To some in the fine art world, the idea of an ‘original print’ is confusing, because definition of the word ‘print’ has grown to include mass-produced posters and other photographic reproductions and, therefore, are collectibles perhaps of lesser value than unique, one-off works of art.
So, to help both the new and seasoned collector better understand the true artistry that is print-making, we’ve attempted to answer some of the most commonly asked questions in the text that follows. If you’d first like to read a brief summary of the terms used to distinguish the different types of prints available, please scroll down to the section titled “More Information for Collectors”.
In the following paragraphs, we’ll answer questions such as “What is a print?”, “How are prints made?” (including descriptions of popular print-making techniques), “How do I know if I’m getting an Original or Authorized item?”, “What determines the market value/price of a print?” (or “Why is this print less than $100 when this other one is $1000?”) and “How do I care for my prints?”
What is a Print?
To put it simply, unlike paintings, prints are works of art that are made by transferring ink on to paper or canvas using a variety of methods – either/both done by hand and/or via a digital process – from which the image can then be reproduced a number of times. When created by hand, an artist and print-maker draws or etches not directly on paper or canvas but, rather, on a surface such as stone or a metal plate, The surface is then inked, a sheet of paper is then placed over it and the two are run through a press. The total number of prints that are pulled is decided by the artist and the publisher beforehand and this is called an “edition”. Each impression in the edition is signed and numbered (and sometimes embellished otherwise) by the artist. Once the edition is completed, the original plate or stone is either defaced or destroyed so that no more can be made.
Editioned fine art prints are often referred to by the technique that was used to produce them, such as lithography, silk-screening and the newest (and somewhat controversial) method – digital printing (or Giclee’). These techniques are explained below.
How are prints made (a brief history)?
Original prints are hand-made by the artist, often in collaboration with a master print-maker, who would help with the technical aspects of inking the surface and running it through a press. The development of fine art printmaking in the 20th century is indebted to the skills of first master European print-makers – such as Fernand Mourlot, Roger Lacouriere and, in the U.S., printmakers from the famous Tamarind school, who enabled artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and countless others to produce unique imagery via the printmaking process. These master craftsmen were constantly challenged by the way these artists also broke centuries-old rules in their desire to find something new, and so these collaborations were both frustrating and fruitful.
Publishers, who finance printing and manage distribution of the finished artworks, are also very important part of the history of printmaking (indeed, if it wasn’t for the support of the many important publishers in Europe and the U.S., the careers of many of the great artists of the 20th century would not have taken off so quickly). Artists and publishers work together to decide how prints will be printed and the size of the editions that will be created.
As it is that most of the prints that are sold are printed on paper, it might be useful to understand the paper-making process so that it will become clearer as to why it is important to work to preserve your prints.
Lithography was invented in 1798 as a way of producing promotional posters, becoming hugely popular in Paris in the 1890s, when artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and others used it to design posters for cabarets and revues. Lithographs were initially made on slabs of stone (usually limestone), although, in the 20th century, the heavy stones began to be replaced by sheets of zinc, copper and aluminum.
The artist draws on the stone or plate using a greasy medium, such as a wax crayon. The surface is then dampened with water, which is repelled by the greasy areas, sticking only to the sections of the plate that have not been drawn on. Acid is used to clean the plate of any residual elements, after which ink is applied to the plate with a roller and sticks only to the greasy sections, as the water protects the rest of the plate. The stone or plate is then covered with paper and run through the press, making a print of the original drawing.
Screen-printing (AKA “Silkscreens”)
Screen-printing was made famous by the “Pop” artists of the 1960s and 70s (most notably Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jamie Reid), who took a commercial process commonly used for printing labels and t-shirts to make their art of consumer icons. Essentially a stencil process, it begins when a fabric mesh (screen) is stretched over a frame, which is then placed on top of a sheet of paper. Next, the screen is blocked out with a stencil. Most screen-prints are made up of a number of layers, with each stencil allowing a different element or color to be printed. Ink is then spread over the screen using a squeegee, forcing its way through the un-masked areas onto the paper beneath. One of Warhol’s great innovations was to cover the screen with a photosensitive material and then project a photograph on it, turning the screen into the equivalent of a film ‘negative’ and thus allowing him to endlessly print the images of his favorite subjects.
Digital Print-making – AKA “Giclee’ Prints”
Until the advent of computers, print-making was an entirely manual process. Initial attempts to use computer-based scanning and printing to create collectible works of art were met with skepticism by both artists and collectors. Collectors weren’t eager to pay for what, in effect, were little more than “color copies” of an original artwork.
