History of Art Prints: The Guide

What is an art print?

An art print is simply a reproduction of an original piece. There are a multitude of ways an art piece can be reproduced, and multiple reasons why it should be reproduced. An art print is not limited to a particular style or culture. Art prints range from the surreal; to the contemporary; to impressionism. This may seem like an art print is virtually worthless as it is mass produced. However, there are art prints made to a limited quantity and some can reach 6 figure prices. Some artwork is made specifically as an art print, made to be reproduced or similar in stature. 

What is the history Behind art prints?

Art prints have been in production in the Far East for centuries, China used a form of print from wood blocking to print to cloth. Art printing made its way to Europe before the thirteen hundreds but it is unclear if it was through the Byzantine Empire or Islamic influences. Art prints were mainly used on cloth, and hung as decoration on walls or furniture. In some cases art prints were transferred to bandages to aid in swift healing. The most likely earliest cases of art prints would be created by master painters. Although there is little known about the development of art prints, they did seem to become cheaper and more commonplace from around the fifteenth century. 

Famous print artists

Andy Warhol

One of, if not the most well known print artist, is Andy Warhol. Known most commonly for his art print work of “Campbell’s Soup Cans”, Warhol popularised the Pop Art movement. The art prints at a glance looked like 32 identical prints of the same can. However, they were representative of the 32 different flavours that Campbell offered. It is believed that he created these art prints because he really liked soup. What makes these art prints interesting is how they were made. Each art print is made from scratch by projecting the image of the can to the canvas. So they look almost identical but there are some minor differences. The art prints are now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in order of when the cans were released, Tomato being first which was introduced in 1897. Andy Warhol famously said he wanted to be machine-like in his art, referring to his silk-screen process for printing repeatedly to a single canvas. Removing the human element from his art prints. 

Pablo Picasso

Known for his paintings, and opening up the cubist movement, Picasso was also a printmaker. In his early life as an artist, he made several lithograph prints. After the Second World War, Picasso worked with an art publisher known as Atelier Mourlot. Whilst working with Mourlot in his Parisian workshop, Picasso created near 200 lithographs. Original art prints of Picasso’s work are now a sort after commodity by art enthusiasts.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Known for working in the group of artists Die Brucke (The Bridge), Kirchner  was foremost known as an expressionist. Kirchner suffered greatly during the first world war, leading to a breakdown. His art prints were undesirable to the Nazi Germany goverment in World War 2 and marked as degenerate. Leading to his work being sold off or destroyed in 1937. This is believed to have contributed to his suicide the next year and has made his original prints highly sort after.

Influential women in art print

Melanie Yazzie

From the Navajo region of Ganado Arizona, Yazzie is a painter, printmaker and sculptor. Her works in art prints are known for conveying post-colonial issues within the Native American society. Yazzie keeps her artwork focused on indigenous people and makes it accessible to the general public. Her work brings up the roles of women as part of indigenous cultures, bringing to the forefront the potentiality of having female leaders. 

Lorna Simpson

A contemporary female printmaker, Simpson started her career as a documentary photographer. Whilst working as a photographer, she was exposed to multiculturalism in the 1980s. Simpson became well known for photographs of black women who would be depicted going against the social norms and stereotypes bestowed upon race and gender. It is known that feminism, specifically black feminism, was a major part in shaping her work. Feminist artwork became Simpson’s muse, expressing through her own feminist artwork using words and images to challenge the viewers idea of meaning. Simpson’s art pints are intended to create an incomplete narrative on what is social objectivity. The onus is on the viewer to interpret meaning, exposing personal beliefs and asking them to challenge their belief system. 


Lea Ahlborn

A swedish artist from the nineteenth century, Ahlborn was a famous artist and medalist who specialised as a printmaker. She was the first woman to be appointed as the royal printmaker. Which in turn also made Ahlborn the first female servant in Sweden. Scandinavian art prints were very popular in the nineteenth century

Sofia Ahlbom

Known more so for lithography, Ahlbom also was an artist, engraver and a map maker. Among many of Albom’s talents she was a feminist. She was not known for her feminist art pieces, but more her belief in womens rights. Her art prints were predominantly map making, which contemporarily speaking, is now a form of art in itself. 


