Not simple prints, but real works of art! Lithographs, serigraphs, limited editions made by the greatest artists of all time. How to orient yourself? What to choose?
From Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol, the author’s graphic arouses an higher interest and more and more collectors compete to acquire the most beautiful and rarest multiple editions.
Yet many are still skeptical, they wonder why prints can reach very important prices; why collectors are so attracted to this type of works of art and why to buy them.
Let’s start immediately by clarifying that those we are talking about are not “simple prints”; this is not a normal printout of a file on a computer. Instead, they are real works of art, designed by artists with a precise logic and a specific creative process, so much so that there is not much difference between a single piece and a limited edition. The real difference lies in the quantity: if an Andy Warhol canvas, unique piece, exists in a single copy in the world, a limited edition (for example a silk-screen) of Andy Warhol exists in a specific number of copies in the world with certain characteristics and, generally, with a signature and a numbering made by hand by the artist himself.
The different types of graphic works
There are many different types of limited editions, all with specific and different characteristics, but the three best known techniques are etching, lithography and screenprint.
The etching technique consists in the art of producing signs, by the artist, on a matrix of hard material (generally metal). Once inked, this matrix is impressed by means of a press on a sheet of paper, creating a print.
The etching techniques are many and are divided into two large groups: relief techniques and cable techniques. In the first case, the matrix is dug by the artist and it is in correspondence with these grooves that the whites of the work will appear (in this circumstance, the areas left in relief will therefore be inked and then imprinted).
In the second case, using an engraving needle, the artist scratches an image on the metal plate covered with wax. The plate is then immersed in acid, which corrodes the exposed metal from the scratched lines. The longer the plate remains in the acid, the deeper and darker the line will be. The plate is then cleaned, inked and wiped clean, leaving only the etched lines filled with ink.
The image is printed upside down and a recess is left on the edges of the plate, known as the “plate mark”.
James Rosenquist (1933.2017), Appearance, from ‘The Glass Wishes’, 1981. Drypoint-etching and aquatint printed in colours
Using the lithographic technique, the artist draws directly on a plate (generally made of stone) with pencils, pens and brushes that deposit a greasy substance in correspondence with the traced mark. Thanks to the possibility of creating the composition directly on the plate, as if it were a sheet, this technique is characterized by an enormous freedom and variety of achievable works. The stone matrix is then moistened with water, which is deposited where there is no fat. The ink, also enriched with fatty substances, is passed over the entire surface, adhering only to the traced marks as it is rejected by the water.
Finally, the stone is placed on a lithographic press and covered with damp paper and cardboard: a pressure bar ensures that the force is applied uniformly on the image. The image is printed in reverse, with multiple stone matrices to create more complex images of multiple colors.
Valerio Adami (1935), Senza Titolo, 1964. Color lithograph on paper. Size: 50×70 cm
Screen printing is a printing process with one or more colors, the shape of which consists of a silk screen stretched on a frame, silk that is degreased and cleaned before providing, with different methods, to differentiate the parts that must be permeable to inks, from waterproof ones. At the time of printing, the frame, mounted on hinges, is lowered, but not completely, on the support that must receive the impression; the artist who creates a screen printing pours the ink along the upper edge of the matrix, distributing it over the entire surface, and then proceeds to print, completely lowering the screen so that the ink penetrates through the free meshes of the silk to be collected from the underlying support.
Shepard Fairey (1970), Power & Equality: Dove, 2019. Color screenprint on paper. Size: 61×45,7 cm
Simple prints or true works of art?
Although all the types and printing techniques mentioned above involve the reproduction of a serial image, it is clear that these printing processes are much more than a simple “copy”. These multiples, as we have seen, are real works of art, conceived by the artist as a unique work and, thanks to the help of the techniques described and highly specialized technicians, they are produced in a very limited edition.
Very often these works are extremely important also for the artistic path of an artist, made in particular moments of his life or are chosen as a real way of working by artists like Andy Warhol, whose serigraphs have nothing less than a real unique piece.
The main aspects of a limited edition
The limited edition works of art have a number of parameters to pay attention to.
Numbering: Prints and multiples made in limited editions are generally marked with an edition number, typically written as a fraction, for example 22/99. The number on the right of the bar indicates the size of the edition (in this example, 99), while the digit on the left is the number of the single print. The numbering is generally indicated in pencil.
An artist can also produce a limited number of artist proofs, often marked with A / P, almost identical to the standard edition. Again, fractions can be used to indicate the total number of proofs and the number (eg A / P 2/3). Other tests can be done at an earlier stage, when the artist and the typographer develop an image or test different compositions. These are known as state proofs, proof proofs, or color proofs and can be unique specimens, with differences in color combinations, paper types or sizes. This type of editions is often very coveted by collectors, by virtue of the fact that they are practically unique editions since each print will have differences in colors or details. An example is Andy Warhol’s screen prints, whose proofs and color proofs are some of the most sought-after works in his printing market (they are generally those indicated with the words TP – Trial Proof).
Signature: In most cases, the artist, after having produced a limited edition, signs each print by hand at the bottom.
Catalog Raisonné: In the case of the most famous and sought-after artists in world collecting, such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and others, the graphic works created during their life are summarized and cataloged in the so-called “Catalogs Reasoned”, within which it is possible to find, for each single edition, all the details concerning the technique, the dimensions, the title, the year, the signature, any stamps etc … It is very important therefore, that the specimen finds confirmation, in all its characteristics, in the catalog raisonné.
The different types of paper
Each artist adapts the media to his printing style, also based on the final effect he wants to achieve. In the catalog raisonné of the most famous artists, the type of support used by the artist is always indicated and, often, the presence or absence of a watermark.
If, on the one hand, there are artists who favor the use of thick and more valuable paper, on the other we know artists like Andy Warhol whose screen prints were made with a type of cheap and thin paper, as they were designed to be appreciated from a mass audience.
The printing houses
Very often the quality of a limited edition work of art depends heavily on the technical skills and materials used by the printing house that collaborates with the artist. Among the most famous in the world we know ULAE in West Islip, Long Island Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and Paragon Press in London. But there are many other printing houses around the world that make excellent quality work!
Some printers and publishers use a dry stamp, inked or stamped on the paper to indicate that an edition has been printed in their studio.
Why buy multiples and limited editions?
Works of art created in the form of multiple works and limited editions may have different roles within the same collection.
Collectors often purchase limited edition and multiple works of art to enrich and complete the artistic career of an artist, often with themes and compositions that cannot be found in paintings and sculptures. For example, the prints of Picasso and Jasper Johns show the evolution of different subjects and also reveal the growth of their skills as engravers over the course of their careers.
Multiple and limited editions then represent the opportunity to acquire in the collection an authentic, original work of an appreciated artist at a cheaper price than a single copy.
Very often this type of works of art is also a great way to start a collection, an exciting way to familiarize yourself with styles and artists at more affordable prices.
We can say with conviction that there are limited editions that are extremely fascinating, sometimes even more than a single work, which have the ability to energetically capture our eyes and our interest. Many multiples are of a sublime quality and always represent a “piece” of art history and, at the same time, a “piece” of an artist!