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About Fine Prints and Reproductions
More on Traditional Printmaking Processes
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On this website, as in most reputable fine art markets, the word "print" refers to original, fine prints not reproductions. On this website, reproductions are properly identified as reproductions, and prints are true original fine prints.
Unfortunately for the public, many "prints" even "limited edition prints" sold today in the popular marketplace are actually reproductions, not original prints. Reproductions of existing paintings, usually watercolor or oil paintings, commonly landscape or bird/wildlife subjects, are too frequently numbered and signed and marketed as "limited edition prints" by both artists and publishers. Such "prints" should properly be identified as reproductions of paintings.
For the layman considering purchase of a "print" or "limited edition print," especially one that resembles a painting, the question to ask of the seller is this: "Is the original for this image a painting?" In other words, "Is this a reproduction?" Why is this important? Because there are inherent differences between prints and reproductions, and these differences help determine value. Back to Top
Fine prints are original works of art the image, quite literally, does not exist anywhere else. Reproductions are not original works of art the image exists elsewhere, as in a painting. Additionally, the materials used in fine prints are, in general, permanent. The inks used in reproductions, however, are to date, without exception not permanent. Fine prints are, in general, labor intensive to produce reproductions, in comparison, are not.
is not meant to imply that reproductions have no value. Obviously, they
do have value, and an appropriate place in the marketplace, but that
value is apt to be less and not as long lasting as that of fine prints.
This is especially true when the buyer fully understands the differences
between prints and reproductions. Back
There are superb illustrated books describing printmaking processes. A few books are listed below, and your local library should have access to one or more of these excellent resource texts. Any person seriously interested in fine prints should peruse one of these books. In our discussion here, I will offer only the barest essential introduction to print techniques, enough to show clearly that reproductions are not the same as true original prints.
There are four basic categories of traditional printmaking processes: relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil. All of these processes accomplish one simple task in different ways: transfer ink from a printing matrix of some kind, to paper. The matrix may be wood, metal or other material. In all cases, that matrix is worked by artisan or artist in such a way as to produce the desired effect when inked and printed. Adjustments are generally required. Using printed proofs as a guide, the matrix might be reworked and proofed repeatedly, until the printed image meets the artist's expectations or approval.
The method for delivering ink to paper is different for each of the four basic processes, producing its own distinctively unique, characteristic results. Back to Top
In relief printing, only the raised surface is inked, as with a rubber stamp or woodcut, or potato print in elementary school, and transferred to paper under pressure. The oldest of the printing processes, relief prints are easily printed by hand. Relief printing almost always squeezes a little excess ink out around the edges of the printed image, sometimes so much that it can be seen with the naked eye, but almost always with a magnifying glass. Woodcuts, linoleum block prints, and wood engravings are relief prints. The printed image is mirror reverse image of the matrix. More on relief. Back to Top
In intaglio, thick ink is rubbed into recessed, incised, etched or engraved parts below the surface, the opposite of relief. The matrix is almost always metal. Excess ink is wiped away, especially from the surface; and damp paper is pressed down upon the wiped plate, transferring ink from matrix to paper. Intaglio images are slightly raised up on the surface of the paper, it's not perfectly flat. There is a thickness to intaglio ink on paper, and it can be felt by lightly touching the image, or observed under a magnifying glass. No line is no richer or more dense than that obtained with intaglio. The printed result is referred to as an etching, an engraving, drypoint, aquatint or mezzotint all are intaglio techniques. The printed image is mirror reverse image of the matrix. More on intaglio. Back to Top
Planographic, or flat surface printing is lithography. A greasy drawing material is used to create an image on essentially flat limestone or aluminum or zinc plate; next, the entire surface is dampened with water; greasy ink is rolled across the surface, adhering to the drawing but not to non-drawing damp areas; and, under pressure, ink is transferred to paper. Lithograph images are absolutely flat. Drawing on a lithograph stone is an enchantment for many artists, yielding rich drawing tones similar to, but different from, pencil or charcoal drawings, the printed image looking just like the drawing on stone. The printed result is called a lithograph. The printed image is mirror reverse image of the matrix. More on lithography. Back to Top
In stencil printing screenprint open areas allow ink to pass through, just like those letter stencils available in the office supply store for making homemade signs, but most often through an open-weave fabric. Screenprint produces a flat image, which can have some minor thickness, depending upon kind of screen fabric, ink and technique of pushing ink through the stencil. The printed result is referred to as a screenprint, silkscreen print, or serigraph. The printed image is just like you see on the screen; it's not a reversed image. More on screenprint. Back to Top
Most contemporary fine prints produced today still employ traditional printmaking processes. It's common for artists who may not be particularly skillful in printmaking techniques to work with professional printers. There are many dreadful, mediocre prints created with these processes technique does not automatically produce art! Of course, there are also many prints of lasting aesthetic beauty. For more than 300 years, Rembrandt's etchings an intaglio process have been admired and cherished.
