The language of art – part two
It’s handy to know your plein air from your posters when navigating the art market – here’s how to talk the talk that’ll help you walk away with the art you really want
For those of you who’ve already read our earlier article about the language of original art, welcome back. For anyone who missed it, the idea behind this two-part mini-series is to empower us to walk into an art gallery (which, let’s face it, can be intimidating) and understand. Understand what art might be trying to express, how art is made and how valuable certain pieces may be. And trust us – it’s been a learning curve.
If this knowledge simply makes you feel a little more comfortable next time you walk into a gallery, then we’ve done our job. Heck, even if this article encourages you to visit an art gallery for the first time (either in ages or ever), that would be amazing. But for some of you, we also hope fleshing out some of the more common artistic terms will help you feel confident enough to buy a piece of art for your home. Because whether we know a lot about it or a little, art can lift us.
So, the focus of this article? Prints. Because, for a long time (basically until last week) we kinda thought ‘prints’ just referred to replica posters of famous works of art. You know, the Daffodils or Girl With A Pearl Earring you can pick up in the gift shop on the way out. But it turns out, printmaking is an art form in itself – and has plenty of different techniques to explore.
To give us some handy hints about prints, we’ve enlisted the help of Hancock Gallery Manager, Chris Morgan. We recently dropped by the gallery ahead of their reopening to the public and came away firmly believing it’s one of the North East’s most exciting fine art galleries.
Nestled on the borders of where Jesmond meets Newcastle’s city centre, within a gorgeously atmospheric, three-storey Georgian townhouse, Hancock Gallery brings together local and international artists within its walls. Combined, their work offers an examination of everything we experience in our everyday lives: from pop culture and consumerism through to expressive colour, fashion and portraiture. And while we’d hardly call ourselves experts, we found ourselves enthralled with it all… with a little help from Chris.
Now, he’s lending his expertise once more to help us tell our etchings from our engravings. So without further ado, here’s everything we need to know about prints…
FIRST THINGS FIRST – ARE PRINTS REALLY ART?
We know we can get our own Mona Lisa for little more than a tenner in the Louvre giftshop. And yet, when we go to almost any art gallery now, we’re guaranteed to find at least one print on the wall. So what exactly is a ‘proper print’? How are some prints ‘better’ than others? And are prints really art?
‘Absolutely! A print can hold the marks and indentations that any medium of original art can,’ explains Chris. ‘It’s just a different process – and a way in which, sometimes, you can make more than one of the same piece.
‘A limited-edition print is exactly that – a print that is limited to a certain number. There will be no more produced over the number stated. You can normally find the quantity and specific limited-edition number in the bottom corner of an artwork. This boosts each print’s value, as there is only a finite number available for purchase.
‘Open-edition prints are the opposite – prints which have no limitation on the number that can be printed,’ Chris continues. ‘For example, most prints that are found in gift shops, or any posters or mass-printed material will be open editioned.’
IS A PRINT EVER AN ‘ORIGINAL’?
All makes sense. But it still seems that prints aren’t ever quite as individual as we’d like – compared to an original painting, for example. Or are they…?
‘Monoprinting is a type of printmaking where you can create singular, unique prints each time,’ says Chris. ‘This can be created by a multitude of materials, such as oil paint or printing ink on glass or metal.
‘You can also find hand-embellished prints, which may be tinted or added to by hand in some way by the artist, post-production. Certain effects can be produced by adding gels, varnishes or pigments, for example. These are, therefore, a one-of-a-kind piece.’
SO HOW ARE PRINTS MADE?
So it turns out that, in essence, many of the printing techniques out there are more sophisticated versions of the old potato stamp method – carving into a material to create a protruding design, which is then covered with ink or paint and pressed onto your final surface (paper, canvas, etc.). But instead of potatoes, artists tend to use printing presses. And the method of carving a raised design above the main surface of your imprinting material? Relief printing.
One of the oldest relief printing techniques, which is still used today, is the woodcut. ‘Woodcutting is a process where the artist carves into wood to create text or imagery,’ Chris explains. ‘Ink or paint is then applied and the printing press transfers the artist’s design onto the chosen surface. Due to the labour needed to create them, woodcuts weren’t all that common until the 15th century.’
‘Linocuts are also a very similar process – the only difference is that it’s linoleum is the material that is carved into to create an image, rather than wood.’
BUT PRINTS CAN ALSO BE MADE…IN THE OPPOSITE WAY?
So this is where it gets a little more confusing. We were with Chris with the whole potato stamp analogy. But there are also printing techniques which work in the exact opposite way – where the design is carved into (and below) the main surface of a material, and it is this sunken area which then holds ink. The material is laid onto a roller press and then paper is placed on top and forced through the press under very high pressure. This is known as intaglio printing.
‘Engraving is the oldest intaglio printing process,’ says Chris. ‘To create an image from engraving, an artist must make marks and incisions into a metal plate. It’s covered with ink, before the excess is wiped away and it’s put through the printing press – making the marks from the plate visible on paper.’
‘Etching is also an intaglio type of printmaking,’ Chris continues. ‘The artist coats a metal plate (usually copper) with an acid-resistant substance, before using a sharp implement with acid to create a design on the metal plate. This process is known as biting.’
And drypoint etching is a similar technique, just without the use of any chemicals. ‘A dry point implement is used to etch into a softer metal (again, usually copper), to create an image,’ says Chris. ‘Ink is then applied to the copper plate, then wiped away leaving ink in the etched recesses only.’ Also very similar to engraving, the main difference with drypoint etching is the implement used to create the design (a needle, rather than the burin of engravers).
And finally, there’s aquatint. ‘Again, aquatint is similar to that of etching,’ says Chris. ‘However, aquatint is focussed more on shape than the linear and mimics the style of watercolour – hence the name.’
SO THAT’S EVERY PRINTING TECHNIQUE NOW…RIGHT?!
Wrong, apparently. Not every print is created using any type of carving – stencils come into play, too.
‘Lithography is a printing process where an artist uses an oil substance to draw a design onto a specially-prepared stone surface,’ Chris explains. ‘A water-based liquid is then applied over the top. Where the artist has put oil, the water will be repelled – creating a stencil when printing.
‘Then there’s screen printing. This is a process where you transfer ink onto an under layer (paper or canvas) through a mesh – which the artist has designed. This works because parts of the image created on the mesh can be made non-permeable to the ink used, meaning it won’t let the ink through to the material underneath.’
And, as it happens, you don’t even need a printing press to create a print sometimes. Enter: the collagraph.
‘A collagraph is a combination of relief and intaglio print,’ continues Chris. ‘It’s created using a plate that you would collage to create texture by using pva to marry the textures to the plate before inking and printing.’
To find out more about the language of art, to see what exhibitions are coming up at Hancock Gallery or to plan your visit, check out their website, Facebook page or Instagram
Or pop in and see Chris, grab a coffee and check out the incredible artwork that’s sitting right on our doorstep, at: 2 Jesmond Road West, Newcastle NE2 4PQ