Posted on: May 3, 2020

Beginner’s Guide : Limited Edition Fine Art Prints

In this week’s beginner’s guide, we’ll be looking at limited edition fine art prints

Kyffin Williams, limited edition print, ‘Penrhyn Du – Aberffew’, 61/150 – sold for £1200

Fine art prints are a popular and cost effective way of buying art for your home. Whether you’re looking for classic images from the likes of Durer, Rembrant, Picasso, Warhol or Hirst, or new work by up and coming artists, prints can be an affordable and rewarding route into art collecting.  In this guide we’ll be talking about limited edition fine art prints, rather than mass produced art prints made on commercial printing presses.  The difference is simple – where the former has been created by a process involving the artist, the latter is simply a mechanical reproduction made in large quantities with no involvement from the artist.

The art of printmaking is ancient and in many respects has changed very little over the centuries.  The idea is to create a source image on one surface and then use this to print a finished image, or series of finished images, on paper.  Artists use the term ‘limited edition’ to reflect the fact that they have used their source image to create a fixed number of finished images which can never be added to, thereby limiting availability and (hopefully) adding value as a result.  

There are several different methods of printmaking.  Some of the most frequently seen include:


Dry Point

In this process, the artist uses special tools to scratch an image on to a metal plate (usually copper).  Ink is rolled onto the plate so that it fills the scratched image, and the excess is wiped off, leaving the rest of the plate clean.  A printing press is then used to press damp paper against the plate, allowing it to pick up the image from the ink in the scratches.  Colour images can be built up using several plates, each coloured with a different ink, or the image can be hand coloured after printing.

Etching

This is similar to dry point, but rather than scratching the plate directly, the artist first prepares the plate with a special protective surface, and then scratches an image into this surface.  The plate is then immersed in a chemical which eats into (or etches) the unprotected metal exposed by the image.  A print can then be made from the plate in exactly the same way as for a dry point.  Processes like dry point and etching are known as ‘intaglio’ printing.

Linocuts and woodcut

These are known as ‘relief’ printing techniques and are the opposite of intaglio techniques like dry point and etching, in that the ink is laid on the surface of the printing plate, leaving the marks made by the artist empty. The artist must create their image by carefully removing the surface of the printing block, leaving behind only what they wish to see on the paper when the block is printed.

Lithograph

Originally made using limestone plates, but these days often made on metal plates, lithographs require the artist to create their image using a water-repellent medium like wax or oil.  The plate is then treated with chemicals to fix the image, before being wetted with water and coated with oil-based ink.  The ink adheres to the water repellent image, but is repelled by the rest of the water-moistened plate.  A print can then be made. Again, colour images can be built up from different plates.

Screenprint or Serigraph

Screenprints (also know as serigraphs) are created using the silk screen printing process, in which different coloured inks are squeezed through a series of stencils held on a silk screen to build up an image on the paper below.


Giclee

Giclee (pronounced jeeclay) prints are made from digital files by a high specification inkjet printer – effectively a large and posh version of your home computer printer.

So now you know something about how prints can be made, what do you need to consider before you buy one?  There are several important distinctions to be aware of if you’re considering buying a limited edition print.  The first is between works originally created by the artist as a print, often known as ‘artists’ prints’, and prints which reproduce images originally created by the artist in a different medium.  For example, an Andy Warhol screenprint was created as a print, whereas a Lowry limited edition print reproduces one of his paintings as a print.  Neither is necessarily better than the other, but they are different; how this affects their relative values depends entirely on the artists concerned and the desirability of their work at the time!

LS Lowry, limited edition signed print, ‘Man Lying on Wall’, 455/500 – sold for £7200
Left: edition number
Right: Artist’s signature

Another distinction to be aware of is between numbered and un-numbered ‘open’ editions.  As mentioned above, most artists strictly limit the size of their print editions in order to prevent the market becoming flooded with their work.  Most will also destroy or mark their plates once the edition has been printed in order to prevent more copies being made.  They will then number and sign each print in the edition, usually in pencil on the lower margin. As a general rule, if a print is not numbered, it’s not from a true limited edition, but from a mass produced open edition.  There are two exceptions to this rule however.  Firstly, artist’s proofs.  These are the prints the artist makes to test their plates, or as a record of the edition.  These will be marked ‘AP’ in pencil by the artist rather than being numbered.  Some people like to collect artist’s proofs rather than numbered editions, but there’s rarely any difference in value between the two. The second exception is if the work is a ‘monoprint’ –  a work produced as a one-off piece, often using a plate that can’t be re-used.  If this is the case, the artist will write ‘mono’ in the margin.  Even if a print is signed, and numbered or marked ‘AP’ or ‘mono’, be careful – some unscrupulous people will fake signatures and edition numbers on mass produced prints and try to pass them off as limited edition prints!  To tell the difference, look at the print through a magnifying glass.  If you can see a regular series of small uniform dots, the chances are the print has been mass produced.

Peter Blake, limited colour print, ‘Summer Days’, 160/175 – sold for £1500

If you’re interested in buying a print which reproduces an image originally created by the artist in a different medium, like the Lowry print mentioned above, a safeguard to look out for is a ‘blind stamp’.  This is an official mark from a body such as the Fine Art Trade Guild (FATG), which gaurantees that the print is from a reputably produced limited edition.  It’s called a ‘blind stamp’ because rather than being printed in ink, it’s embossed into the paper, but it can still be clearly seen by tilting it in the light.  The FATG blind stamp was used until 2003, when the service was discontinued.  FATG blind stamps are not usually found on artists’ prints, but at the top end of the market artists’ prints by well known artists might have a blind stamp from the studio that printed the edition, or the gallery that originally sold it.  Works by up and coming and less well known artists often won’t be blind stamped, but some young artists do use them – for example, between 2002 and 2017 the ‘Pictures On Walls’ blind stamp was used by some street and graffiti artists including Banksy.

Damien Hirst, signed limited edition etching, ‘How to Disappear Completely’ – sold for £850

The last distinction to be aware of is between giclee prints and an original painting.  Although most giclee prints are legitimately produced as limited editions and are properly signed and numbered by the artist, the quality of modern giclee printing and the fact that it can be used to print on almost any surface – including canvas – means that there is a growing market in fake ‘paintings’ which are in fact giclee prints.  Before you buy any painting by a known artist offered at a suspiciously good price, check the paint surface.  Real paint will lie on the canvas and have a visible texture, whereas a giclee print image will a appear to sit ‘in’ the canvas with no texture apart from the canvas weave itself.  The back of the canvas may also appear slightly shiny or ‘plasticky’.  If you see this and were expecting to buy an original painting – walk away!

A common question asked by many prospective art buyers is often ‘what should I buy?’.  In the end, you’re the only person who can answer this.  The old adage is ‘buy what you love’ and this is clearly good advice, but we would also add to this ‘if you find you don’t love it anymore, come and have a chat with our experts about selling it on and buying something else instead’.