Prints often get a raw deal in our museums and galleries. Usually made on a small scale, they are sectioned off into small, gloomy rooms or available to see only by appointment, destined to play second fiddle to other, grander media.
But printmaking is a diverse and thoroughly absorbing discipline with a rich history, and the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy is a low-profile high point in the art calendar. Fifty booths are occupied by galleries, printmaking studios and art-school printmaking departments, covering 500 years of the discipline, from Albrecht Dürer to Rachel Whiteread.
"People are nervous of prints," says Helen Rosslyn, the fair's director. "That's why it's called the Original Print Fair, to show that these prints are original works of art.
"With painting, the artist has an idea and creates it on a surface, but with printmaking, the artist creates it on a surface and translates it to another. There's an extra stage in the process, which adds a huge dimension to it."
Realising a vision
At the heart of it all is the "master printer", the technical virtuoso who helps an artist realise their vision. Artists speak with great reverence about working with printers and prize their role in unleashing unexpected effects. "You might go with a set of ideas but when you are confronted with the possibilities those ideas can go out of the window and you can invent something new," says artist Patrick Brill, better known by his pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith, who has created a lithograph with Paupers Press for the fair. Smith is attracted to printmaking's democratic qualities, particularly its history in posters, where it often carried political and social ideas — his new print is a protest against the government's plans for art education. "The idea on some level is to make prints so that they get those ideas out there, and to make them quite cheap," he says.
Indeed, Smith's prints, like many others at the fair, are available for a few hundred pounds. Generally, prices vary according to the print's size, the edition size, the complexity of the process used and, of course, the fame of the artist, but on the whole, as director Rosslyn says, they are "a very affordable way to collect art".
Rosslyn adds: "A Picasso etching can be bought for £5,000. But you can also do that very speculative thing and buy something from [a student on] the Royal College of Art's stand. It may be worth lots or nothing later, but at least you'll enjoy it."
Types of print
Relief printing: woodcuts
The oldest printmaking style, first developed in China in the 9th century. The artist draws on wood and carves around the drawing, leaving a raised surface which is printed on paper. Dürer was its greatest Western exponent.
"You can have angst-ridden marks," says John MacKechnie of Glasgow Print Studio, "where you chop into it, and of course the wood splinters and you can see splintering marks."
Developed in the Renaissance, etching most often consists of drawing into an acid-resistant ground on a metal plate, before it's placed in an acid bath, which ensures that the lines drawn into the ground are etched into the metal.
"Etching is a wonderful medium," says master printer Bernard Pratt. "When you come to print the image, it's the amount of ink in that line that you have etched which gives you the different density." Numerous techniques are used to create tonal and textural effects, while photogravures translate photographic images onto etching plates.
Invented in the late 18th century, it involves drawing onto chemically treated stone using tusche, a greasy ink. The master printer wets the stone and applies ink which sticks to the tusche. "The great thing about lithography is that it uses chance colours," says Bob and Roberta Smith. "Because it's transparent, you use all the mixes of colours when you overlay them." Lithography was largely a commercial medium until Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec propelled it into the fine-art arena with his Parisian scenes.
An artist creates a composition on transparent film and various stencils are made of their design and placed on a mesh silkscreen. Then colour is applied to paper by pushing ink through the silkscreen left bare by the stencil, creating intense, boldly coloured images. "It seems to work better for painters because they can understand the way of producing the work a lot easier than other methods," says Bob Saich of Advanced Graphics. "Screenprinting is a layering process, as is painting."
London Original Print Fair is at the Royal Academy from May 25-28 (londonprintfair.com; tickets £12 for adults £8 for concessions)