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This month's topic...


While takes a practiced eye to distinguish the medium (e,g. sometimes a silkscreen done with a thin wash can be easily confused with a lithograph), a basic knowledge of printing techniques is important as the medium and technique can have a definite impact on investment value.

There is a kind of "pecking order" of value when it comes to MEDIUM/TECHNIQUE. To illustrate this, let's assume that we can evaluate the identical image (subject and period) by the same well-known, highly collectible artist through the following techniques:

1. The ENGRAVING is rarely done by the artist himself, but rather, since it requires a high degree of technical skill and confidence, it is usually subcontracted to a technician. For most artists engraving as a technique is only used to accentuate parts of an etching. It's a risky business, since one false move with the engraver's tool can irretrievably destroy the image and the plate. Therefore, when the well-executed engraving appears on the market, it elicits the highest degree of attention and admiration -- it's a sort of "tour de force " of the artist's ability, and has the added rarity factor. Salvador Dali was a master in this category. His "Quest of the Holy Grail", a series of 12 engravings, has the feel of symphonic music to it, so well has he matched the drama of the theme to the technique.

2. More usual by far for the graphic artist is the ETCHING with its friendly versatility, and built-in safety net: that skittering line can be easily covered over and re-etched. ETCHING also allows for a lot of "helper" interventions, such as tracing paper or even the "suspect" HELIOGRAVURE PROCESS . The medium allows for expression as easy as sketching on paper: taken to its inventive limits it draws out the skill and imagination of the artist as Rembrandt (called "the greatest etcher who ever lived") demonstrated.

As the ETCHING surpasses all other techniques in sheer number of production, it is highly likely that most of the valuable graphic works being considered for your investment art collection will be in this medium. Some of the better known artists whose etchings can still be purchased at surprisingly affordable prices include PICASSO, MATISSE, CHAGALL, FRIEDLAENDER, RODIN, MASSON and HENRY MOORE.

3. The LITHOGRAPH is next in the pecking order. To the connoisseur the lithographed image can feel flat (it is PLANOGRAPHIC by definition) and with not quite the personal "soul" of the 2 above-mentioned INTAGLIO processes. Perhaps because of its association with mass publication, lithographs are not as highly prized by investment collectors as engravings or etchings. The informed collector also weighs in the fact that the lithographic process can be done either by hand using the traditional stone, or by the quick OFFSET shortcut using the aluminum plate roller drum, with little or no discernible difference in the finished image. This "blurring" of the production process is a point of legitimate esthetic debate to the purists. However, certain artists renowned almost exclusively for this specific medium remain exempted from "medium ranking", for example Miro's prolific lithographs or Eskimo stone prints.

4. The collectibility of the RELIEF print or WOODCUT or WOOD ENGRAVING varies according to trend. Like ENGRAVING , the WOODCUT requires masterful technical craftsmanship and is very unforgiving if a mistake in the block is made. However, it just isn't as sought after. The woodcut's strong and immediate statement is more simplistic, perceptually less "sophisticated". Historically this was the first widespread printing procedure (e.g. playing card INCANABULA , which in today's auctions can command astronomical prices). It was then largely abandoned for the subcontracted wood engraver and to facilitate mass production. Gaugin caused new interest in the medium and brilliantly exploited its primitive quality, followed by Munch and the German Expressionists, where the theme of social and personal anguish was well suited to the medium. Beyond this sporadic revival however, the WOODCUT as a prized contemporary collector's piece is a less common goal, even when factoring in the rarity issue.

5. The SCREEN PRINT or SILK SCREEN is a planographic technique which has suffered in "fine art" acceptability, certainly because of its automatic association with commercial processes (the T-shirt comes to mind here) and the brash straightforwardness (less artistic nuance than all of the above media) of the finished image. Screen-printing demands the least technical skill of all print media; in fact, the basics can be learned in an afternoon and on the kitchen table. It also lends itself to factory offset production with little or no discernible difference in quality. However, certain impassioned artists have exploited the possibilities of SILK SCREEN with acclaim. Andy Warhol, in particular, liberated the silkscreen from its commercial stigma, thus becoming one of the major screen-print investment exceptions.

While all of the above is an admittedly oversimplified and cavalier approach, it does nail down the investment collector's essential criteria. Other variables do enter into the picture's marketability, such as a color lithograph is generally preferable to black and white, EDITION SIZE (preferably miniscule, or a B.A.T.), condition (unflawed and not restored), period (the artist's most seminal), PROVENANCE (beyond reproach) etc. etc. One of the most important reasons to understand medium, technique and "ranking" is to rally on the side of CAUTION… a sort of collector's vigilance to keep the discipline as pristine as possible and to keep the PHOTOMECHANICAL thieves out of the temple.

Be sure to visit this section again next month when the Artophile will discuss EDITION SIZE and NUMBERING. If you would like to request "back issues" of this page, simply use the "Contact Us" button below.

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