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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Prints - What Is A Print?

Author: John Ramsay

( Article orginally published April 1947 )

There is, in the mind of the average general collector, some confusion as to the meaning of the word print. Actually, a print is a design reproduced on suitable material, paper, fabric, even wood or metal in pigments transferred to it by pressure from. a pattern on a sheet or block of another material, wood, metal, even stone or linoleum, which is substantial enough to be used over and over. So fabrics like chintz or calico, wall paper, even some types of chinaware, are just as much prints as pictures reproduced by lithography or etching. But, in the narrowest definition, most American collectors are likely to use the term to mean their favorite lithographs only, while to their European colleagues a print is an etching or engraving.

Even limiting the name to "pictures" reproduced on paper, there are really a confusing number of different types of print. The Chinese were making fine wood-block prints as early as 868 A. D., and Oriental artists have used the process down to the present. For a wood-print or cut, the design is cut or carved on the surface of a wooden block in reverse, so that the pigment is transferred to the paper from the flat surface, the sunken design forming the uncolored parts or high-lights. In Europe, block printed fabrics were produced before 1400, playing-cards about that date, and "framing prints" a little later. Albert Durer and Hans Holbein were the first important artists to use the process, but it has interested artists ever since. The Englishman, Thomas Bewick, of the early nineteenth century, worked out a method of printing the lines of a wood block in ink, and another Englishman, George Baxter, slightly later invented a process of color printing from wood blocks. Until the middle of the last century, wood-outs, small, cheap and quickly produced, were used largely for book, magazine and newspaper illustrations. F. O. C. Darley and Thomas Cole the bestknown American exponents.

Engraving on metal is a very old art, and the Medieval goldsmiths of Europe adapted it to a reproductive process about 1500. In the next three centuries, many "old masters", Durer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Goya, Whistler among others, liked and used the method. They used a triangular pointed instrument to cut out their design on a sheet of copper, then washed ink over the surface and wiped it off, leaving the pigment in the sunken lines, to be transferred to paper in a press. Later, a modification of this, the "dry-point" was evolved, by which the design was cut with a needle-like point, leaving a burr or ridge of metal on the surface, which also transferred ink to the paper, giving a distinctive line. Another modification is the "mezzotint". In this, the entire surface of the copper plate is covered with rows of tiny dots, the design then cut out or burnished, resulting in a dark background with high-lights. Still later, steel was substituted for copper, and stipple engraving, using lines of dots instead of incised lines, was popular. Very large steel engravings were made about the middle of the last century, but they are considered inferior to the engravings on copper. Engravings are usually black and white, although color is sometimes added by hand, particularly in the fine British and French 18th Century mezzotints.

Engraving is not easy since the artist has to draw his lines with some pressure, and with little possibility of alteration. A simplification of this, also used on metal as early as 1450, is etching, in which the surface of the plate is covered with a soft, acid-proof material, usually wax or resin, and the design cut through this to the copper. Then the plate. still covered by wax, is exposed to acid, which bites or eats the design in lines which, like engraving, will take ink. As used by artists, several successive "bitings" are necessary, until heavy and light lines build up the picture. A modification is the "aqua-tint" for which a porous ground, sand or a resinous substance, is used, giving a shaded ground. Etching has also been a favorite process of many artists through the centuries, from the 15th Century Albert Durer down to the many who are using it today.

A method of reproducing designs which is quicker and cheaper than engraving or etching is lithography, invented by the Bavarian Alios Senefelder in 1798. This depends on the peculiar qualities of a type of limestone which, when a design is drawn on it with greasy pigment, becomes impervious to water in those areas covered by it. Then, when the surface is moistened with water and then inked with an oily ink, this is retained only by the design, which can then be transferred to paper in a press. For some reason, these "Engravings for the People", as the American lithographers Currier & Ives termed them, have never been favorites of artists, nor of art connoisseurs, but they appeal to coillectors of Americana because their subjects reflect so vividly American life and scenery. At first uncolored, lithographs were soon colored, by hand, and, later, from successive color blocks.

The problem of distinguishing these various types of prints is not easy, and is complicated by the fact that a print can look very much like an original picture, black and white ones like pen or pencil drawings, some of the later "chromolithographs" printed on canvas in thick pigments in relief copying brushwork, very close imitations of oil paintings. But it is not too difficult if the methods by which prints are made is kept in mind. A wood-cut usually shows comparatively large areas of black, and rather heavy lines, while a lithograph, drawn with a soft pencil, will also have rather wide lines, with a characteristic softness. In contrast, engravings and etchings show fine lines, and, also, have these lines in slight relief, the ink standing up from the surface slightly. An engraving, drawn with a sharp point, has lines which taper out, following that point, while the lines of an etching show abrupt changes of width.

Garden Prints

With the coming of the spring, ads for large seed houses, tnzrn our thoughts to the odd garden prints, if we are old print lovers.

Your correspondent was browsing a little on her own, too, and ran across some very fine examples of old garden prints in books on the subject. Probably nothing is more interesting in this field, however, than a booklet gotten out by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N. Y.

It depicts everything from the formal court garden to the smaller variety of the ordinarv householder, and even the latter had lots of imagination in those days.

An especially appealing one is that of "Spring," by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, engraved by Petrus a Merica." Some fifteen persons are working in the garden with hoes, rakes, spades and pruning shears. Baskets of shrubs are waiting to be set into the ground.


Twenty-two modern artists, having a common interest in fine prints, organized in 1945, a graphic arts group known as "Vanguard." Their purpose is to explore new ideas and techniques within the printing arts, and to encourage and stimulate a more general interest in modern graphic art by circulating exhibitions of their work.

Concerned with hand processes in all print media the members of the club work in woodcut, wood-engraving, copper engraving, etching, lithograph, serigraphy and lulniprinting. Their first exhibition as a group, held at the Philadelphia Print Club in October, 1945, was highly successful. Since then, Vanguard has held exhibitions in a number of museums, schools and art associations throughout the United States. Recently the club has held an exhibition in the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum.

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