Art Prints - A Brief History

What Is a Print?

A print is a work of art made up of ink on paper and existing in multiple examples. It is created not by drawing on paper with an ink-filled pen or other instrument, but through an indirect transfer process. The artistbegins by drawing a composition on another surface. The transfer occurs when a sheet of paper, placed in contact with the drawn surface, is run through a printing press.

Among the advantages of making an artwork in this way is that numerous "impressions" can be made, since new pieces of paper can be sent through the press in the same way. The artist decides how many to make and that total number of impressions is called an "edition." They are then signed and numbered by the artist. Since more than one example exists, many people can own these prints.

Various printing methods have evolved over the long history of the medium. The four best-known techniques are woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprint. Depending on what an artist wants to express in a particular work, one or another technique is chosen for its distinct visual effects. Sincethese techniques are sometimes complicated to perform, the assistance of an expert printer is oftenrequired. In this lithograph byToulouse-Lautrec, theprinter is shown working the press while one of theartist's friends, the celebrated dancer Jane Avril, examines a new print.


The earliest print technique was woodcut, which first appeared in China in the ninth century. The process, originally used for stamping designs onto fabrics and textiles, was also employed in the Middle Ages to make functional items like playing cards. Western artists have made woodcut prints intermittently for hundreds of years, with the sixteenth century marking a high point and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessing another major revival. Painters like Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, and the German Expressionists embraced woodcut as a primary artistic vehicle. The modern woodcut most typically has a distinctly rough-hewn appearance that incorporates into the composition the slashed edges of shapes, the coarsely gouged-out areas, and even the grain of the wood itself.

The making of a woodcut is a straightforward process. An artist sketches a composition on a plank of wood and then, using gouges, chisels, and knives, cuts away pieces from the block. Ink is applied to the surface of the block with a roller. Paper is placed over the block, which is then run through a press. Woodcuts can also be printed by hand, using a spoon or similar instrument to rub the back of the paper and transfer the image from the wood. The recessed, cutaway areas do not receive ink and appear white on the printed image.

For Prophet, Nolde carved away large areas which, in the print, read as light hittirig the face. The areas of the block that were not cut away and received the black ink denote burrowed eyes, a long nose, sunken cheeks, a mustached mouth, a beard, and hair. The strong vertical wood graining and the overall presence of jagged gouges both contribute to the sense of emotion and immediacy emanating from this Expressionist image, created in a period when artists were reacting against the aesthetic refinements taught in the established art academies.

Emil Nolde. Danish, worked in Germany (1867-1956). Prophet. 1912.12% x 8¾" (32.1 x 22.2 cm). Given anonymously
Pablo Picasso. Spanish (1881-1973). Sculptor with His Model, His Sculpture and a Bowl of Anemones.1933.10½ x 7%"(26.7 x 19.4 cm). Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund

Etching is one of the intaglio techniques (along with engraving, drypoint, and aquatinO. Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning "to incise!' In etching, acid is used to "bite" or etch an image into a metal plate. It is the print technique that has been favored by artists since the Renaissance, in large part because of the ease with which a composition can be rendered. Rembrandt and Goya, among others, created some of their most important works in etching.

To make an etching, the artist starts with a metal plate (usually copper) that has been coated with a waxy substance called a "ground!' In Pablo Picasso's print seen here, the curving lines of the figures' hair, the flowing vines, and the detailed pattern of the flooring demonstrate the freedom with which the artist was able to create this delicate composition by drawing through the penetrable ground with a pointed metal tool called an etching needle. He did not need to dig directly into the metal itself. Next, the plate is immersed in acid. Since the ground covering the plate provides protection, the acid goes only into the drawn lines and eats away the exposed metal.

Etchings are inked very differently from woodcuts or lithographs. After removing the ground covering the plate, ink is "beaten" into the incised lines with a tool called a dabber. The surface of the plate is then wiped clean. Dampened paper is placed over the plate and run through a printing press, where very weighty pressure is needed to force the malleable paper into the etched lines. In this way, the paper "picks up" ink. Characteristically, the printed lines of etchings are slightly raised on the paper. In addition, since the sheet of paper is usually larger than the copper plate, an indentation made by the plate's edges forms a border around the composition, and is referred to as a "plate mark!'