How are art prints made?

Depending on the style of art the print maker is creating, there are several methods they may use. For example Fine Art Prints are printed using the Giclée, pronounced zhee clay, print method as it captures a higher quality of print during replication. Most modern day art prints are printed using the Giclée printing technique but there are alternative methods used historically. 

Different types of Art Prints

Not all Art Prints are created the same. In fact there are several types of print methods that are used to create art prints. Each having their own unique style and preference. The main art prints are Screen print, lithography, etching and Giclée Printing.

Screen Print

A very old form of Art Print, screen printing has its roots in ancient China. It is now mainly recognised for its use in pop art, by the artist Andy Warhol. The technique used for screen printing uses a mesh to transfer the ink to a permeable surface. The surface is primed this way to stop over saturation in certain places. This is used for what is known as the stencil method of printmaking. The stencil is imposed on the surface, usually a screen of polyester, on the areas not primed with the impermeable surface. Allowing for more detail to be added when bladed or smeared over the surface. 


This method of art print came to popularity in the nineteenth century. It is said to have been spearheaded by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His technique has influenced many print makers of the twentieth century, and is seen as the staple material to learn lithography. The method of lithography art prints starts with drawing onto stone using a grease based substance, known as tusche. Following this the stone is treated with a chemical solution to make sure the image attracts printing ink to it, and the blank areas do not. Instead the blank areas would attract water. Oil based ink is then rolled onto the stone, sticking to only the image. Finally the stone containing the art print is placed in a lithographic press and covered with a board and damp paper. The press makes sure the pressure is even by using a pressure bar. To make sure it prints evenly. The art print is then printed in reverse and if there is more than one colour being used then multiple stones are used and over lapped. 


Mainly in black and white for making stark contrasts, etching offers very high detail and uses the contrast in colour to evoke emotion in its viewers. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, most commonly known as Rembrandt, pioneered the use of etching in printmaking. Known for his artwork asking questions about humanity and the psychology of man. Etching is initially made with a specialised needle, a metal plate, and wax. The metal plate is covered in wax and then the needle is used to scratch an image onto the plate. The plate is then placed in acid that gets into the parts of the plate not covered in wax. At this point the plate is usually feathered or brushed lightly to stop bubbles interfering with the design. Once the plate is removed from the acid, the wax is cleared and ink pushed into the grooves left from the acid wash. Excess ink is wiped away where it is not in the grooves and a dampened paper is placed on the plate. At this point the plate is pressed to the dampened paper, causing it to “stain” the image in place.

Giclée Print

One of the more modern styles of printmaking, giclée was created in line with computing becoming more accessible. The word Giclée comes from the French words for nozzle, which is gicleur. It now refers to an art print method that uses archival inks and papers to print an image in a way that it does not degrade in quality over time. As it can print in full colour, it is great for replicating photo colour prints. While not affecting the original print. 

How have the art print trends changed over the years?

Art in general moves in waves. As art prints and art movements change due to culture and social norms, there is a counterculture forming to go against the grain. Art Prints have been used as a way to make a few copies in the past of specific artworks, but it really came into effect with the creation of the Gilcée print method. Due to the demand of contemporary art, art prints needed to be high quality and vibrant in colour.

Art Styles and Movements

Not only are there different ways to create art prints, but just like in any form of art, there are different genres or “styles”. Throughout the years there has been popular art styles and a counter-culture. Each artist has a meaning and is trying to express their motives through pictures instead of words. Art in of itself is subjective and will always have conflicting emotions associated with it. This is why an artist style is important, it diversifies the medium so there will always be a market for it. Art has evolved over the last forty to fifty thousand years. Prehistoric art, which was before information was preserved and written down, is art found mainly on cave walls. It is simplistic but shows that art is part of the social fabric of even the earliest iteration of the human race. As there are hundreds of movements throughout history, these are the most notable. 