These simple processes can be extremely sophisticated, and can also be combined with one another. It is not unusual for woodcut and etching processes to be used on one multi-color printed image, and so on. Some exquisite contemporary prints are just black and white, or only a few colors; others may utilize as many as 100 colors. In general, it should be noted that all of these printmaking processes from creating the printing matrix through proofing and edition printing are labor intensive. This has a direct effect on production cost of the fine print. And the skill with which the whole print project is accomplished can have a direct effect on value. There are professional printmaking workshops scattered about the country, and around the world, where skilled, knowledgeable printer-artisans collaborate with artists for the making of fine prints. History is full of examples of prints done in such collaborations, including Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec.
To make matters a little more complicated, though, contemporary prints are not limited to traditional printmaking processes. New image-making processes are continuously generated, supplementing or sometimes being used instead of the traditional processes. Photo processes can be employed in lithography, screenprint and intaglio. Also, the impact of the computer cannot be overlooked. Some art schools now devote a major part of printmaking education to computer graphics, which can produce and manipulate digital imagery and has notably expanded the possibilities for making genuine original images, and consequently, prints. The possibilities are so endless, in fact, it is often difficult to define the limits or say exactly what a print IS. It's much easier to say what a print is NOT which gets us back to reproductions, which a print is NOT.
Reproductions offer the most affordable way to enjoy a landscape painting image on the wall of your home or office. In the 1800s elaborate wood engravings and lithographs (and other original printmaking techniques) reproduced popular painted images, and made it possible for more people to enjoy that image. Simply put, that's the reason reproductions and posters are produced: people want to enjoy the images, and a greater number of people can afford to do so. Today, there are three-dimensional sculpture reproductions, and at least two different printing technologies are used to produce two-dimensional reproductions on paper and canvas. Back to Top
The "full color" printing process that produces magazines and art books is also used to produce fine reproductions or posters. When such reproductions are examined with a magnifying glass, the four transparent colors utilized in that process can be seen. This is more readily revealed in a newspaper image, because the dots are larger and easier to see. With the Sunday comics, the process is most readily seen. Tiny dots of yellow, magenta red, cyan blue and black combine to create the full range of colors we see in books, magazines, catalogs, newspapers, comics and, yes, fine art reproductions and posters. Tootoosahatchee was reproduced in this way, in a process derived directly from traditional hand lithography, on a modern offset lithography printing press, with transparent four-color process printing inks. Pictures in newspapers are usually printed with 85 dots per inch. Commercial full color magazines generally employ 133 dots per inch. Tootoosahatchee was printed with 200 dots per inch. More dots per inch a smoother, finer, image.
Newer digital inkjet technology is now used to reproduce images on special fine papers even genuine printmaking or watercolor papers and on canvas. The French word, "Giclee," means sprayed ink or something similar, and it has become a marketing name for inkjet printing. Rich, fine-tuned images can be created with this technology. Expert technicians can produce reproductions that closely match the original paintings. This is especially true of watercolor paintings on paper, which can be very closely matched with digital inkjet printing on the same kind of paper. Now, a painting on canvas can be reproduced on canvas.
