by Jonathan Goodman

Printmaking encompasses quite a broad variety of techniques, including linocut prints, wood block printing, etchings, and lithography. The prints are often made into a series, or small grouping, which can be sold at cheaper prices than a drawing or painting. Often, especially in the 20th century, prints have been associated with political statements throughout the world; today, we see a bit of a revival in the medium, whose claims on the art world have sometimes been relegated to the margins. Offsetting the view that printmaking is a lesser medium is the graphic work by such major artists as Picasso and Matisse, whose accomplishments in the field demonstrate uncommon skill and a strong understanding of compositional design. As the technical applications and printing mechanism grew more and more sophisticated, printmaking has begun to establish itself in its own right, as an art field of its own. Printmaking is also supremely fitting for the illustration of books; Picasso has used prints to illustrate collections of poetry ranging from the historical to those writers whose work was contemporaneous with his art. Today, prints are inventively made with such things as bulldozers, a practice that manifests a certain irreverence in the face of the printmaking tradition.

Printmaking is based on making an impression of ink or other medium on paper; the medium occurs on the matrix, which can range from linoleum to wood to copper, among other media. By cutting into the medium, the artist ensures that color will only be picked up on the flat expanse of the chosen material, as opposed to the artist-made depressions. Each impression taken from the multiples varies slightly from the others; as a result, it may be said that there is greater originality and difference in prints that might seem at first. A special technique and orientation may be found in the monotype, for which the preparation yields just a single example. Great artists in historical Western culture, such as Durer and Rembrandt and Goya, have used printmaking to great advantage, while contemporary artists seem more in tune with expanding the repertoire of both materials and themes. Some of the materials used, such as engravings, which usually use copper plates, are capable of creating hundreds of prints before evidence of wear begins to show; other materials do not stand up to repeated use so easily. In the 20th century, Germany in particular made use of the wood block print. The various mechanisms by which a print is made have lead to considerable exploration with materials and tools, especially in the West.

Printmaking has also enjoyed an ambitious history in the hands of Far Eastern artists from China and Japan. Woodcuts are historically favored in the cultures, which have yielded in Japan master artists such as Hiroshige, the great Japanese 19th-century printmaker. Xu Bing, one of China’s leading contemporary conceptual artists, was trained as a printmaker and is responsible for the extraordinary Book from the Sky, which features some four thousand imaginary characters, shown in books and banners and on walls. Today, street artists in New York City put up prints under the cover of night; they embrace the street culture of the current urban avant-garde and hope to bring art to places where it is not usually seen. Prints are also used extensively in poster-making, enabling artists to get their messages out into the public. Engravings often result in remarkable detail because of the action of the burin, the cutting tool, on metal, enabling the skilled draftsman to work in highly elaborate visual constructions. There is no doubt that printmakers will continue to actively create and innovate the medium; the field is so broad, and so open to expansion, that it proves hard to tell what will come next.