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Collector’s Notes: Antique Prints

The basics of collecting antique prints, including print making techniques, history, and how to identify different types.

Collector's Notes: Antique Prints graphic in pink and green

Antique prints are a wonderful way to bring a window to the past into your home:

  • Usually, they are moderately priced and collectable;
  • There is a vast variety in subject matter that has been brilliantly and artistically rendered;
  • Their historical character provides a direct link to the past and reveals historical events, social mores, and perspectives of the people who lived then;
  • Many antique prints were influential when they were produced, acting as an important source of information.

With all of this in mind…if you are a lover of history and antiques, how can you not be interested in prints?

In this edition of my Collector’s Notes Series, we will explore some important highlights you should know when collecting antique prints, but first some clarification on terminology…

What is a Print?

Flatlay of various types of prints for collector's notes series

We commonly think of a print as a copy of an original text, design, or image on paper. You make a print when you use your printer or copy a document with a copier.

But printing is an ancient technique that historians trace to China in the first millennium A.D. In terms of mass production of a design, text, or image Gutenberg’s printing press from the mid-1400s really kicked off the printed copy that led to the mass spread of information.

In the art and antiques world, you will hear experts and collectors talk about an “original print” — this means a work of graphic art produced by the artist directly or under his/her advisement and approval.

So when we are talking about antique prints we are referring to a work on paper made by some mechanical process that can be produced in multiples and is illustrative or artistic in nature.

There are many different methods of print making, but these processes fall within three primary categories:

No. 1 The Relief Process

Think of a rubber stamp – the image comes from the raised lines in the surface, called the block. The block is inked then pressed to paper and the image is printed in relief. Materials that can be gouged, drilled, or cut are suitable to create a block and the most commonly used are wood or linoleum.

You will also see this process called woodcut or woodblock printing.

No. 2 The Intaglio Process

In the intaglio printing process the image lines are cut below the surface and filled with ink, so it is the recessed lines that create the image on the paper. Instead of a block the original surface is called a plate, and it is most commonly made from copper. The artist’s image can be made by cutting into the plate with a tool or by using certain acids.

The paper is pressed onto the plate by rollers with a felt blanket that forces the paper into the grooves of the plate extracting the ink. Intaglio prints, thus, have raised lines and paper, forming a corresponding indention on the back of the paper.

Commonly seen examples of the intaglio process are engraving and etching.

No. 3 The Planographic Process

With this process there are no raised or lowered lines to produce an image, instead the print is made from a flat surface or plane. Lithography is probably the most common form of planographic process that you will find in antique prints, and it is created using a greasy drawing medium like a crayon on a planed and grained slab of stone, usually limestone. The print is created from pressing the paper to the treated stone.

More on lithography below!

Within each of these 3 types of print processes, there are various techniques and methods used to make the actual prints. Let’s look at some of the most popular and how to tell the difference!

Types of Antique Prints

The Woodcut

This technique dates back centuries and was probably the earliest form of mechanical printing. Woodcut images were closely associated with book printing and largely a means to illustrate the text and provide instruction for the illiterate.

Tools used to make a woodcut print
Image via The Met

Typically, the artist made the drawing on the block of wood and then a craftsman carved away the wood to create the relief.

Some key features of the woodcut include:

  • A relief image where the negative space is created by what was cut away in the block
  • Wood grain may be evident in larger areas of ink
  • Shading is achieved by making small cuts in the wood, which will show as tiny sharp marks on the print.
  • There is no imprint of the block on the paper.
  • Usually a black outline around entire image border.

Important artists: Albrect Dürer (1471–1528), Hans Holbein (1526-8 and 1532-43), Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), Gustave Baumann (1881 – 1971), Blanche Lazzell (1878 –1956)

The Engraving

Camellia Japonica Engraving after Alfred Chandler
Camellia Japonica Engraving after Alfred Chandler available in the curio shop

Engravings are a form of intaglio printing — it is the recessed lines on the copper plate that create the image. Extreme pressure is needed to transfer the image from the plate to the paper and a reverse image is created.

Engraving became popular in Italy in the late 15th century as a means of artistic expression and by the 18th century was extremely useful in the production of scientific illustrations because of the level of detail that could be achieved.

Some key features of the engraving include:

  • The surface of the print should have raised lines
  • There should be a plate mark from the pressure outlining the image and a corresponding indention on the back of the paper
  • The artists lines will often have swelling and tapering from the use of the burin
  • There should be a system of hatching (lines, dots, and dashes, among other kinds of markings) placed close together to create density and shading
  • Most engravings are printed in black ink and hand colored

Important artists: Albrect Dürer (1471–1528), Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534),  William Blake (1757-1827)

The Etching

Andor Dobai Szekely Paris street scene etchings
Andor Dobai Szekely Paris street scene etchings available in the curio shop

This is also a form of intaglio printing, but the incised lines in the metal plate are created with acid. The plate is first covered with an acid resistant ground like wax, then the artist scratches a design with a stylus or needle, revealing the bare metal below. This plate is then immersed in an acid bath that cuts the incised lines into the plate where the wax has been removed.