In the late 1980’s, innovators such as Nash Editions (yes, Graham Nash!) in Los Angeles worked with artists, software and hardware engineers, and even ink and paper companies to begin to modify scanners, printers, and other print-making materials to begin to perfect the process of computer-based printmaking. Over the years, as computers and computer peripherals and software became more powerful, the quality of digital printmaking improved and the buying public came to see that the resulting products were truly of collectible quality. More recently, with innovations such as the “UltraGiclee Fine Art Print” products by printer manufacturer Epson, discerning art buyers can now enjoy outstanding color reproduction and archivability, while artists and publishers now have an opportunity to enhance their products and provide collectors with the confidence of an 80 year limited warranty.
Today, when you compare a professionally-produced giclée fine art print to the original artwork, you’ll find that the most intricate details and subtle textures — right down to reproducing the shadows within individual brushstrokes — have been perfectly captured. And, while the image quality is impressive, the color gamut may be even more so, as the newest inks and papers used to create giclée fine art prints reproduce colors with exceptional richness, accuracy and archivability.
As we’ve explained previously, archivability is imperative for fine art prints. With today’s giclee digital printing materials – the combination of long-lasting inks and specially-designed archival media – artists and collectors are ensured that giclée fine art prints are color-stable right out of the printer and can resist fading for over 80 years – prints that start out looking spectacular— and remain that way. So, while some purists will still only be willing to purchase fine art “made the old-fashioned way”, new digital printmaking materials and processes are redefining fine art reproduction (along with redefining the “fine art business” altogether). Their remarkable image quality and archivability will satisfy even the most discriminating buyer, allowing everyone to own amazing fine art prints that last a lifetime.
One added note – The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution has recently acquired the original Iris 3047 printer that started the fine art digital printmaking revolution. Nash Editions (Los Angeles, CA) has donated the printer along with imaging equipment to the National Museum for inclusion in their History of American photography collection. Graham Nash and R. Mac Holbert officially presented the equipment to the museum at a reception held in Washington D.C.
The knowledgeable people at NY’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) have produced a very nice animated overview of how prints are made, including demonstrations on the processes used to create silkscreens (or screenprints), lithographs, etchings and woodcuts – click here to view this demo (requires Flash Player 5.0 or newer).
Why are some prints more expensive than others?
Art prints are produced in a number of ways and in a wide variety of edition sizes, with each method requiring a wide range of materials, equipment and training in the best methods to use to create editions of prints that will be of interest to collectors. As in any category of collectibles, quality, rarity, desirability and the market’s perception of the “value” of an artist’s work all contribute to how prints are priced:
Limited editions -These are prints where the publisher or artist has decided to release a limited amount of each print, in a particular size and on a particular type of paper or canvas. To ensure the rarity and collectability of a limited-edition print, the artist/publisher agrees that, once an edition is sold out, they will either destroy the plates or guarantee in some other way not to produce new prints in the same fashion. We rely on the artist/publisher to manage each edition honestly and will not work with an artist or publisher that fails to live up to their promises.
As an artist/publisher is creating a limited-edition, there will be prints made outside the edition that are used to both test how an image might look (called a “trial proof” or, later in the process, a “bon a tirer or “good to print” proof) and to reward both the artist and the printer for their work – A.P.‘s, or “Artist’s Proof” (in Europe, the term is “Epreuve d’Artiste”, or E.A.) and the “Printer’s Proof”. You will see these prints offered for sale from time to time as well…
Some limited editions might also be distinguished by the inclusion of not only the artist/photographer’s signature, but also the signature(s) of the musical act featured in the design/photograph. Of course, you should expect to pay more for limited-edition prints counter-signed by your favorite musical acts…
Open editions – In some cases, an image is so popular (or, in the case of some images, available for use in the production of packages, books, merchandise, etc.) that the artist/publisher chooses not to limit the number of prints that they might produce. Even so, an artist/publisher will still use the same high-quality production processes to print fine art prints of these images so that the quality of the print is as good as their limited-edition prints and, in many cases, will also include their signature and/or the print’s title in the margins. With many publishers choosing to produce their prints “on demand”, the actual number of prints available for purchase might still be quite small, so there’s no guarantee that a limited-edition print will be worth more than an open-edition print. This will, of course, depend on the reputation of the artist/publisher and the desirability of the image.
