A 'How To' Guide to Identifying and Buying Prints

A 'How To' Guide to Identifying and Buying Prints

Buying prints at auction is a great way to start an art collection. Prints are typically from limited editions, making them more affordable than one-off pieces such as oil paintings. Yet, the printmaking process is highly skilled, each plate onto which the artist creates an image needs to be perfect in order to achieve the desired finish. Eleanor Garthwaite tells us more...

23 September 2021

Printing, in its most basic definition, means the transfer of ink, but techniques vary widely. You will often find that artists only work with one particular method.

Read on to learn about a few of the different techniques on offer in our Modern & Contemporary sale on Tuesday 5 October 2021.


FIRST What to look for?

1. A plate mark: an indentation around the edge of the print can help you tell if the print has been through a printing press




2. Texture to the surface of the print: an etching, woodcut or lithograph will have slightly raised ink whereas an offset lithograph will be flat and shiny




3. Pencil signatures or edition numbers: a print that is signed in pencil is always more valuable than an unsigned one, a smaller edition is often more valuable than a larger one. Looking to see if a signature is in pencil or printed is also a good way to tell if the print is an original or whether the whole image has been photocopied




Wood Engravings and Woodcuts:

Let’s start with lot 1, Tirzah Garwood’s ‘The Dog Show’. This is a wood engraving, Garwood has used a fine nib or graver to slowly carve into the wood and she achieves remarkable detail. It is a type of a relief printing and so the white areas in the print are where the wood has been cut into.


Lot 1 Tirzah Garwood

Lot 1 - Tirzah Garwood (1908-1951)
'The Dog Show'
wood engraving, numbered 169/500 in pencil l.l.
29 x 20.5cm

£300 - £500


A woodcut is similar to a wood engraving but they are carved into different grains of the wood. A woodcut uses the side-grain, which is softer and coarser than the end-grain used for engraving. The difference is obvious when we compare Garwood’s engraving to Paul Gauguin’s woodcuts (lot 126 and lot 127). The mark making is much broader and more obvious, for example the area of water in ‘Auti te Papi’ shows the marks where Gaugin has scooped out the wood. This kind of mark making is typical when looking at woodcuts. 

To print the image, ink is rolled onto the wooden design and the paper pressed down on top and rubbed to create the print.


Lot 126 Paul Gauguin

Lot 126 - Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)
'Auti Te Pape' (Kornfeld 13)
woodcut on China paper, inscribed '7th provetryk' (trial proof), from an edition of 100, published by the artist's son, Pola Gauguin, in 1921, signed 'Pola Gauguin imp' and inscribed Paul Gauguin fecit' in pencil
image 20.4 x 35.3cm

£1,000 - £1,500



The etching process is achieved chemically. A copper plate is heated and a thin layer of wax smoothed on top of it, using a small point or ‘drypoint’ the artist gently presses into the surface of the wax and removes it from the plate. The plate is then soaked in acid that eats into the areas where the wax has been removed. Therefore, the drawn line is the dark line that you see on the final print.


Lot 36 Frederick Landseer

Lot 36 - Frederick Landseer Griggs (1876-1938)
'Fen Monastery'
etching, 1926, signed 'F L Griggs' l.r., in pencil
plate mark 16.5 x 24.5cm

£300 - £500

This process is demonstrated in Frederick Landseer Griggs’s ‘Fen’ (lot 36), he uses fine black lines, some of which have been exposed to the acid for longer than others so that they hold more ink, and are darker. This creates tonal effects in the image.

A more contemporary example is Julian Trevelyan’s ‘Novgorod’ (lot 167), which uses two different plates to lay down the blue and crimson colour. The etching process allows for a freer movement of line than in wood engravings. This is clear in Trevelyan’s work, which has the feel of a drawing.


Julian Trevelyan Lot 167

Lot 167 - Julian Trevelyan RA (1910-1988)
etching with aquatint in colours, signed 'Julian Trevelyan', inscribed with title and numbered 19/50 in pencil
42 x 54cm

£300 - £500

Achieving another result are Norman Ackroyd’s two etchings (lots 236 and 237), which also use aquatint to create a lovely smokiness and haze to his landscapes. The aquatint is applied as fine dust or resin that sticks to certain areas of the plate, creating areas of shade.

If the work is an etching, there will always be a plate mark caused by the plate being pressed under force into the paper.


Norman Ackroyd Lot 237

Lot 237 - Norman Ackroyd RA (b.1938)
'Evening at Thirsk Hall', 2019
etching and aquatint, signed and dated 'Norman Ackroyd'19' inscribed as titled and numbered 64/90 in pencil
22.6 x 28.1cm, unframed

£300 - £500

Lithographs vs. Offset lithographs:

Lithographs are a popular choice for artists because this method allows for printing largescale images, the use of bright colour and a consistency of colour across the print. A lithograph uses stone slabs or metal plates, the artist draws onto the plate creating a design, each plate uses a different colour and so the image is gradually layered up. The material used to draw onto the plate is oil-based, which reacts with a solution of nitric acid and gum arabic causing a chemical change to the plate so that certain areas will hold the ink.

See Helaine Bluemenfeld’s lithographs (lots 247 and 247A) to understand how each colour is layered over each other, or turn to Paula Rego’s work (lots 251-253) which shows the bold black line of her drawing and subsequent bright colours added in blocks, brushstrokes and patterns. Rego’s and Blumenfeld’s work are both being sold to raise funds for the Curwen Print Study Centre and lots 229-253 in particular demonstrate a range of different printing techniques.


Helaine Blumenfield Lot 247

Lot 247 - Helaine Blumenfeld (American, b.1942)
lithograph in colours, signed 'H Blumenfeld', inscribed as titled, dated '2010' and numbered 9/15 in pencil
63.5 x 49.5cm, unframed

£800 - £1,200

Lithographs differ from offset lithographs, which are transferred from the stone to a rubber blanket and copied. An offset lithograph is often created from a photograph of the original artwork. In this way, the print is based on an image previously created by the artist, but the artist does not create the actual print. The sale offers a number of offset lithographs by L S Lowry (lots 133-138), these depict Lowry’s paintings; however, each print is signed in pencil by Lowry.


Lot 133 L S Lowry

Lot 133 - Laurence Stephen Lowry RA (1887-1976)
'Britain at Play'
offset lithograph in colours, signed 'L S Lowry' in pencil l.r., with the Fine Art Trade Guild blind stamp 'HCK'
image 44.6 x 59.5cm

£1,000 - £1,500 






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