Etching may have developed from the techniques used to etch medieval armor, and it became a print making process some time in the 16th century alongside engraving.

Some key features of the etching include:

  • The surface of the print should have raised lines
  • There should be a plate mark from the pressure outlining the image and a corresponding indention on the back of the paper
  • The artist lines should have more square ends as opposed to tapered with a more even width but less precise edge because of the wax

Important artists: Rembrandt (1606-1669), James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Camille Pissarro, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-1899)

The Lithograph

Lithography print making tools
Image via The Met

Lithograph means “stone drawing” and that is exactly what this print making process entails as you’ll remember from the above explanation of planographic printing. It is a 19th century invention that came to be used for commercial advertising and art reproductions. It can be used to achieve a wide variety of effects.

This stone is treated chemically so that ink, when rolled on to the stone, adheres only where the drawing was done. This inked image can then be transferred to a piece of paper with the help of a scraping or rolling pressure press. To make a multicolor lithograph it could be hand colored or additional stones must be used for each color. The same sheet of paper is run through the press repeatedly to add each subsequent color.

Some key features of the lithograph include:

  • No plate or stone mark outline on the paper
  • Markings have a crayon or grainy like quality with a dot like structure
  • The image is flat to the touch

Important artists: Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

The Chromolithograph

This is a color lithograph usually involving a large number of lithographic stones to allow a complex color separation. The term is often used to describe late 19th century color lithographs that reproduced paintings. The benefit of this technique is that it allows the production of colored prints without the cost, time, and risk of hand coloring.

By the end of the century, chromolithography was primarily used to create “cheap and cheerful” colored images, and this inexpensive process gained a reputation as the poor man’s prints.

The famous posters of Toulouse-Lautrec are an excellent example of artistic chromos. For more on the history of chromolithography read this.

The Serigraph or Silk Screen

Silk Screen printing tools
Image via The Met

 

A form of stencil printing in which the stencil is adhered to a fine screen for support. Ink can be squeegeed through the screen onto paper. If the composition requires more than one color, the printmaker must repeat the process using a different stencil for each color. Also referred to as “silk screen” and “serigraphy.”

In terms of artistic production, the New York WPA Federal Art Project in the 30’s initiated some interesting works done in this technique, but most of us associate the work of Andy Warhol with screen printing and his vividly colored portraits.

Some key features of the screen printing include:

  • A hard edged quality caused by the crisp edges of the stencil
  • Colors are flat and ridges appear where colors overlap

Modern Prints & Reproductions

The magnified view from a loupe

To distinguish individual lines and determine what type of print you are looking at you will need a strong magnifying glass or a loupe. Digital printing has improved so enormously that at first glance a reproduction could appear original, but when you examine the image closely with a loupe you will be able to see the dot structure created by ink jet printers. It will look uniform and the color variations are created by 3 or 4 colors.

Antique Prints Need to Know:

Paper

There are two main types of paper to concern yourself with when looking at antique prints:

  • Laid paper – made by hand in a mold, where the wires used to support the paper pulp emboss their pattern into the paper. This pattern of closely spaced, crossing lines can be seen when the paper is held up to light.
  • Wove paper – is made on a woven belt and lacks the laid lines. Thus there won’t be a pattern of crossing lines when held up to the light. Wove paper basically replaced the use of laid paper by the 19th century.

Markings

Camellia engraving showing the artist and print maker markings at bottom of image

Traditionally the bottom left of a print is where the name of the artist from which the print was made is listed. The name is often followed by the letters del, delin or delt which is the latin abbreviation and term for drew.

While the bottom right of an antique print usually shows the name of the print maker. This name is often followed by the latin abbreviation sc. or sculp. for sculptor.

Since the early 20th century original prints have been hand-signed in the plate or lower right margin by the artist and numbered (1/50) if limited edition in accordance with Print Council of America. That fraction looking number is the print run, which tells you how many prints were made in that printing and what number your print is. Generally, your print is more valuable if it is a lower number in the printing and there is a smaller print run.

Condition

The condition of a print is important to consider when purchasing; it can affect what the print looks like, it’s value, and it’s lifespan. Certain condition issues will worsen overtime leading to the deterioration of your work on paper. At the same time an antique print in perfectly pristine condition is unlikely and a good sign it is a reproduction.

Darkened areas and spots are probably the most noticeable issues and can be a result of acid exposure or foxing (which are small brown dots due to mold or oxidation). Tears or creasing are other issues to look out for although creasing is not always a value reducer. Many prints and maps were issued in bound volumes and if the item is large it was often folded to fit. The appearance of a centerfold is often good evidence that you have an original.

Additional Sources:

“The Print in the Nineteenth Century” by Colta Ives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Printed Image in the West: History and Techniques” by Wendy Thompson, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Materials and Techniques of Drawings and Prints by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Basics of Art Identification” Lecture by Chris A Paschke

Identifying Valuable Prints with Dr. Lori

Antique Prints Blog

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