Friends and beginning collectors have asked me "What is a linocut?," "What does 'limited edition' mean?" and "What tools do you use?" because they were interested in learning more about my recent collection of hand-pulled limited edition linocut prints. Frequently, there is confusion about understanding the difference between a machine printed reproduction of an original artwork and a hand-pulled limited edition relief block print. I thoroughly enjoy this medium and process of creating art and will be using it more in my future work, so I want to share what I have learned. There are many books detailing the rich history of printmaking art. I will outline some of the basics in this quick guide.
What is a Linocut Print?
Linocut is short for linoleum block printing. Linoleum is a flooring surface invented in 1860 by Frederick Walton as a deck covering for battleships. Walton named "linoleum" after one of its key ingredients: linseed oil. Cork dust, pigments, and resins combine with linseed oil to create a durable, flexible, water-resistant sheet material, which is often backed with jute, canvas or burlap. The use of linoleum quickly expanded beyond ship decking to usage in commercial and residential flooring, and German expressionist artists of the Die Brücke group soon appropriated it for an art material in 1905. Artists carved linoleum blocks by hand and then inked the block and transferred the design to paper. Because linoleum was mass-produced and therefore less expensive, linoleum was an excellent alternative carving surface to wood or metal traditionally used in fine art printing. Linoleum is also more pliable and easier to carve than wood or metal. Today, blocks of different compositions of rubber are also available for artists and can fall into the category of "linocut" prints. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are credited with establishing linocut printmaking as a professional art medium, and it continues to grow in popularity popular with artists and art collectors.
Is a Linocut Print Original Art?
A linocut print is an original piece of art, as is a woodblock, monotype, metal etching print. Each artwork is made by applying ink to a hand carved image on a block and then printing it on art paper. This artisan process results in each print having unique characteristics. The prints have a wonderful tactile quality because the inks sit on top of the paper. If the artist uses handmade papers, the originality of each piece of art is further enhanced. Collectors need to acquaint themselves with the different types of "prints" available on the market. Often artists have reproductions of one of their original paintings or drawings produced through a commercial printing service. This is usually because the original has sold or the high price of the original is cost prohibitive to many people who would like to enjoy the artwork and support the artist. Unlike an original limited edition block print, however, there will be little if any increase in value over time. An original handmade block print made 50 or 100 years ago may increase significantly in value, where a commercially printed reproduction of an artwork will have little to no value at all in the future. Watch this Antiques Roadshow appraisal of an original Walter Inglis Anderson linocut print.
What does "Hand-Pulled" mean?
Printing presses are commonly used for both commercial and fine art printmaking techniques. These large pieces of equipment are often very expensive and beyond the scope of a small artist studio. Hand-pulling is a traditional technique going back hundreds of years to Japanese printmakers. Artists apply ink by brush or brayer to a carved print block surface. The artist paper is laid down on top of the block and the artist rubs back of the paper by hand with a tool, often a baren (seen upper right in above photo), to transfer the ink to the paper. The artist then peels back the paper from the block to reveal the print. Prints can be made with only one color, or with many layers of color, which entails repeating the steps of inking, rubbing and peeling back the paper multiple times.
What is the difference between "Limited Edition" and "Open Edition"?
A limited edition set of prints means that an artist determines the number of prints they will produce of a certain image (10, 25, 50, 100 etc.) and then number each print in that edition (1/25, 2/25, 3/25, etc.) Once the artist prints the entire edition it can no longer be printed in exactly the same way. The artist may choose to reprint the image in a different color, on a different paper or with alterations to the original carving. There are a lot of variables to consider when purchasing a limited edition print if you are concerned about the investment value of your art collection. For example, a limited edition of 10 creates more rarity than a limited edition of 100. However, a limited edition of 100 Picasso prints would be financially worth more than a limited edition of 10 by an unknown artist. Ultimately, a collector should acquire art that he/she enjoys.
Unlike a limited edition, an open edition set of prints has no limits. The artist can print the same piece in the same way as many times as he/she wants for as long as he/she wants. This is beneficial for lower priced works, but it doesn't create a lot of value for the collector. Greeting cards may be open edition, and many commercially manufactured art prints are open edition.
Why Buy Hand-Pulled Limited Edition Linocut Prints?
Original art has great value. It brings many years of pleasure to its owner and viewers, and it is also an economic investment that will increase in value over time. Like other investments, there are many levels, and most of us will not be buying an original Van Gogh. Many of us won't be buying original oil paintings either. The wonderful thing to consider about handmade block prints is their affordability. There are still many price levels within this medium, but collectors of all levels can find something in their budget. Antique prints or prints by modern masters will be very pricey. However, there are plenty of options available for original limited edition block prints on today's art market that are affordable for the beginning art collector. Local art galleries, art markets, boutique shops and the internet offer an endless variety of options for handmade prints. Collectors can search for artworks that suit their interests: travel destinations, animals, sports, hobbies, etc. These are often highly affordable when compared to their original oil painting, watercolor, pastel and drawing counterparts.
In our digital, print-on-demand world it is important to understand how art is still made by hand and the intrinsic beauty in one-of-a-kind original art. For young enthusiasts who would like to start acquiring and investing in an art collection, hand-pulled limited edition linocut prints are a great choice.