Printing Processes and Collecting

Collecting Fine Art Prints

Once a collector has found an artist’s work that they like and wishes to acquire it, there are a number of things they should consider. The first critical element any collector looks for is the quality of the surface the medium is printed on and the quality of the medium being used. In both cases, you are looking for an “archival standard.” Both the paper the work is printed on and the inks used to create the work must be able to stand the test of time. The second element is the edition process. The collector will want to make sure that the artist’s print they are buying is part of a limited edition. Finally, the signature of the artist should be on the print. Typically the edition number, title and artist signatures are done in pencil which inhibits unauthorized copying.

Here are the key points for collectors

  1. Archival ink
  2. Archival paper
  3. A limited edition
  4. Signature of the artist

What is an Edition

Fine Artists who print on paper began to edition their prints starting in the latter part of the 19th century, this was a process of limiting the number of prints for sale, thus separating the process from unlimited commercial printing. On a print you might see “3/25” this means this particular print is the third in a fixed edition of 25 prints. In this case, the artist has only produced 25 prints. Depending on the process used some collectors prefer to collect the first few prints in an edition others prefer later prints in the edition.

It is also possible to see “A/P,” but not in all cases, this signifies the artist’s proof but it is not considered part of the edition (in French A/P would see shown as E.A. or BAT). Artist proofs are part of the dialogue between the artist and the printer, or the artist’s printing process, that sets the quality for the edition.

The number in an addition

Master fine art printmakers whether they are creating in lithography, etching, photo processing or woodcuts usually find an edition under 30 to small, and with some processes, the first 10 prints might not be as good as the rest of the edition. However, if editions are less than 30 then the value increases significantly as the edition size decreases.

For example in 2011 Ken Lum did an edition of 100 archival ink photographic prints on cotton and each print sold for $400. That same year he did an edition of 5 prints using a similar process and each of these somewhat larger prints sold for $4500 each. Here the increase in value was driven by the limit in the edition.

What are Archival Papers

The archival paper used for printing and as watercolour is either made from wood or natural fibres such as cotton, linen or esparto. In the case of watercolour, in particular, cotton is preferable because has greater strength when wet. Archival quality technically means it is in compliance with the ANSI Z39 standard which is a pH of 7.5 or more (alkaline). At a pH of 6.5 to 7.5 the acidity in the paper is considered neutral and the paper should have a long life without changing characteristics.

Cotton Paper and “Rag”

Cotton is most widely used in North America as it produces the purest cellulose known. Although cotton-based papers are often referred to as “rag” they are not actually made from recycled rags but from the cotton linters, so cotton or rag is the same process. Often the term cotton or rag is not accompanied by the word archival as it is understood that it is archival.

Fibre Paper

Wood fibres can also be used to create paper, but as it contains material that causes yellowing it must be clarified. Once this paper has been treated this high alpha wood-based paper has the same life as rag paper but with different characteristics. The main difference is cotton is stronger when wet. Treated fibre paper is sometimes referred to as archival fibre paper so that it is clear that it will not yellow or age like untreated papers.

What is a Print

A print is a work of art made up of ink on paper and executed in multiples. The artist begins by creating a composition and then transfers this composition to a sheet of paper, through an indirect process. The artist then decides how many to make and the total number is called an “edition.” Prints all have a few things in common they can be used for fine art purposes or commercial purposes. In the cases of fine art prints, done by artists, they are printed on archival papers using archival inks. Fine art prints are almost always done in limited editions.

The following definitions are taken from the International Fine Prints Dealers Association.

Intaglio Printing

The term intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning “to incise.” In this technique, acid or a pointed tool is used to incise the composition into a metal plate, usually made of copper, but sometimes of steel, iron or zinc. After the image has been drawn, the plate is covered with ink, and then wiped so that only the incised areas contain ink. The pressure of the press forces the paper into the incisions where they pick up the ink, resulting in the raised character of the lines on the impression. Because often the sheet of paper is larger than the plate, an indentation of the plate edges, or platemark, appears around the edges of the image area. The different types of intaglio prints are distinguished by the technique used: etching, aquatint, and photogravure are made using acid to corrode the metal plate, while engraving, drypoint, and mezzotint are made using a sharp tool to incise, or scratch, the surface of the plate. Often several different intaglio techniques are used in the same print to achieve variations in contrast and tone.

Planographic Printing

In this method of printing, the ink is neither pressed down into the paper nor raised above its surface but lies exclusively on the plane of the paper. This means that with planographic printing the printed and non-printed areas on the surface of the print exist on the same plane. Planographic techniques include lithography, serigraphy, pochoir, monoprints, monotypes, screenprints, digital prints, and counterproofs.

The following are some of the more predominate types of planographic printing methods found in galleries today:


Literally meaning “stone drawing,” this type of print is made by drawing or painting onto the surface of limestone using a greasy crayon or liquid wash and is best known for its flat painterly surface. Because lithography is planographic, the resultant design lies on the surface of the paper, rather than pressed in or raised up from the page, as in other techniques. Colours appear smooth and uniform in tone. It is possible to use multiple colours in a lithograph, each colour, as in the other techniques described here, requires its own stone and several subsequent runs through the press. A zincograph is a print made by the same process, the only difference being that the artist uses a zinc plate rather than a stone as the surface of the composition.


In 1871 the gelatin silver print, a black and white photosensitive printing process, was introduced and was used extensively up until the 60s at which point colour processes took over. Initially, the paper was standardized. In this process a gelatine emulsion was used to combine bromide and silver into a liquid that could be used to coat fibre paper, making it sensitive to light. SCREENPRINT
In the 1930s a number of artists began using screen prints to create what they called “serigraphs,” this term differentiated the process from the commercial process of silkscreening. In this process, a plastic film is cut into and areas are removed to create a composition and effectively a stencil. The stencil is then fixed to a screen and paper is placed under the screen. The screen is then inked from above, a rubber blade then draws the ink evenly across the whole screen. The screen is lifted revealing the fine art piece. Again if more than one colour is needed more than one screening needs to be done with different stencils being applied.
In this process, paper is treated with gelatin-silver dye which makes it sensitive to light. Once it is processed by bleaching out the silver a colour image remains. This process is commonly referred to as a C print (not to be confused with Lightjet C prints which use lasers to develop the colour). It was first introduced in 1936 until it was replaced by newer methods of printing in the first decade of the 21st century. (Lightjet printers were introduced in 1995 and now are no longer manufactured, however, these printers continue to operate.)
This method of printing was established in the 1950s and although available commercially did not come into the fine art printing world until the late 80’s when Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) experiment with this method of printing. This led to a collaboration between Nash, Disney, Serigraphic printers, MacIntosh computers and Epson. Nash called the process digigraphs. In this process, archival inks are applied to cotton papers to produce a colour print.

Relief Printing

Relief prints are characterized by bold contrasts of dark and light. In this technique the artist first sketches a composition on a hard, flat surface such as a wood or linoleum block; then the parts of the image that are not to receive ink are carved away from the surface, leaving only the composition visible on the top surface of the matrix. Ink is then applied to this raised surface with a roller. The raised image on the block is transferred to paper with a mechanical press or by pressing the block into the paper by hand. Since the areas of the block that were cut away did not receive ink, they appear white in the printed image. The inked areas are slightly impressed into the surface of the paper from the force of the press and so appear indented into the paper. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving and linocut.