Color us thrilled–or perfectly registered–to find this extensive and informative guide to the Old Master Prints housed at the distinguished Christie’s Auction House. The collection traces the foundation and eventual mastery of western printing: from medieval woodblock imagery to elaborate 19th century engravings.
The art of print has its true beginnings in China, at least 1,000 years ahead of the European tradition. The west “invented” printing with the production of patterned textiles in the 14th century. Wooden blocks carved out with decorative patterns and painted over with ink were used to transfer images over and over on swaths of fabric, most likely as a facsimile of the more complex embroidered imagery found in fine tapestries.
Around this time, production of vellum, cloth, and paper were developing in unison with the woodblock stamps. The opportunity for creating and spreading imagery was ripe and ready, to say the least. These advances in trade and art brought master prints to light and the Dark Ages to a definitive close.
As the public demand for printed imagery grew, so did the techniques for more complex renderings of pictures, and methods more durable. Engraving would soon emerge by chance from the workshops of goldsmiths and silversmiths. Christie’s theorizes that shopkeeps would keep record of their decorative metalworks by rubbing the surfaces with ink or charcoal. Within a few generations, many metalworking families would evolve into master engravers, carving elaborate linework into metal plates that could print the same intricate images over and over. With these developments, the broader imagery of woodcut printing would become passé, and the resilience of metal plates would eventually retire the easily-chipped wooden blocks. These advancements in achieving master prints would pave the way for books to become more colorful (and popular), while taverns would bustle under the invention of mass printed playing cards.
The mastery of engravings served to spawn further techniques, closer to our printing methods in practice today. Aquatints, etchings implement the same intaglio (incised, or carved in) approach as Engraving, only substituting acid for carving tools. With each evolution, the process of creating, producing, and printing an image became more seamless and accessible.
Today, digital reigns as the standard printing process. But just as contemporary demands for artisanal foods and handmade goods suggest the value of craftsmanship over impersonal mass-production, Offset printing and Letterpress printing offer peak quality with a sense of human care and attention. At our NYC Print Shop, we uphold the tradition of master printing, utilizing the sharp tools of today to improve upon the fine techniques of yesterday. Offset printing brings your imagery, logos, design, or type to life by a careful balance of ink-attracting-and-opposing chemicals. Where a woodblock would be carved out, or an engraving carved in, an Offset print is made with an acid photo emulsion onto a plate. Waxes and oils are used to block out the areas of the design suited for color. From there, the plate is rolled over with ink and transferred to a rubber blanket and then the final printing surface. The results are a finely textured print with flawless registration, and turnarounds to rival digital.