What do “S/N”, “Ltd. Ed.” and “P/S” mean?
S/N Open Ed.: “Signed and Numbered” and “Open” Editions – A print hand-signed by the artist that created the print. This print may not be in a limited edition – i.e., the artist may reserve the rights to print an unspecified number of these prints before destroying the plate (if ever).
S/N/Ltd Ed.: “Signed, Numbered Limited Edition” – A print that is hand-signed by the artist that created the print and in a limited edition (a specific number of prints, after which the plates are destroyed). Each print has its own number within the edition, which will be added either by the artist or the publisher of the print (who may also be the artist). For example, if a print were numbered “45/250”, that would represent print #45 out of a total edition of 250 prints.
P/S: “Plate Signed” – Plate-signed prints are prints where the artist has signed his/her name in the printing plate used to create the edition. These are not hand-signed (although the signatures look authentic), but they may still be printed in a limited-edition to insure that the quality of the printing remains high.
What determines the market price of a print?
You learned this in Econ 101 – the international art market decides the price, based on the principles of supply and demand. Original prints may exist in multiples of more than one, which can account for a difference of thousands of $$ between the price of a mass-produced poster, an unsigned “open edition” print and a signed and numbered limited-edition print. If a certain print is in demand and the supply is no longer there, the price will go up.
However, price also very much depends on the condition of the print. Works on paper are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by mishandling, poor framing, exposure to strong light and, of course, the passage of time. Prints in good condition are more sought after by collectors and therefore their prices are higher.
Here are some tips as to what serious print collectors should look for (if you can see the print in person, perfect, whereas if the gallery is online, you can ask them to send photos to you for your review):
1) If the print is mounted on a board or framed, take it out of the frame. The mount might be hiding all sorts of condition problems: tears, stains, “foxing” (see below), etc. Even if the printed image is in good condition, the condition of the paper around it is important to the market value. Try not to buy prints that need restoration, as the requisite cleaning will always take something away from a print, even if it is done by a professional restorer.
2) Check the colors – try to see if they are fresh and not faded. Of course, you can’t fight the passage of time and a print made 30 years ago will not be as fresh today as it was when it had just been made. However, you should check this against what you are being asked to pay.
3) Check the signature – even if you are not an expert on the particular artist’s signature, look to see if it has been written with the confidence of someone writing their own name. Check the numbering too to make sure somebody hasn’t tried to ‘expand the limits’ of the limited-edition by changing the numbers (the artists’ & publishers’ web sites are a good reference point).
4) Always make sure that framed prints are conservation-framed using acid-free materials. If not, you should change the frame immediately.
A reputable art dealer should make all of the above checks for you and disclose any problems. In these days of selling online – via website and auctions – it is sad to say that this is not always the case and the auction house principle of ”caveat emptor” – buyer beware – does still operate. So never be ashamed to ask about any of your concerns before buying. In the end, if in doubt, do not buy it. You can always call the folks at another gallery (or one of the ones listed on our list of appraisers page) if you are concerned about a print’s provenance or condition.
How do I know what I’m buying is an original or authorized print?
In almost all circumstances, a fine art gallery buys its inventory from only one of three sources – either directly from the artist, directly from the artist’s publisher, or at auction from auction companies that can authenticate the “provenance” (the documented history of a work of art from its production to the present) of a work of art. While many items come from these sources with complete documentation, this is not the case with all works and so collectors should ask for some proof or guarantee a print’s originality, based on the gallery’s knowledge, reputation, staff training and experience, provenance of sale and/or ownership and the above checks. As an art lover and collector, you should not consider buying or selling a work of art that you’re not 100% sure about. Upon request, any reputable gallery will provide you with a Certificate of Authenticity, which will include a copy of the provenance provided from their sources.
If you are looking for an appraisal of something in your collection, or need help in selling an item (or an entire collection), please visit our Buying and Selling Resources information page and we’ll try and steer you to someone who can help.
On any reputable gallery’s website, along with each image, you should find a detailed description of the print and its origin (as best as can be documented). For example, on the item page on St. Paul’s Gallery website for the print of Storm Thorgerson’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover image that they sell, you will find information on the publisher (St. Paul’s Gallery – UK) and the printer (Coriander Studios – London), along with the # of colors used, the type of paper it was printed on, the # of prints in the edition, and who the artwork is signed by (as well as where on the print you will find these signatures).
