Identifying an Art Print
Art Prints are among the most popular and beautiful works of art on the market today. They are also readily accessible for all buyers.
Art Prints are among the most popular and beautiful works of art on the market today. They are also readily accessible for all buyers.
When diving into art, one of the most interesting and accessible types of art are prints. Prints are works of art made by an artist that are stamped (or printed) onto a piece of paper. Usually, they are ink on paper, though other types of pigment, like paint, can also be used. An artist makes a print because they are almost always able to make more than one print at a time, and thus the same work of art can reach a wider audience. To be more concise, many copies of a print exist. This is why prints are so inherently collectible: as there are multiple copies of them, the casual collector (and even the fledgling student) can afford prints by their favorite artists.
There are many types of art prints, and various techniques are used. Learning about the methods of printmaking allows you to gain a deeper appreciation for the artist, as you can begin to understand the time and vision that went into a piece. These days, we imagine that a print is printed by a printer, like one you may have in your home or office, but this was not the case for many centuries before the advent of computers.
The “simplest” type of print is a woodcut print, which is essentially a large stamp. To make a woodcut, the artist takes a piece of wood with a level, flat surface and carves away the negative (blank) space of the image with a set of gouges. The flat surface which remains is then inked and pressed to a piece of paper. This produces a print. Nest Egg Auctions has sold two good examples of this technique, a pair of woodcut prints by Dietrich Varez (German / American, 1939 – 2018). In these woodcuts, which depict Native Hawaiians, the brown areas are what was left raised on the wood block, while the white areas are what was carved away. If you look closely at the white areas, minor streaks of brown are visible, where there were some peaks left, which provides a textural feeling to the print itself. A very similar technique is used with linoleum, often called a linocut print. Instead of a piece of wood, a thick piece of linoleum is attached to a wooden block, and then the linoleum carved away in much the same manner. This provided much the same effect as a wood block, but is much easier to cut.
In addition, a version of the woodcut, the woodblock print, was very popular in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries, and these ukiyo-e prints continue to be sought after works of art. Nest Egg sold a masterpiece woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786 – 1865), depicting a beautiful courtly woman, dressed in a bright kimono with wildly different patterns of fabric, standing in front of a cherry blossom tree. Multiple colors can be printed by the production of different blocks, one for each color, and the successive printing of one color block after another. Kunisada’s print is a great example of the possibilities of the woodblock medium.
Woodcut prints can only allow for a limited amount of detail. Thus, in the Renaissance, artists developed the technique of engraving. Engraving is like a woodblock in reverse. The image for printing is carved into a metal plate (often copper) or even a very dense cut of wood with a burin (a pointed tool). Rather than carving out negative space, however, the engraver carves the lines of the image into the plate itself. The plate is then inked, and the flat surface wiped off. The ink stays in the grooves that have been carved out. The plate is then pressed very hard against the paper, usually with a powerful press, and the print is made. Engraving allows for much more detail to be made, and the artist can even shade and differentiate dark from light by a method of cross-hatching (making lines that are closer together or further apart) to indicate lightening or darkening. An excellent example of this technique was sold by Nest Egg Auctions, The Promenade (1520) by the Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden (1494 – 1533). This engraving depicts two well-dressed people walking through a landscape. Van Leyden’s technique is incredible, creating a space with immense detail. The faces of the figures, their positions, and their clothing shows the artist’s deft skill.
While engraving allows for the artist to print in greater detail, the skill required to produce an engraving is quite different from drawing or painting. Engraving requires specialized training, and not all artists train in this method. However, two offshoots of engraving allow the artist to directly make their prints. The first is etching, and the second is drypoint.
Etching makes a copper print engraving without the artist having to carve their picture with a burin. The copper plate is covered with a wax substance. The artist then makes their image on the plate with a stylus, drawing into the wax the image they would like to print. The stylus removes the wax from those lines as the artist draws. The plate is then dipped into an acid bath, and the exposed areas of metal, exposed by the artist’s drawing, is eaten away (or etched) by the acid. The plate is then removed from the acid, cleaned and the remaining wax removed. What is left is essentially an engraved copper plate that can be inked and printed just like an engraving. Etchings are often built out of tiny, sketchy lines, and can be mistaken for a pencil sketch at first glance. Lines are also able to be quite curvaceous, as the artist can draw freely with the stylus.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669), perhaps the most famous artist of all time, was an accomplished etcher, and used this technique to great advantage. Nest Egg Auctions had the opportunity to sell an original etching by Rembrandt, The Triumph of Mordecai (ca. 1641). This etching shows a scene from the Old Testament of the Bible. The level of detail that Rembrandt expresses in this etching is immense: We see Mordecai dressed in exquisite garments and seated upon a horse. The people who surround him are all dressed differently, from high nobles to common folk, and some are shown almost entirely in outline, while others are dark with meticulous cross-hatching. This masterful use of light is a hallmark of Rembrandt’s etchings, and The Triumph of Mordecai shows the aesthetic possibilities of this medium.
