be. These first pulls are called ‘proofs’ and have a value too. It takes at least twenty pulls to achieve a likeable result. These are also numbered by the proofer to tell him the order of correction – hopefully each proof is better than the last until the machine is ready to make the final ‘run’. It will be these that are numbered, out of the total, say out of a hundred, to be run-off, and given as a fraction. If you do buy a proof which maybe distinguished by the dirtiness of the copy make sure it is complete – has all the colours printed.

Framing Prints and Watercolours[edit]

No print should be displayed or shown without a secondary cardboard cut-out. This is called the ‘mount’ cut-out of calico or buff coloured mounting card - to make a window - large enough to allow the plate indentation to show - on intaglio work , the print’s number, the engraver’s, or artist’s name, and the picture’s title, if it has one. The mount is cut with a mount cutter which gives an oblique cut, allowing eight centimetres, from the edge of the mount to the cut-out, top, and sides, and nine millimetres at the bottom – larger to give optical balance. The print is attached to the mount; at the top only, to allow movement - as the print breaths… the mount also protects the print – keeping it away from the glass. All mounts should show: pencil, pen, or washed lines as a secondary drawn frame, three millimetres from the window – in a series of broad and fine lines – to emulate wood moulding or another cut mount. When the print has been mounted it is inserted into the frame’s rebate on top of the glass. A backing board of plywood or hardboard is inserted to protect the print. The backing board is tacked into position then sealed using a broad, brown paper tape mitred and stuck two millimetres from the frames sides. The tape prevents flies and insects from penetrating between print and glass. The frame – of moulded wood, should be narrow and undecorated or simply decorated. It is bad form to over elaborate frame or mount taking away from the print its simplicity and charm. The brass covered steel cored wire attached to screw-eyes or rings one third of the depth from the top of the frame. This allows the picture to tilt forward to prevent reflections. All pictures should be positioned on the wall with the top of the mount’s window in line with the top of one’s head – picture at eye-line height.


Aloys Senefelder's, A Complete Course of Lithography, published, 1818. William M Ivins, Jr. Notes on Prints: published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1930. Graham Hudson’s The Victorian Printer: published by Shire Publications Limited, 1996. Paul Goldman’s Looking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours, published by the British Museum in association with the J Paul Getty Museum, LA. Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: published by the British Museum. Publications, 1980. Looks Great But How Do You Print It, and Other Peoples Jobs, two articles published in the British printer 1980. The Craft of Woodcuts by John R Biggs, published by Blandford Press Ltd., 1963, How to make lino cuts by A Stewart Mackay, F.R.S.A., A.T.D. printed in London 1940 by W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd.


  • Terence Kearey