Invented in 1798 by Aloys Senefelder and employed in the nineteenth century by painters including Francisco Goya, Honore Daumier, and Edouard Manet, lithography came into its full artistic fruition in the 1890s with the color prints of Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. It can be one of the most direct printmaking mediums, since images are executed on a flat surface in much the same manner as watercolors or drawings on paper.

The printing of lithographs is based on the resistance between grease and water. The artist must utilize greasy substances (lithographic crayons or tusche, a liquid applied with a brush) to create an image on a stone or plate, surfaces that have a slight texture to catch and hold the crayon or tusche markings. Traditionally, heavy stones were used, but now specially prepared metal plates are more common because they are lighter and less cumbersome to handle.

When a lithograph is ready to be printed, a chemical mixture is applied across the composition in order to securely bond the greasy drawn image to the surface. The stone or plate is then dampened with water, which adheres only to the non-greasy areas. With a roller, oily printer's ink is applied and sticks only to the greasy drawn sec tions, with blank areas being protected by a film of water. Paper is then laid on the stone and run through a printing press to transfer the image.

Joan Miro. Spanish (1893-1983). Plate XXIII from the Barcelona Series. 1944.24% x 18'1/ib" (61.9 x 47.3 cm). Purchase Fund
Andy Warhol. American (1928-1987). Tomato Soup from the portfolio Campbell's Soup I.1968. 311/s x 18%"(81.0 x 47.6 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson

Screenprinting is a form of stenciling, a common procedure used to apply words or images to paper and other materials, including signs. During the 1930s, a number of American artists began making artworks in screenprint, and by the end of that decade the term "serigraph" was devised to distinguish artists' screenprints from commercial examples. During the 1960s, screenprinting came into greater prominence, particularly due to the Pop artists, who were attracted to its bold areas of unmodulated color, its flat surfaces, and its generally commercial "look." Andy Warhol used this printmaking technique even when he was creating images on canvas.

For screenprints, mesh (originally silk) is stretched tautly across a frame. An image is glued or otherwise affixed onto the mesh to mask out compositional areas. This image can be created from a variety of materials: cut paper, a hardening form of glue, or a special gelatin (for photographic imagery). Unlike procedures for the techniques of woodcut, etching, and lithography, no printing press is required to transfer this image from screen to paper. Rather, paper is placed directly beneath the screen, and a tool with a flat rubber edge, called a squeegee, is used to push ink through the mesh. Areas masked out by compositional shapes are nonporous and obstruct the ink, reading as white shapes after printing. When more than one color is needed, as here, separate screens are used for each color.

Prints and Illustrated Books Collection

The prints and illustrated books collection constitutes one of six curatorial collections in The Museum of Modern Art as a whole. The others are painting and sculpture, drawings, photography, architecture and design, and film and video.

The department was established in the 1940s by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, one of the Museum's founders. A print enthusiast who believed in the importance of this medium for the Museum, Mrs. Rockefeller donated her entire collection of prints in 1940. In the words of the Museum's founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., "Mrs. Rockefeller, with gentle insistence, argued for the inclusion of a print room, reminding her colleagues that prints, because they were ... avai I able on a democratic scale, should hold a place of special importance in a museum concerned with encouraging the widespread collecting of original works of art!'

Through the generosity of many donors and patrons over the years, the Museum's prints and illustrated books collection now comprises over 40,000 works, ranging in date from the 1880s to the present day. Both artists and art movements are found in depth. For example, Louise Bourgeois, Jasper Johns, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, and Edvard Munch are some artists who are especially well represented. Works by Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most celebrated artist of the modern period, number over three-hundred prints and eighty illustrated books. Examples of Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, and Pop art, among other movements, are also collected extensively.

A gallery on the Museum's third floor is devoted to exhibiting works from this collection and allows for the display of approximately one hundred prints and illustrated books at any one time. The remainder of the collection-in fact, the vast majority of it-is kept in a storage area adjacent to the offices of the print curators. This curatorial staff, with specialization in the field, provides for the care and safety of the collection, acquires new prints and illustrated books, conducts research, and organizes exhibitions.

The department also maintains a study center which is open to the public by appointment on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. Using a system similar to that of a reference library, the study center provides a listing of all prints and illustrated books and allows visitors the opportunity to request and view those that are kept in the storage area. Relevant books, catalogues, and other documentary materials specifically related to prints and illustrated books are also available for study. This facility is used by scholars, collectors, students, and others interested in the field.