Culture and society heavily influences art. The Medieval times, also referred to the dark ages, was a time of economical decay in the wake of the Fallen Roman Empire. A lot of art from this period depicts the harsh reality of the times. Often grotesque or obscene imagery, it did not leave a lot to the imagination. Although this form of art is bold and unsympathetic in nature, as the turn of the millenium unfolded the medieval period transitioned to more extravagant artwork. Not only do socioeconomic factors influence art, religion has inspired some of the most famous and iconic pieces of art in human history. The depiction of Jesus Christ and the Church, was seen with positivity and the answer to the uncertainty in the current climate. During this time churches were being decorated with biblical and mythological imagery. 


Socioeconomics seems to be the concurrent theme for most if not all art and art prints throughout each movement. Secularism was more prominent in the late medieval period, so the art and art prints became influenced around individualism. The idea of a separance from the Church and seeing mankind more self-reliant and independent. The movement rose in popularity in the Florence region of Italy. During the high renaissance, some of the most well known and iconic art was created. In contrast to the movement of secularism, one of the most renowned pieces of art is Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Depicting the gospels of the bible, leading to the wall of The Last Judgement. It has art lovers all over the World travel to see it. The renaissance is also the period in which one of the most recognisable artists created some of the most recognisable pieces of art, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci, among other talents, was a very accomplished artist. Painting the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. The Last Supper being another piece of artwork influenced directly by the New Testament. The scene is a dramatisation of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples. It is where the Eucharist derives from. The Eucharist is the ceremony of consecrating the bread and wine before consumption, to honour the last supper. 


This period in the art and art print movement became known for its grandiose representation of life. Using an ornate and over the top visual style. Baroque pieces often pictured mankind in a rich and strong light, in line with the human race moving towards broadening their intellect. Pieces from this period were dramatic with strong colours. Rembrandt used the intensity of contrast between light and dark colours and imagery. One of the most iconic paintings from this period is Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. As she is in a dark setting, there is nothing else but her. Making this painting an intimate and personal affair to the viewer. There are no distractions and the focus is on her. 


During the Baroque period, another movement was being embraced in Paris, France. Rococo was much in the way of a contrast of style, using a softer palette of colours. The colours were subtle and natural. Rococo was seen throughout all types of artist expression. From painting to sculpture. Jean-Antoine Watteau created many paintings during this time and is said to have been influential in the movement. Due to how light and fine the brush work was in creating Rococo artwork, it was found to be easily transitioned to other mediums, such as silver, porcelain and French furniture. Armoires, for instance, featured flowing curves and floral designs.


Neoclassical, is the resurgence of the classical movement. Archaeologists made new discoveries of ancient civilisations in Athens, Greece and Naples, Italy. Thus kickstarting a wave of “new classical” art and art prints. The result was to reuse original design principles of simplicity and proportions. Not only did artists try to recreate classical art pieces, Neoclassicalism produced famous new pieces of art that were dictated by the current times. Using grandeur and a sense of inevitability, great pieces of artwork created by Jacques-Louis David were devised. Known for the “Napoleon crossing the Alps” painting, the scene has Napoleon upon a white horse rearing on a horse. The emperor is to be seen as good and powerful, the trope of light versus darkness. A horse has been used throughout history to show strength.


Being far removed from neoclassicalism, the romantic period embraced expression and imagination. Artists choosing not to be constrained to the rules and proportions of classical pieces, and some embracing nature. Henry Fuseli looked deeper into the darker side of human psychology, with dark and often macabre imagery. Many of Fuseli’s paintings depicted death, control and constraint. The continuing theme throughout his paintings seems to be loss or suffering. 