Drypoint is more-or-less engraving with a diamond-tipped needle. The artist sketches their pictures with this diamond-tipped needle directly onto the metal plate. This plate is then inked and printed, like an engraving or an etching. This technique produces thin, fuzzy lines throughout the image, making it appear like an engraving; indeed, the two techniques are easily confused. However, there is no chemical bath involved in the making of a drypoint (hence the name “drypoint”). Since drypoint is quite similar to drawing, many artists practice this technique.
One of the most impressive practitioners of this medium was Martin Lewis (Australian / American, 1881 – 1962). Nest Egg Auctions sold an incredible example of Martin Lewis’s work. Mailman, March (1936) shows a mail car driving up a winding road, with a large, bending tree in the center of the composition. Lewis captures the light effects of an overcast, snowy day with simply the black of the ink and white of the paper. The detail of the landscape, with a forest denuded of its leaves behind, further displays Lewis’s attention to detail and technical mastery.
While Woodcut, Engraving, Etching, and Drypoint are still practiced today, there are other printmaking techniques that have emerged more recently that have grown increasingly common. These include Lithography and Screenprinting. Both of these techniques are what most modern and contemporary printmakers use, so, if your print is from the last 50 or so years, chances are it is one of these.
Lithography is a common version of printmaking that produces very detailed images that can be reproduced multiple times. The word “lithography” itself expresses how this process works: the word comes from the Greek words “lithos” meaning “stone” and “graphein” meaning “to write”. The artist draws directly onto a lithographic stone with a grease crayon. After treating the stone with chemicals and a number of other steps, the stone is inked and prints can be made. Lithography allows for only one color to be printed at a time and multiple stones can be used to make multi-colored lithographs.
Although lithography includes multiple steps, it is one of the easiest and most direct forms of printmaking. The artist can directly sketch onto the lithographic stone, and the artist’s design is printed directly. Since it is relatively simple for an artist to make, lithographs are among the most common of modern and contemporary prints. Nest Egg Auctions has, accordingly, sold a multitude of lithographs by a variety of artists.
One of the most interesting practitioners of this medium is American printmaker Stow Wengenroth (1906 – 1978). The buildings, fishing fleets, forests, landscapes, and roads of Cape Ann, Massachusetts all provided fodder for Wegenroth’s imagery. While people make occasional appearances in his lithographs, his prints are more often devoid of human activity. This creates a stark and serene atmosphere within his prints. When figures do appear, they are often alone, and we do not see their faces. Wengenroth’s prints create a calm, quiet image of America and New England in the early to mid 20th century. An untitled lithograph by Wegenroth shows the possibility of lithography. It depicts a scene of a schooner sailing on the Atlantic, spied through a copse of pine trees in a stony, forested landscape characteristic of coastal New England. This lithograph provides an excellent sense of place, and the level of detail, in addition, is remarkable.
Lithography has been popular for about the last 200 years, but screenprinting (or serigraphy / silkscreen) has enjoyed an intense popularity in the last few decades. Essentially, a screenprint is a type of stenciling. A screenprint is produced by the use of a mesh screen (in previous years, made of silk, hence the name “silkscreen”), which is then covered by a photosensitive emulsion. Basically, this is a material that hardens when exposed to intense light. Transparency images are laid on the screen, and the screen exposed to intense light. Where the transparency is dark, that area of the emulsion will stay soft, while in the clear or uncovered places, the emulsion will harden. The mesh is then washed, and the soft emulsion washes away. The screen can then be inked with a squeegee with a piece of paper under it to create an image. Multiple screens are needed for multiple colors, but the technique creates large areas of solid color, which often appeals to artists of a more contemporary verve. (Note that this technique also works on fabric items and textiles; screenprinted t-shirts, for instance, are very popular).
Nest Egg Auctions sells a variety of screenprints, and one artist who used this medium to great effect was Erte (Romain de Tirtoff) (Russian / French, 1892 – 1990). Erte’s artwork is Art Deco, and he favored rich colors and clearly defined lines. This makes screenprint a perfect medium for the artist. Nest Egg Auctions has sold a number of Erte serigraphs, all signed by the artist himself. These prints are highly original compositions by Erte, with stylishly dressed women with simplified and exaggerated features. Colors are bright, and fashion is certainly a major aspect of his graphic work.
Now that we have learned about the different techniques of printmaking, we should discuss how to identify the various types of prints. If you are looking at a work on paper, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out if what you are looking at is a painting, a drawing, or a print. There are a few ways to figure out if what you are looking at is a print rather than a painting or a drawing / sketch. First, if you can see brushstrokes physically standing up on the surface of the artwork, then you are looking at a painting rather than a print or a drawing. If your artwork is on canvas or a surface other than paper, it is almost always a painting rather than a print.
