Printmaking is a very old art form, dating, in the case of woodblock prints, to 9th-century China. Intaglio techniques such as engravings, etchings, and aquatints, were products of the Renaissance, while lithography signaled the arrival of an industrial age.
At first, printmaking techniques were not employed merely to allow an artist to produce multiple copies of a single image. Woodcuts, for example, were ways for publishers to illustrate everything from playing cards to books. Biblical illustrations by the great 16th-century German engraver Albrecht Dürer were printed so often from the same blocks over so many years that experts can actually date some of these images based on the original block’s degradation.
By the 20th century, artists saw prints as a way to literally multiply their output, while also creating more accessible price points for their work. American artist Maxfield Parrish used lithography to create multiples of his paintings for magazines—if you subscribed “Ladies Home Journal” in 1904, an unsigned and unnumbered, but nonetheless limited, reproduction Parrish’s “Air Castles” could be yours for a dime.
Other fine artists produced limited-edition prints that were often variations of subject matter they focused on in their paintings. The great prewar narrative painter Thomas Hart Benton made both paintings of rural American life as well as lithographs of the same. By the 1960s, artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were giving equal attention to their prints, if not more. Some artists from that era, notably Jasper Johns, are admired as much for the technical proficiency of their prints as the paintings they are often based on.
In the second decade of the 21st century, a new crop of printmaker is emerging. These artists take their cues from the gritty world of street art and graffiti, as well as posters and advertising, to produce prints in a variety of media—from traditional screenprinting to multiples built out of collaged vinyl records. Artists whose prints are attracting the attention of contemporary collectors include Mr. Brainwash and Shepard Fairey, who gained widespread acclaim for the poster he created for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Other artists are blurring the lines between posters and prints, particularly in the work they create for rock bands who commission them to design limited-edition music posters. Some of the most sought-after of these new signed-and-numbered limited editions are for the likes of Phish, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews by Jim Pollock, Brad Klausen, and Methane Studios, respectively.