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Printmaking

As an art form, printmaking has been in existence since the early 1400’s. It is thought that the process was originated by gold and silver smiths as a method with which to record their designs but it was not long before it developed into an art form in its own right and by the mid 15th century several engravers of note had already made their mark.

Printmaking involves the creation of a pattern or image on a hard object which is then used to make an impression on a piece of paper and in this way a print is created. The object upon which the design has been formed and subsequently printed from is known as the matrix and can be made of almost any number of materials.

An original print is one printed from a matrix on which the design was created by hand and issued as part of a specific publishing task. The most popular materials that have been used to make the matrix throughout history have been wood, copper, steel and stone although prints made from stone generally do not involve engraving and are more accurately described as lithographs which involves a printing process based on the repulsion of water by wax or oil based materials with which the stone matrix would have been treated.

When engraving, the matrix can be prepared in either ‘Relief’, where the image is printed from the raised surface of the matrix, or ‘Intaglio’, where the image is printed from the recessed surface of the matrix. Because the pressure applied during the creation of an intaglio print needs to such that the paper is pushed into the recessed parts that are to be printed, ‘Intaglio’ prints are often characterised by a plate mark which is a recessed line running along the perimeter of the plate and which is less evident or totally absent with ‘Relief ‘ prints.

It is to be noted that whilst the plate mark is a feature of all intaglio prints, it is however often lacking in book plates as the printer/binder would often have to resize (trim) the surplus paper around the image during binding with the plate mark often being removed with the surplus paper. This is completely normal and should not cause concern.

Collectors often use the term print and engraving to denote the age of a print. This is incorrect and misleading and simply reflects popular misconceptions about the origins of prints and their authenticity. In simple terms the word print relates to the mechanism of printing whilst the word engraving relates to one of the processes used to enable the printing to take place. Thus, all engravings are prints but not all antique prints are engravings.

Any print over 100 years old is considered an antique. This can easily been established and identified by the observant eye and requires some analysis of the production process used together with watermarks, although these are not always present, and more significantly the type of paper used. For example, the presence of wire or chain lines which are parallel lines imbedded in the paper and which can easily be seen when the paper is held up against a light as well as possible subtle differences in paper thickness are indicative of paper that has most likely been hand made. One should therefore expect to find chain or wire lines on all engravings made prior to the early 1800 although this is not the case with most engravings post 1820 as by than a degree of mechanisation, although somewhat primitive by today’s standards, had been introduced which gave paper of that period a much more uniform texture than that which had hitherto been available to printmakers.

Whilst the process and paper used in a particular print are valuable indicators of age and authenticity, these factors play a less important role in determining value. The reason for this is that the value of an antique print, which can range from as little as a 100 euro to several thousand, is dependent on three main factors these being scarcity, condition and desirability.

Consequently, the process used in making a print is less significant in determining value and for example a mid to late 19th century lithograph such as those produced by the Brocktorff Brothers and Michele Bellanti although perhaps technically not as detailed as say the copper engravings of the master engravers of the 16th and 17th century are quite valuable and good examples can be quite hard to find and regularly command good prices.

Print collecting is both enjoyable and a rewarding an experience. An antique collector recently commented that antique engravings depicting maps and views of Malta enabled one to see Maltese history unfold in graphic form as our predecessors would have seen it. One can not but agree in addition it enables each of us to invest in its preservation and leave for future generations an item of value and facinating detail.

Some Brief Q & A on Printmaking

What is a Print?

A print is a piece of paper on which a pattern has been imprinted from an object upon which a design has been made. This is then used to make an impression on a piece of paper and in this way a print is created.

The object upon which the design has been formed and subsequently printed from is known as the matrix and can be made of any number of materials. The most popular materials that have been used to make the matrix throughout history have been wood, copper, steel and stone.

An original print is one printed from a matrix on which the design was created by hand and issued as part of specific publishing task.

Is it a Print or an Engraving?
The term print and engraving are often used in Malta to denote the age of a print. This is incorrect and misleading and simply reflects popular misconceptions about the origins of prints and their authenticity.

In simple terms the word print relates to the mechanism of printing whilst the word engraving relates to one of the processes used to enable the printing to take place.

Any print printed and published prior to approximately 1900 is considered an antique and is likely to have been created using one of the processes of engraving. Thus an antique view that has been printed is both a print and the product of an engraving.

Relief and Intaglio?

There are two main categories of prints these being relief and intaglio. One is essentially the reverse of the other but both require that an image is engraved or scratched on a matrix (plate) with this being used to print from.

Relief Print – A relief print is the product of a matrix or plate with the image being printed from a raised surface on the matrix.
With a relief print the printmaker creates the matrix by removing parts of the surface such that the image that one wants to create is left raised out from the rest of the matrix. Ink is applied to the resulting raised surface of the matrix which is then pressed onto a sheet of paper.

Some of the earliest forms of printed images were in fact created using this process. Because the image is prented in relief and therefore from a raised image on the plate, rather like a very elaborate modern day rubber stamp, the plate mark is hardly ever present with a Relief Print.

Intaglio Print – An intaglio print is the product of a matrix or plate with the image being printed from the recessed surface of the matrix.

With an intaglio print the printmaker creates the matrix by cutting into it the design he wishes to imprint on the paper. To create an intaglio print the ink is pressed into the design that has been cut into the matrix. The surface is wiped, and the ink is then transferred to the paper which is previously dampened under pressure. Because of the pressure that is applied and also because the paper is dampened to aid ink transfer this process creates the plate mark which is a recessed line running along the perimeter of the plate.

The plate mark is a feature of all intaglio prints that is however often lacking in book plates as the printer/binder would often have to resize (trim) the surplus paper around the image during binding with the plate mark often being removed with the surplus paper.

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