However, no reproduction can perfectly match a real oil painting! Oil paint can have texture and thickness that simply cannot be replicated by commercial printing processes, including much-heralded Giclee inkjet. There are attempts to add texture by other means, but the results are superficial and unsatisfactory. Additionally, some colors employed by the artist simply cannot be duplicated in the reproduction process.
Original fine prints can be produced by commercial printing processes, especially Giclee inkjet printing, thanks especially to digital imagery created and/or manipulated on a computer. Caution! Be sure to read Confusion in the Marketplace and Basic Differences between prints and reproductions at the top of this column.
There are limits to these printing technologies, both full four-color printing and Giclee digital inkjet printing. Back to Top
Crayons, pastels, paints and printing inks are made of pigment and a binding medium to stick the pigment together. For artists' use, pigments are selected for permanency. In general, only pigments that are lightfast are utilized in fine art. The pigments that provide color in artists' oil paint, watercolor paint, etching and hand lithography printing inks are reliably lightfast that is, in general, they do not fade. Almost all pigments in fine arts use are permanent.
Commercial printing inks, on the other hand, serve a different purpose. All commercial printing inks will fade, due to effects of ultraviolet rays in sunlight, and also, to a lesser degree, fluorescent lighting. This impermancency is the major shortcoming of commercially printed reproductions.
Commercial lithography printing inks are made to perform well on modern high speed printing presses that print thousands of impressions per hour. The ink must set and dry extremely fast. For the four-color process, the colors are transparent, to allow transparent cyan blue to overprint transparent yellow and make green, for example. Permanency is a secondary concern. Four-color process printing ink pigments are not lightfast. They will fade, and under certain conditions, rapidly. Some of the inks are said to be fade-resistant Tootoosahatchee is reproduced with fade-resistant inks but that's not the same as permanent. These images will fade rapidly in direct sunlight.
Giclee inkjet printing inks are made to be sprayed in extremely miniscule dots of watery color. These transparent or translucent inks are not lightfast or permanent, either, and they also remain somewhat water soluble, though some new inks are said to be water resistant. A Giclee inkjet image will dissolve and run down the sheet if it gets wet enough. Simply breathing moist breath onto a delicate inkjet image can cause a change in image crispness. Back to Top
Giclee images will fade rapidly in direct sunlight -- even in one year's time. How long a Giclee image lasts depends on display conditions. Apparently, under best conditions, the best inkjet inks will likely show signs of fading in 65 to 75 years. Some say the images might last 100 years, but it seems prudent to be conservative. It is most important to realize that NO reproductions are permanent.
Some of our Giclee reproductions are in good condition after 10 years; some have faded drastically in the same amount of time. It is obvious that subdued lighting is best -- necessary -- for longevity. UV filter glazing for framed reproductions will also extend life of any reproduction on paper or canvas.
It's true that some Giclee original prints are in museum collections, but, in order to forestall fading, these prints are generally in proper storage not on display and kept under optimum conditions.
The Tootoosahatchee fine art poster reproduction and a few Alaska landscape paintings are reproduced by commercial four-color process offset lithography printing, on neutral pH paper. All of the Giclee digital inkjet reproductions are printed with Lysonic archival inkjet inks on an extremely durable, neutral pH alpha cellulose paper. The Giclee inkjet reproductions are state-of-the-art, in terms of materials, color corrections and printing reproduction quality.
Nonetheless, NO reproductions are permanent. Some of our reproductions are in excellent condition after 10 years; some have faded in less than 10 years. Display in subdued light, framed under UV filter glass, and air conditioning are obviously going to be helpful for longevity.
