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A Short History of Printed Art
By Michael Russell

The oldest and most well-known graphic art prints were first produced by woodcut printing. The Chinese were the first to make religious woodcut prints though they never became prominent print designers. The Japanese learned wood cutting and woodcarving techniques from the Chinese and Koreans and went on to produce some of the most prized prints today. The first of these prints were created in black and white and decades later, the Japanese began printing in three colors. At around 1700, they began to use eight to 11 blocks of colors to produce more sophisticated works. One of the big differences between Western and Oriental woodcut art is the way that changes of shade are achieved. For example, in the East, the watercolor is brushed on the surface of the wood block like in a painting, while in the West, shading is achieved by the increasing the degree of engraving and the depth of the designs carved in the wood block.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, woodcuts were primarily used to make fabric designs. Playing cards and religious pictures were also the first products of European printers. After the invention of movable type, history books and Bibles began to be filled with woodcut illustrations.

There are three main methods of making prints. The oldest one is the relief method where the print is carved on a raised surface. Woodcuts are the most popular form of relief painting. It could be tedious because the artist would first get a block of wood and cut away the background from this design. The design was then slowly inked and printed.

The second printing method is called "intaglio" and is the opposite of relief printing. In "intaglio", the print is made from the lines of areas which have been cut or burned away. After the drawing has been carved on a metal plate, the plate is covered with ink. Damp paper is placed on the top of the plate and when the paper and plates are run through the press, the paper he lifts the ink from the lines.

A third method is known as the planographic process. Lithography is the most common type of planographic printing. Slabs of limestone are the most commonly used materials, although lithographs can be made from metal sheets. Lithography was invented in 1796 and was primarily used as a cheap method to produce music sheets. The lithograph first won popularity in France because it was less complicated and cheaper to use than woodcuts and was better suited to mass production. Europeans started to use it as a means to print political propaganda, wall decorations and book illustrations.

The invention of photography ended the use of prints to produce paintings and reproductions. Silk screen also became one of the more popular ways to produce mass prints. Most 20th-century artists have attempted to make prints. Prints are so seldom used today because they are no longer are created for mass-produced publications. So today, a print, whether carved, etched, designed, or printed by the artist himself, is now acknowledged as a precious work of art. But unlike a painting of which there is only one "original", a print can yield up to 50 originals. For this reason, an artist's print can usually cost less than one of his original paintings. However, many great art collections and galleries have been started with the purchase of a single print.

Michael RussellYour Independent guide to Arts