Now, identifying a print rather than a drawing can take some training. The first thing you should look for are plate marks. A plate mark is an indentation on the piece of paper where the printing plate has stamped the canvas. In an engraving or etching, this will be pretty pronounced – the paper will be physically indented where the plate struck the paper. It may also be slightly darker than the surrounding paper, due to the possible presence of residual ink during the printing process. Identifying a plate mark is especially important with etchings and drypoints, as these two prints look like a drawing at first glance, and it is by the print marks that we can easily identify them as printings rather than drawings. Woodcuts and lithographs also have plate marks, or can include printed areas where the edges of the block or the lithographic stone are visible. Plate marks are not present on drawings, as they are made free hand. A drawing will have marks from the production of the piece and minor imperfections, as drawings are often sketches or preparatory studies for larger works by artists. If you have a drawing rather than a print, do not despair! Drawings by famous artists are actually worth considerably more than prints, as drawings are one of one; drawings by Renaissance masters, for instance, commonly sell in the millions of dollars.
A screenprint is a bit harder to identify, but there are tricks. The easiest way to identify a screenprint is to get up close. Take a magnifying glass or a loupe and look at an area where two colors meet. If there is overlap between the two colors, then what you have is a screenprint. Screenprints also often have large, uninterrupted areas of color, though this is not always the case. Finally, a screenprint will often have some areas where the mesh of the screen used to make the print will show through as a little grid under magnification. This, too, is a good sign of a screenprint rather than another type of print.
If you take a look at a print, and it has small color dots, like you might see on a dot matrix printer, it was printed relatively recently. These dots can be from one of two methods: digital printing or offset lithography. These more recent artistic processes can be mass produced at a level beyond traditional printing techniques, though works by modern artists (many museum posters, for instance) are printed using these techniques. Due to their relative recency and their mass production, such prints are typically not worth very much money, but are a great option for decorating.
Prints are the most inherently collectible works of art, so it would make sense that certain artists and prints are more sought after than others. This is a short list of well-known prints and printmakers, and how to identify them. In addition, this section will also help you identify works from a given period, as artists made works in a given style or presented them in a certain way based on the time and place.
One of the earliest printmakers of the Renaissance, and perhaps the most famous of all, is Albrecht Durer (German, 1471 – 1528). Durer’s immense skill and imaginative approach to woodcut, engraving, and etching makes his prints highly sought-after. Luckily, his prints are rather easy to identify. First, Renaissance prints are often quite small, being only a few inches long and wide. So a small print is actually a very good sign that what you are looking at is quite old. To identify Durer in particular, it helps that he signed his name. Durer signed his name with a cipher and (often) a date. So, a Durer print will have a large “A” and a smaller “D” beneath it somewhere in the print itself. This makes Durer quite easily identifiable. Other artists of his era, likewise, signed with initials and a date, such as Lucas van Leyden, who signed with a large “L” and a date, as seen in The Promenade. Even later artists, like Rembrandt, signed and dated their works in a similar manner. In Beggars Conversing (1630), we see Rembrandt’s initials and dating in the lower left. Rembrandt’s major etchings, it should be noted, also are identifiable for their use of light and shadow in an etching, and are often religious scenes.
Printmaking enjoyed a major flourishing in the 17th and 18th centuries, when artists from throughout Europe began to focus on this medium. Renowned artists of the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical periods viewed printmaking as a way to more widely disseminate their works. Artists of this time and era would often sign their names in Latin, though later artists would begin to sign theirs in their vernacular language (English, French, Spanish, etc.). By understanding what some of these signatures and phrases mean, we can more clearly identify who made a print.
For instance, a print marked “Cav. Piranesi” or “Piranesi F.” is the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (Italian, 1720 – 1778), one of the most famous printmakers of his era. His works are often inscribed in Italian, Latin, or French (French was the language of culture in the 18th century). His works, including views (vedute) of architecture (often in Rome or Italy at large), as well as fanciful prisons (carceri), are recognizable at once.
Another of Piranesi’s contemporaries who likewise enjoys widespread popularity is William Hogarth (English, 1697 – 1764). He signed his works quite legibly, as “Wm. Hogarth”. Hogarth is well-regarded for his humorous prints, which poke fun at 18th century society. In his prints, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen overindulge in alcohol, cheat on their spouses, and party, proving that people truly never change.
Terms that appear quite often on prints from this period include:
Even with all of this knowledge, occasionally it may be difficult to identify a print or its maker. Nest Egg Auctions would be happy to identify your print for you, and let you know more about it!
Art prints have a long and storied history. They are widely available, and examples by famous artists are surprisingly accessible to everyday collectors. These factors create an incredibly robust and popular market for prints. Everyone from art students to billionaire collectors can (and do) collect prints. This makes the print market quite unlike the rest of the art market, and altogether more lucrative.
Nest Egg Auctions has sold a wide variety of prints throughout our nearly three decades in the auction business. We get top prices for fine prints, and we are also collectors ourselves. Beyond this, we are located in the geographic center of the trade in prints, as we are situated in Connecticut, midway between New York City and Boston. In short, there is nowhere better to sell your prints than at Nest Egg Auctions.