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The evolution of art prints

The art prints of today are the product of a magnificent process, which has evolved throughout time and extended its popularity with every year. It’s no doubt it’s a delight to have the ability to acquire an artwork reproduction in varying sizes and affordable prices, which might otherwise be impossible to obtain. This is because art print reproductions allow us to ignore the lack of accessibility of an original painting’s location or its steep price.

Art print reproductions provide us with the possibility to appreciate, admire and feel a sense of closeness to the artwork and artists we enjoy. Sometimes, art reproductions are altered in such a way that makes each one unique and different to the original, whether it be by altering the original’s colour or editing the composition. Moreover, art prints can also be created as original works rather than complete reproductions of an existing artwork.

Now, it may seem as if prints are a modern way of acquiring, making and distributing art; however, their roots go as far back as cave era times with engravings being etched on bones, stones and walls. Let’s look at the fascinating trajectory of prints throughout time and how this medium has impacted and evolved in the way in which we create and interact with art prints today.

Textile printing was the beginning of what could be considered more “modern” printing. While this printing method arrived in Europe in the sixth century, it first originated in China back in the fourth century where carved woodblocks were used to create prints in a process referred to as relief painting. Although this textile printing technique continued for years, it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the relief printing technique began being used for paper prints as well. This was the era when objects, which were created by print making with paper, began making appearances in places such as London for the use of stamps. Later on during that same century, the metal engraving technique was born. It was mainly used by armourers and goldsmiths in its early stages. This kind of printmaking technique revolutionized and greatly enhanced the printing process as it enabled for much clearer printing detail than with other materials in the final printed product.

Interestingly, it was only until the sixteenth century and the invention of printing that prints began being created for artistic purposes rather than solely as a means of communication. By the time the seventeenth century arrived, artistic portraits were widely being produced throughout Europe, and when the eighteenth century came around, art prints were finally considered original artwork. Some of the most notable printmaking artists from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries include Callot, Rembrandt, Tiepolog, Hukosai, Delacroix, Daumier, Manet and Degas. The twentieth century was the era when the world saw a boom in printmaking, with names such as Picasso, Miro, Sloan and Hopper headlining the medium of this time.

Today, art print reproductions from original art pieces are done through a photo mechanical process, which consists of photographically transferring an image from one surface to another. Due to the technique’s modern and precise detail, one could say it’s difficult to sometimes distinguish artwork which has been created through the use of analogue media such as pens, pencils and paint versus digital media which encompasses the creation of art through the use of digital art programs. One of the ways in which it may be helpful to distinguish a print over an original painting or art work is by taking a close look at the artwork and spotting the dot matrix patterns that are characteristic of these kinds of prints. This sort of reproduction is typically seen within a magazine’s pages. Such reproductions are also common with famous paintings, making them more accessible.

While modern techniques exist, it’s still interesting to note that a lot of artists use and love the process of hand making a template out of wood or metal just as in the olden days when printing first began. These prints are commonly numbered and signed by the artist as no one print is exactly the same.

There are other printmaking processes, which are also used today. Giclee prints use pigment-based inks, which have vast longevity and can retain the sharpness of colour and image for as much as 200 years. These kinds of prints are widely used in today’s fine art printing and archival prints. Serigraphy uses stencils to block off ink when passing through a screen onto a surface to create a print. Lithography prints are made from offset lithographic images, which include graphic design elements or wording. Their use was initially for advertisements rather than as decoration. Lithographic posters can be distinguished from digitally printed ones by using a magnifying glass to spot the characteristic look of pixels of a digitally created image.

Every time you come across an art print, whether an art reproduction of a world famous painting or an artist’s original work, we can take a second to appreciate versatility, size variability, accessibility and the token-like feel that it provides us all thanks to the centuries-old trajectory of the printmaking process. It has become more than a means of communication, but a form of artwork and self-expression in and of itself.

By Alexandra Vergara


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