Properly cared for reproductions and fine art posters as well as books and magazines can last longer than our lifetime, some say longer than 100 years, but it is doubtful there will be any 300-year old reproductions to pass indefinitely from generation to generation, like Rembrandt's etchings and other fine prints.
To insure longest life, reproductions and all works on paper should be displayed under optimum conditions: no direct sunlight; dry, cool conditions are best; and, preferrably, no fluorescent lighting. Reproductions on paper should be framed in the same manner as watercolor paintings and other works on paper. Some picture frame glass has an ultraviolet blocking capability, for added protection.
Handle unframed paper with clean hands only. Some people prefer wearing white cotton gloves like photolab people use. Gently lift paper with two hands, taking care not to put a crease or dent into the paper. One way to move a large sheet of paper is to slide the paper onto a clean cardboard carrier. Works on paper are best stored flat on a clean, acid-free surface, covered or interleaved with acid-free paper, such as glassine, which is made for the purpose and is available in art supply stores. To flatten paper that arrives in a tube, gently unroll onto a flat, clean surface, weighting the paper with books or other flat, clean weight or deliver tube and paper direct to picture framer. Heavier papers may require days to relax and flatten.
For more, do a "Google" on "art paper conservation." Back to Top
Knives and chisels are used to cut away non-printing parts of the wood or linoleum matrix, leaving a raised surface to be inked. Only the raised surface is inked in the relief printing, with oil or water-based ink. Oil-based ink is normally applied by means of a roller; water-based ink is normally applied by brush, as in Japanese or Chinese technique for woodblock printmaking. Newspapers were formerly printed maybe exclusively by a relief printing process called letterpress printing, with raised letters made of wood or cast lead. Some newspapers are still printed in this manner, and there are other commercial applications of this process. Back to Top
Copper or zinc, sometimes steel, but even regular sheet glass and plexiglass have been used as matrix, but copper is preferred for its malleable qualities. Knives, burins, sharp-pointed tools, scrapers and burnishers are employed to scratch, cut into, gouge into or to burnish smooth, the matrix. You're familiar with engraving. It's used on metal plaques, trophies, jewelry bracelets and more, and is the oldest of the intaglio techniques. In acid etching, the plate is first coated with acid-resistant waxy asphalt. Tools are used to draw thru the waxy coating, exposing bare metal. Acid etches into all exposed metal. Drypoint is a sharp needle that raises a burr on the metal that captures ink. Aquatint is a tonal-creating process. It's common for an etching to utilize drypoint, engraving and aquatint. In general, the deeper the etched or engraved line, the bigger the burr, the rougher the metal, the more ink it will hold and consequently print. Ink the consistency of honey is rubbed into the recessed areas; the excess ink is wiped off skillfully; dampened paper is placed over the wiped plate, cushioned with pads or blankets. Under tremedous pressure in a press, the paper is pushed into intimate contact with all surfaces of the plate, extracting almost all of the ink. Intaglio offers a wide range of possibilities, from the richest printed line achievable, from color of greatest intensity, extremely delicate lines and tones. Back to Top
Lithography, the flat surface printing process, was developed in the 1790s and early 1800s, and is the youngest of the traditional printmaking processes. High grade limestone, aluminum and zinc plates are the favored drawing matrix material. For the artist who likes to draw, lithography is a natural, because the printed image can look exactly like the drawing on stone, except the image is in reverse. The process can have a directness to it that the other printmaking processes do not have. Drawing materials include crayons and greasy liquids that can be applied by brush. Drawings can also be made on certain coated papers and transferred to a lithograph stone for reworking and printing. Chemistry is an important aspect of lithography, involving an appropriate balance between water and grease and other factors, which requires knowledge, skill and experience. Back to Top
Stencil, or screenprint printing, is extremely versatile, and, with a variety of sophisticated inks, is extensively employed in commercial and industrial printing on metal, glass, cardboard, paper, vinyl, fabrics, tshirts, and all sorts of packaging materials. There are direct drawing techniques and extensive photographic techniques. Back to Top
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