Scribbledoodle on Artists Proofs [August 2007]
From a collecting investors point of view, prints designated as ‘Artists Proofs’ are held in higher esteem than prints from the main edition. Traditionally the secondary market in prints values Artists Proofs highly because they are fewer in number [rarer], and better in quality, therefore each print is potentially more valuable than prints from the main edition.
That is OK if you know why there are Artists Proofs in the first place. We often get asked questions to do with this subject. So here goes, this is why.
In the olden days all prints were hand pulled. The techniques used were lithography [using stone slabs hence ‘litho’ meaning stone], etching, engraving, wood block, stencil, silk screen, etc. The print-maker artist had to prepare the stone, wood-block, etching plate, screen, etc by hand. Then he/she had to ink up and press paper onto the inked up surface, or manually squeeze ink through the silk mesh, to pull off a single print. Prints were pulled one by one, colour by colour, and the whole process took time and skill. The surface of the stone, plate, wood block, screen, etc could quickly wear away and the prints got progressively weaker as the little pile of finished prints went up. The very first prints were the ‘proofs’, proving to the artist or client that the image was just right for the subsequent main edition. As these had to be made first they were in fact the best quality prints from the entire edition. The main edition would follow until the print quality, or the interest in the image, deteriorated. Then the stone, block, plate or screen could be destroyed thus preventing poor quality second editions.
So there was a definite advantage to the early collector if the print was a low number from the edition, or even better if it was an Artists Proof.
Then along came photo-litho using metal plates, or even plastic plates, and huge offset printing machines. Offset basically means that the ink is picked up from the plate by rolling a receptive roller across to pick up the ink which is deposited onto the paper in another move. This offset system protected the plate from wear and much bigger editions were possible. The whole mechanical process was very quick and could be further automated by using photo-separation of colours into just four basic inks. Mechanised screen processing and photo-separation of colours into basic four colour process also meant that screen prints could be produced in far greater quantities. Prints for magazines and posters usually use this method.
Gradual changes to the printmaking process meant that the traditional reason for high values for low number prints became obsolete as huge editions of virtually identical prints swamped the market. Dealers in the print market had to respond. They did so 160 years ago in the UK by forming The Printsellers Association in 1847. This organization became The Fine Art Trade Guild about 100 years ago. The Guild formed a set of rules and standards based on the traditional print market. So called ‘Limited Editions’ mirrored the previous print production limitations by numbering editions and stating on the print how big the edition was. The Guild set rules for member printmakers that absolutely prohibited any subsequent editions of so called ‘Limited Editions’.
Numbering, using Arabic numerals, was typically 1/50 meaning print number one from an edition of fifty. To distinguish Artists Proofs from the main edition the convention for numbering Artists Proofs differs in that AP’s use Roman numerals so that AP ii/v shows that this print is number 2 from 5 Artists Proofs. The Guild standard is that no more than 10% of the total number of prints produced should be Artists Proofs.
Nowadays the trend is to print using the latest inkjet technology with lightfast pigmented inks on good quality heavy-weight fine art paper or canvas. The wide format Epson printers used in our studio are good examples. The term originally coined for such prints way back in the early 1990’s was ‘giclee’, although this term is gradually being used more and more by the fine art trade to denote reproductions rather than specially created images.
This superb technology using the wide format inkjet process;
· Ensures that the whole edition is of equal quality. Print number 200 can be just as good as number 2.
· Allows an edition to be printed on demand one by one, which is a colossal saving for the fine art publishing industry by eliminating wasted unwanted prints, and saving on storage costs.
· Allows the publisher to vary sizes and substrates during the run, thus responding to the wishes of collectors.
Artists Proofs still do the same job as before, checking that the colours, paper and size are right. But in addition, when a publisher produces an edition he will typically give the Artists Proofs to the artist as part payment for the rights to print the edition.
Lately there have been interesting rumblings on the cyber waves that suggest that artist or photographer publishers using the ‘giclee’ [wide format digital inkjet] process should or could publish unlimited editions to reflect the fact that the days of deterioration are truly over. They say that by all means sign and number the prints but don’t artificially limit the potential success of the edition.
That has been our position in the Crabfish studio for some years. You will notice that in our portfolio at Crabfish.com, prints are described as ‘Limited Edition’ or ‘Collectors Edition’. Collectors Edition prints are numbered and signed by the artist. The print method is the same as Limited Editions so the quality is the same, but there is no edition size. Instead there might be a paper or canvas size. So for example you might see 1/A3, which means that this print is number one printed on A3 size paper.
Another reason that we provide this choice is that there is a real demand from the licensing industry to use images as greetings cards etc. We cannot use ‘Limited Editions’ because we follow Guild Standards prohibiting other use of the image, so we have chosen a different selection of images that can be available for licensing as poster prints and as greetings cards.
The present on-line debate follows the successful sell-out of a new ‘Limited Edition’ of 350 large canvases in the USA. The publishers have apparently issued another edition of 3750 smaller prints on canvas, and 200 Artists Proofs. The argument goes that this is such a successful image that it would have been better and more honest to just print on demand, numbering as you go.
So where does that leave the collector investor?
Beware of huge ‘limited editions’.
Beware of the commonplace US practice of multi editions.
Beware of huge Artists Proof editions.
To be sure of your best chances of getting a good investment you should opt for a Limited Edition from a Fine Art Trade Guild member.
To get an even better chance of a good investment go for an Artists Proof direct from the artist.
Oh! Thats us.