When is a print not a print?

Alongside drawing, painting and sculpture, print-making is one of the oldest forms of visual art. Although it wasn’t generally recognised as a fine art discipline in the west until the European Renaissance (with the work of Dürer, among others), the practice can be traced back to Paleolithic times when humans first made hand-prints on cave walls. It evolved largely through developments in paper-making and image creation, such as Japanese wood-block printing 1200 years ago, or metal plate engravings in the Middle Ages, and has developed alongside related technologies in lithography, etching, off-set press printing, photography, lino-cut and silk-screen printing, to name a few key methods.

Print-making in this “classical” sense uses a combination of mechanical, manual and chemical processes to transfer an image (created from one or more media) from one surface to another, using ink or paint to “carry” the image between the plate and paper or other printed surface.

While the printing industry has been using the same techniques for centuries (in the service of book publishing, newspapers, advertising, packaging, textiles, etc.) there are key differences between the commercial and the artistic.

First, traditional print-making still retains a high-degree of manual process, and the work is usually produced in limited numbers (sometimes in single editions), and even where multiple copies are generated, variations and differences will appear thanks to inherent “imperfections” of the process.

Second, despite the importance of technical process in print-making, the practice should not be seen as a mere mechanical exercise in reproducing an image – the resulting image is still far more important than the actual technique (i.e., content over form should be the order of the day).

Third, the role of “mark-making” in print-making is as significant as the brush strokes in an oil painting, and are part of the artist’s signature. Equally, choice of materials is also important, just as an artist working in oils will make specific decisions about their brushes, pigments, medium and canvass.

In terms of art curation, print-making can get lumped in with other “works on paper”, which may extend to collage, photography, photo-montage, graphic design and illustration. Photography itself can be used in the course of print-making (e.g., rayographs), but a photographic print of a film-based negative is not the same as print-making in this context.

Likewise, the use of digital processes to capture, create, manipulate, transfer and reproduce an image on paper (or other medium) is further blurring the boundaries as to what constitutes a “print” as opposed to a “technique”.

This delineation between traditional print-making and image creation processes was further highlighted by the recent Experimental Print Prize organised by Castlemaine Art Museum in Victoria’s gold field region. While there were examples of etching, lino-cut, lithography, photographic and other techniques on display, the prize is intended to push the boundaries into more conceptual notions of “what is a print?”.

Examples included the use of light-sensitive paper to create long-delay images, a neon-light to generate an after-image on the viewer’s retinas, and a muon particle detector to track and plot their “image” onto a computer monitor. Although these are all interesting approaches, they perhaps over-step the boundary of permanence, which is usually a feature of print-making, to the extent that the fixed paper and ink endure long after the artist has made his or her mark. Nevertheless, the museum is to be applauded for bringing a new dimension to an ancient art-form.

Next week: Literary legacies