How Prints Came To Be: A Brief History
Art is no longer confined to exclusive exhibition halls or precious manuscripts in limited copies. Now, anyone can hang a museum piece on the wall at their home, yet that sort of luxury has cost tremendous effort in art development that spans nearly six hundred years.
The baby steps of print.
The initial stage of the art print involved woodcutters or carvers who would carve an impression inside a wooden slab that would then be pressed onto the sheet to create an imprint. These impressions and their imprints were a far cry from elaborate hand-drawn illustrations, but they still held artistic value and were sold to different printing presses. Back then, it was common practice for publishers to reuse the same wood carvings, which would result in the press having a “signature style” just because wooden impressions were so scarce and pricey.
Reinventing the wheel.
Not long after that, craftsmen began developing finer mediums for printmaking. A much more advanced version of woodcarving was etching, a process involving a copper or iron plate, acid-resistant wax, and an etching needle. The artist scrapes wax off the waxen plate, exposing the metal and allowing acid to eat through it. The acid then creates recesses that retain the ink inside the metal plate. Since the width and depth of each recess are determined by how long the plate was dipped in acid, artists found they could create tonal variance by exposing only certain parts of the plate to the solution. Known for his brushwork creating the illusion of camera-like bokeh, Rembrandt is one of the more well-known artists who saw the potential of etching. He eventually made The Hundred Guilder print, which also exhibits his trademark technique present in his oils.
Some patchwork is due.
Intaglio printing (or etching) would stick around for another 200 years until, in the 17th century, disaffected artists couldn’t bear its limitations. They looked for a way to add volume to their shadows and make prints seem more like hand drawings. With some tweaking, craftsmen discovered a way to create shade by roughening the wax layer on the copperplate used for etching. Instead of scraping, the wax varnish was smoothed in specific areas to reduce its ‘ink-catching’ capacity. The final product was a smoother image with burnished edges, creating the illusion of smudged graphite. It was then decided to give it the name Mezzotint (mezzo – half; tint – tone, or the present-day halftone),which eventually branched out into other sub-methods, such as Aquatint.
The former, unfortunately, was too painstaking and time-consuming for many, while the latter was more enthusiastically embraced, even by immortal names in painting. Goya, with The Sleep of Reason, Ivan Shishkin, with Winter Moonlight Night, and Degas’ Mary Cassatt all evidence that printmaking wasn’t a ‘long-running passing’ fad and more like a way to escape the margins of enclosed, gate-kept art.
The many branches of modern print.
Readers were satisfied, the printing industry flourished and reveled in great sales, and it was only getting better. The 19th century saw amazing feats in technology: the lightbulb, the phone, and, of importance for this article, photography. Lithography and other new photomechanical ways of getting an image onto the page were invented. But as printing press owners got savvier at recreating images, a lot of artists revolted against state-of-the-art media and reverted back to 17th-century etchings.
Some talents, such as Degas and Pissarro, timidly approached lithography while staying faithful to Aquatint, whereas others, like Honer Daumier, completely indulged in newer and newer methods to represent comical scenes from everyday life.
One artist whose 70-year career in printmaking remains oddly obscured, despite his mammoth popularity, elucidates the willingness of some to embrace novel media. Picasso is known for many things, but printmaking is rarely one of them. But notwithstanding that, his attempts at etching, aquatint, and litho sprawl over the progression of the form and its versatility: it’s reported he used his fingerprints to smudge his lithos; big, heavy nails were deployed to bring starker shade value; he even invented a new method for linotypes by using a single sheet of linoleum for his linocuts (contrary to the standard way which uses a sheet for every colour).
The core of modern-day printing, however, could be found inside the lens of a camera. Cameras brought full-colour printing into light, and one medium that definitely required that was comic books. Stills of the drawings would be captured by the rotating lenses of a three-coloured camera: one in green, one in red, and one in cyan. The negatives were then processed, screened, and sent to 5-colour newspaper printers.
A new lease of life for silkscreening.
There is hard evidence that silkscreening was in use during the first millennia in China, but westerners only paid its due interest during the mid-20th century, when a band of artists, self-dubbed the National Serigraph Society, rediscovered its artistic value in the 30s.
This high-precision process makes good use of a nylon mesh (or silk if you are that boujee), a wooden frame, a squeegee (the flat wooden ‘blade’), and a piece of paper (or any other material) onto which the final result is imprinted. The artist first creates a stencil that will serve as a template for all future prints. In the meantime, photoemulsion is poured onto both sides of the mesh and spread evenly in a room away from the sun’s UV rays. Once the screen is prepared, the artist can slap their image (preferably drawn in black ink) on the screen and let it bake into the mesh by letting it sunbathe outdoors. Once that is done, you move the screen to a piece of cloth or sheet of paper and run a layer of ink on top of the screen. The ‘gaps’ inside the screen allow the ink to pass through, leaving you with fine print in the aftermath.
Perhaps Andy Warhol is the name in silkscreening. His Campbell Soup, Marilyn Diptych and Mao portraits are among the most recognisable uses of silkscreening, and it’s also remarkably Andy, as the technique requires artful meticulousness but is still streamlined for mass re-production. However, the dizziness of Frank Stella and the mosaics of Robert Rauschenberg also probe the full capacities of silkscreening. Creating either psychedelic compositions or political narratives, both churn out pieces that are difficult to distinguish from ordinary collage work..
Where are things nowadays?
Today, art prints spring from cutting-edge home inkjet machines and professional industrial printers. In fact, inkjet technology has soared to such heights it’s difficult to give a comprehensive view of everything that’s available on the market. But if you’ve ever wondered how artists manage to get those fine reprints of their originals look no further than Giclee printing. Also known as large-format printing, Giclee is the go-to inkjet way for artists who want to capture the finest particles there are. It’s the printer we, at Fine.Graff.Art, use to bring crisp quality to our artists’ works. Ivan Shopov’s prints, for example, benefit greatly from Giclee printing, as you can see there’s a great amount of detail needed to be preserved. Otherwise, the effect wouldn’t be the same and the end-product will be an inky ball of yarn.
The evolution of printing has undoubtedly undergone major shifts to get where it’s today. To think that carvers would be replaced by a drastically different tool, the camera, and be left with the task of illustrating once again on paper is surreal, but these clashes between artistic spirit and tech only showcase that artists have always responded well to change and that human art is more resilient than you may think.