You can then go visit the web sites of the artists/publishers, and if the description of the print matches theirs in every detail, then there is a very good chance it is original. One then has to check the signature to make sure that it matches the artist’s signature from that time (handwriting does vary over time).
How do I care for my prints?
1) Have them professionally framed, making sure that your prints are framed using acid-free ‘conservation’ materials. As we’ll explain more to you below, most paper stock is slightly acidic, which in time causes it to yellow. Almost all original prints are made on neutral-ph natural-fiber papers, which will stain if they come into contact with acidic-ph materials. While you might think that it is too expensive to have your print framed by a professional framer using only archival-quality, conservation materials, it is essential if you want your print to retain its beauty and its value.
2) Display your art in areas away from direct sunlight. Sunlight will fade everything over a long course of time. However, you can protect your print and keep it in good condition for generations to come by hanging it away from strong direct or indirect light and using conservation glass in place of regular glass to filter out the harmful UV rays that cause colors to fade.
3) Provide your print with a stable home! Do everything you can to keep your print in stable environmental conditions. An excessively humid atmosphere (a bathroom or kitchen) may promote the growth of molds that will cause what is known as “foxing”: small brown spots on paper that will need to be cleaned by a restorer. An excessively dry or cold atmosphere may cause the paper to become brittle and crack, whereas dust and pollution can also damage fine works of art.
What should I do if I’m not going to frame my print right away?
1) Handle unframed prints with care. If you order your print unframed, it should only be handled using cotton gloves as, no matter how clean your hands are, your skin contains grease which can damage the paper.
2) Prints shipped to you rolled in tubes should be flattened as soon as possible. Loose prints should never be rolled for prolonged storage. They should be stored flat, between acid-free tissue paper, in Mylar® plastic bags, and in specially-produced boxes (see below for more detailed information).
The Science of Paper and Paper Preservation
To better understand why all this care is necessary, it helps to understand more about the process of making paper. Forgive us for this science lesson, but we think it will give you a better understanding as to why we’re so focused on making sure that any print you purchase from our gallery is able to provide you with a lifetime of enjoyment.
How is paper made?
Paper generally has plant fibers that have been reduced to a pulp, suspended in water and then matted into sheets. The fibers in turn consist largely of cellulose, a strong, lightweight and somewhat durable material; cotton is an example of almost pure cellulose fiber. Although cotton and other kinds of fiber have been used in paper making over the years, most paper products today are made from wood pulp. Wood pulps come in two basic varieties: ground wood and chemical wood. In the first process, whole logs are shredded and mechanically beaten. In the second, the fibers are prepared by mixing wood chips in chemical cookers. Because ground wood is the cheaper of the two, it is the primary component in such inexpensive papers as newsprint, which is used in many newspapers, comic books and paperbacks. Chemically-purified pulps are used in more expensive applications, such as stationery, some magazines and hardcover books, and print-making. Since ground wood pulp is made from whole wood fiber, the resulting paper does not consist of pure cellulose. As much as one third of its content may consist of non-cellulose materials such as lignin, a complex woody acid. In chemical pulps, however, the lignin and other impurities are removed during the cooking process.
Acidity and alkalinity are measured in units of pH, with 0 the most acidic and 14 the most alkaline. (Neutral pH is 7.0) Because the scale is based on powers of 10, a pH of 4.5 is actually 200 times more acidic than a pH of 6.5. Fresh newsprint typically carries a pH of 4.5 or less, while older more deteriorated paper on the verge of crumbling, may run as low as pH 3.0. Although some modern papers are made acid free, many paper collectibles are acidic and need special treatment to lengthen their lives.
How does paper deteriorate?
The primary causes of paper deterioration are oxidation and acid hydrolysis. Oxygen from the air attacks cellulose molecules, causing oxidization – a noticeable darkening and increased acidity. In addition, the lignin in ground wood paper breaks down quickly under the influence of oxygen and ultraviolet light. Light induced oxidation of lignin is what turns newspapers yellow after a few days’ exposure to sunlight. (Light can also cause some printing inks to fade.) In acid hydrolysis, the cellulose fibers are cut by a reaction involving heat and acids, resulting in paper that turns brown and brittle. The sources of acidity include lignin itself, air pollution, and reaction by-products from the oxidation of paper. Another source is alum (which is often used with rosin to prepare the paper surface for accepting printing inks) and the sulfuric acid it eventually releases in paper. Other factors which contribute to the destruction of paper include extremes of temperature and humidity, insects, rodents, mold and improper handling and storage, which leads us to…
How do I preserve my prints on paper?
