The prints principle

Some artists are natural print­makers. While the likes of Raphael, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Rubens, Reynolds and Rossetti worked closely with professional print­makers to ensure high-quality, essentially reproductive prints, artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Munch and Picasso not only drew their own designs on to woodblocks, metal plates or the lithographer’s stone in order to produce “original” prints but used graphic media to develop different expressive or formal effects.

The ceaselessly innovative Dürer, who more or less exhausted all the technical resources available in his day, would select his media according to his subject. Today he would be switching between an iPad and experiments with LEDs, LCDs and lenticular images that move as you walk past them. Why artists choose to work in a particular print medium and what they do with it is endlessly fascinating, and when you see the results – past and present – brought together en masse, the effect is astounding in its richness and diversity. Where you see them all together, of course, is at The London Original Print Fair, at the Royal Academy of Arts.

This veteran fair is now in its 27th year but it was reinvigorated seven years ago when its organisers were given more space at the Royal Academy and contemporary print publishers and dealers were invited to join the fray. Old Master and modern prints are still to be found – Hill Stone from New York, for instance, is offering what Alan Stone describes as “the finest impression I have ever seen in the trade” of Dürer’s famous woodcut of the “Knight on Horseback with the Lansquenet” of c1496. Andrew Edmunds will offer 18th-century mezzotints made “after” works by the society painter Johann Zoffany to coincide with the show in the RA’s Sackler Gallery, while Frederick Mulder specialises in 19th- and 20th-century European prints, Picasso linocuts in particular.

The contemporary prints, however, physically dominate this event, and print publishers often choose this platform to unveil new portfolios of often dramatic scale. Paupers Press, for instance, is offering new work by RA president Christopher Le Brun. “London has the greatest concentration of print publishers in the world,” says fair president Gordon Cooke, “but, until everyone comes together for the fair, this print world is rather invisible. The past 15-20 years has seen more and more young artists turn to printmaking.”

‘Knight on Horseback with the Lansquenet’ (c1496), a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

Alan Cristea, a London-based gallerist who has been publishing prints since 1969, divides artists up between those who “drag their dealers to the print workshop and those who have to be dragged there themselves, kicking and screaming”. Among the former was the late Richard Hamilton, one of the most instinctive and inventive printmakers of the 20th century (as was, say, Jim Dine). Pop art generally lent itself to the dissemination of images through editions and the collage, in particular, to the screen-print. The technique also allows for a heavy deposit of pigment that gives an unusual richness of colour and body.

For abstract painterly painters such as Gillian Ayres and Howard Hodgkin, experimenting with carborundum – a technique of effectively embossing paper – allows them to create images with an almost physical quality analogous to impasted pigment on canvas. It also allows for very large images. Before that, Hodgkin had worked in sugar-lift and aquatint to introduce texture and tone to his prints, and has incorporated hand-painting either before or after the paper is impressed with an image. As these huge, exuberantly coloured prints bear testimony, etchings no longer have to be small and black and white.

While Lucian Freud chose to work in the traditional medium of etching in the 1940s – and was encouraged by Marlborough to pick up the etcher’s needle again in 1982 – many young artists trained after the rise of conceptual art were wary or dismissive of print media. For the post-pop artist Julian Opie, initial alarm over the old-fashioned, cottage industry aspect of the craft gave way to immense enthusiasm, and the artist has turned into a prolific printmaker in a wide variety of traditional and new media.

‘Visage’ (1928), a lithograph by Pablo Picasso

Another of Cristea’s artists, Christiane Baumgartner, works by translating video or photographic images by hand on to woodblock prints. The permutations of what can be done are endless, and the key, it seems, is for the artist to find the right medium or media – and the right print studio to help direct them in what is often a collaborative process.

Printmaking gives artists another string to their bow, and a chance to increase their visibility as well as their income. It also allows the collector to buy a work of art from an artist they could not otherwise afford. Prices at the fair start at £100. One artist whose dedication to printmaking is predicated on his belief that art should be accessible to a wide audience is the ever energetic Peter Blake, and this year’s fair celebrates his 80th birthday and a six-decade career as a printmaker that has seen him working in woodcut, etching, lithography and, more recently, digitally. He will be “in conversation” on the 19th, and CCA Galleries will be staging a retrospective on their stand. He describes his 30-year collaboration with the Coriander Press as “pushing the frontiers of printmaking”.

“The print world has changed,” explains Gordon Cooke. “It used to be for print collectors. That kind of specialist collecting barely exists any more: now prints are bought by people who also buy paintings and sculpture.” A print, like any other work of art, is as good as the image it produces, however ingeniously it is made. That, perhaps, is what any buyer has to bear in mind – along with the knowledge that the expertise and passion of the print publisher or dealer is theirs to share. If anyone does want to bone up on the often arcane print terminology before their visit, “About Prints” on the LOPF website is a good place to start.

The London Original Print Fair, April 19-22;

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