Talk like an Art Head: Printmaking

Hand coloured antiquarian newspaper engraving 1887 & limited edition giclée print by Ian Johnstone
The Tay Bridge Disaster, hand coloured antiquarian newspaper engraving 1887 (left)
Tay at Broughty Ferry, limited edition giclée print by Ian Johnstone (right)

There are times in life when you feel the full weight of mortality on your shoulders. Well that’s been happening to me ever since I started writing this blog for Eduardo Alessandro Studios and learning about the history of printmaking.

That sounds a little intense. But it’s true.

Maybe it’s that quarter life crisis I’m coming into. I’m taking up knitting, considering investment property because pension schemes are on the decline, and wondering what kind of person Zsíkli will be.

If you start asking yourself these kinds of questions, it probably means you’ve also realised that you aren’t so invincible after all. Never mind invincible, I’m coming to accept that in the broad span of human history, I’m pretty darn inconsequential (it’s only taken 27 years)!

So why has learning about the history of printmaking brought on this reflective, existential turn? It started with my first blog post about the Remarque, when I lost myself in reading articles from the early 20th century about the crisis that printmaking was going through. Later, when researching the giclée, I read a rant by an angry printmaker bemoaning the crisis printmaking is going through today. Over a century apart, these writers were shaking their heads at the advent of new technologies that rendered traditional printmaking practices obsolete.

But today’s printmaker who practices “traditional” printmaking is actually using what last century’s printmaker might have considered a new-fangled and depraved invention!

In 1901, Morris T. Everett was writing about the brief revival of etching in America at the turn of the century. The problem, Everett laments, is that “cleverness set itself to work.” (Don’t you love that phrase!) While an etched copper-plate is susceptible to wear and can only yield a few hundred perfect impressions, “by hardening and coating processes it was found possible to make a plate yield thousands of prints.” Here, Everett’s sigh is almost palpable, “The market,” he writes, “was glutted.”

Over a century later, another printmaker was decrying the advent of digital printmaking. Giclée prints, this artist argued, are not prints – they are reproductions. To call them prints, he argued, is a scam.

But a scam on whom? What both these gentlemen failed to recognise is that people appreciate the difference between an original, an etching, a high quality giclée print, a low quality print, etc. Everett complained that “invention has made a travesty of first, second, and third states, Remarque proofs, and everything else that collectors of prints prize.”

But that isn’t true. Remarques and artist proofs are still highly sought after and giclée prints are the go-to for signed limited edition prints because of their superior ink and paper quality. Sure, hardening and coating processes allowed for consistently vivid images, as does digital printing, but people still differentiate value depending on the kind of print it is.

And that’s actually very reassuring. It means that despite technology and commercialism, we still distinguish and appreciate high quality from low and continue to value, above all, an original piece of art, the work of human ingenuity.

Plus, we have to accept that in the future giclée printers will be but another archaic piece of kit, perhaps still in use, perhaps outmoded, or maybe enjoying a renaissance. And it’s exciting to think what new “cleverness will set itself to work” and what it will produce next!

So I might as well put my quarter life crisis to the side, continue the fascinating study of printmaking – for it is an immense field of study – but also look towards the future, embracing change and new topics. Next week we leave printmaking behind (at least for a short while) and take on another medium altogether – the pastel!