Glad you asked! First and foremost, keep your paper collectibles cool, dark and dry. Store unframed prints in an unheated room, if possible, and regularly monitor the humidity. Excess heat and humidity should be controlled with an air conditioner and a dehumidifier. Storage materials such as envelopes, sleeves and boxes, should be of ARCHIVAL QUALITY only to prevent contamination of their contents.
For years collectors have stored their collectibles in polyethylene bags, PVC sheets and plastic wraps. Although such products may be useful in keeping away dirt, grease and vermin, many plastic sleeves contain plasticizers and other additives which can migrate into paper and cause premature aging. Both polyethylene and polypropylene contain solvents and additives in their manufacture to assure clarity and increase the flexibility in the plastic. Polyethylene is a good moisture barrier but has a high gas transmission rate, and eventually shrinks and loses its shape under warmer conditions. Polypropylene bags have been sold under the guise of being archivally sound, but this is not really the case. Only uncoated and untreated material is suitable for archival protection. Currently, the only way to seal polypropylene is to add a substance called PVDC (Polyvinyl Dichloride which is a relative of PVC) to allow the material to be heat sealed. Therefore, once you add the additive, the sleeve now becomes non archival and should not be used for long term storage.
So, what should I use to seal unframed prints for short-to-mid-term storage?
According to the US Library of Congress, the preferred material for preserving valuable documents is uncoated archival quality polyester film, such as Mylar® type D or equivalent material such as Melinex® 516. Mylar® is an exceptionally strong transparent film that resists moisture, pollutants, oils and acids. With a life expectancy of hundreds of years, Mylar® will outlast most other plastics.(Mylar® is a registered trademark of DuPont Teijin films. They are the exclusive manufacturers of archival quality polyester films under the brands Mylar® type D and Melinex® 516.)
What should I use to store my sealed prints?
As we’re sure that you’ll want to do everything to insure that the prints and other collectibles you buy remain in pristine condition, we’ve done a lot of research into this, and what became clear was that because ordinary cardboard is itself acidic, storage in cardboard boxes may be hazardous to your collection, and is a leading cause of premature deterioration of high-quality prints. For proper storage, only boxes made from acid-free boards that meet the US Government’s MINIMUM requirements are acceptable. These requirements have been defined as boards having a 3% calcium carbonate buffer throughout and a minimum pH of 8.5. Anything less will increase the chances of your collection’s deterioration. Many manufacturers claim that their boxes are “acid free at time of manufacture,” whereas in reality many are only spray-coated with an alkaline substance making them acid-free for only a very short time. True acid-free boards have been impregnated with a calcium buffer resulting in an acid-free, alkaline pH content of 8.5 throughout.
Is there anything else that I can do to preserve my prints on paper?
Another way to extend the longevity of your collectibles is to “de-acidify” them before storage. De-acidifying sprays and solutions are now available for home use. By impregnating the paper with an alkaline reserve, you can neutralize existing acids and inhibit oxidation, future acidity and staining due to certain fungi. However it is best left to the professionals to de-acidify your valuable prints. By following these simple guidelines you can be assured of a comic book collection that not only will increase in value, but will also last for many years to come, allowing you to pass down your collection to future generations of art-lovers.
More Information for Collectors (and those who want to know more about the album cover art prints they’d like to buy)
As collectors ourselves, we at the ACHOF are often faced with the daunting task of trying to find out more about the works we’re interested in buying so that we can make informed decisions as to whether we want to add them to our collections.
While we think that the descriptions provided on many of the album cover fine art-related gallery sites should provide as much information as you’ll need (although some of these sites could stand to improve the information on the items they sell – sorry, gallerists, but you know it’s true!), there are basic things that collectors of fine art prints should know before deciding whether an item they see is “worth it”. Of course, whether something is “worth it” or not is a fairly subjective decision, there are some things that you should know that will effect an item’s long-term value (in case you ever want to part with it).
We hope that the information we’ve provided you in this section helps you in some fashion but, of course, if you ever want to know more about a particular item you find on a gallery site (e.g., the edition number of a particular print, whether a print is available in another size, condition issues that are not clearly stated on the item’s description, etc.), we do hope that you’ll contact the galleries either via phone or email – they’re always ready to help you as best they can.