Beginning in France towards the end of the 1840s. The artistic movement strayed away from conceptual ideas of human nature and creative interpretations, into realism. As the name suggests, paintings and other forms of art were looking to capture the finest of detail. This was in turn due to the rise in journalism and photography. Gustave Courbet dedicated his craft to only painting what he physically could see in front of him. His portrayal of life as it sparked controversy. Being a socialist, his paintings showed the raw and uncensored hardship of impoverished people. 


Known to be an expressive form of art style, impressionists use quick and short brush strokes. The style would normally have an unfinished feel to it like a rough design or sketch. The idea behind the rushed feel was intentional, the artist wanted to capture the moment. In most cases the piece would emphasise light as accurate as possible, believed to show the passage of time more effectively. Arguably the most well known impressionist artist, Claude Monet. Monet believed in putting perception before nature in his paintings. Water Lilies, as part of his Nympheas series of paintings, is highly regarded as a seminal piece of impressionism. 


As with many movements, a counterculture was created to go against the idea of naturalistic lighting and colour. Post-impressionism, being a rather isolated form of art, focused on the individual and not a group. It focused more on insinuations of shapes and colours, rather than accurate depictions. Vincent Van Gogh was a troubled artist of this movement. Suffering from what is now understood as a declining mental health, his paintings were not well received at the time but now are some of the most recognisable pieces in art history. Most notably Starry Night, depicting the view from his asylum window, offers an array of abstract colours and shapes to imply clouds, wind, and the night sky. Although none of the assets in the painting are true to form, Van Gogh’s style of strokes allow the viewer to interpret his emotions, rather than an accurate depiction of the night sky. 


Seen as the harbinger of cubism and expressionism, Fauvism builds on the work Van Gogh started. Using extreme colour choices and larger brush strokes to give a more drastic and striking look. Fauvism would later go on to be described as the first avant-garde movement of the 20th century. Henri Matisse embodies the movement with his bold colours, abstract settings and his influences in printmaking. Working in art prints for more than 50 years, he finished over 800 art prints using etching, lithographs and woodcuts. Being regarded as one of the world's best printmakers, contemporary artists use his style as a benchmark in making their own art prints. 


Born out of a world filled with conflict and the decline of spirituality, expressionism focused heavily on the internal struggle and raw emotions of the artist. Which in turn reflected the general anxiety of society. This was achieved by distorting imagery and hard colours, but also by trying to expand past the western influences of art and society. Looking outward to more tribal affairs for inspiration. Van Gogh again being attributed to the foundations of expressionism, the artist Edvard Munch excelled the expressionist movement to new ground. The almost infamous painting of “The Scream”, has art lovers and agnostics alike entranced by the striking imagery. The face is said to stare out at the viewer, leaving most feeling uneasy, however it asks a lot of questions about the artist himself. Munch explained how the scream is a reflection of his inner struggles. The piece was never about technical skill, but to try and show inner meaning through art. 


Using very sharp edges, as in to defy how nature forms, Cubism offers an almost surreal feeling of abstraction. The art is often of something familiar, then divided up and rearranged slightly, so the impression of the image is there. Following suit as the counterculture of post-impressionism. Cubism was used to disrupt the normal approach to natural art. It offered a sense of freedom through limitation that the mainstream art scene did not have. Pablo Picasso, was the creator, along with Georges Braque, of cubism. Picasso believed in emphasising the difference between painting and reality. Using his memories and observations to convey a concept of relativity. 


Created by the Dada art movement, surrealism was an expression of denouncing rational reasoning. In the wake of World War One, surreal art formed from a belief that artist expression and imagination was being repressed. Said to be influenced by the findings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, surrealism explored the mind and how it is understood. Salvador Dali was said to be the most influential surrealist, most notably for his “The Persistence of Memory”. Like other forms of art and art print movements, surrealist paintings were heavily down to one's interpretation. The consensus is that the melting clocks represent Dali’s own childhood and memories as he aged. 


As the world of art was moving towards the abstract and absurd, minimalism emerged in New york. Minimalism is in stark contrast to the norm as it denounces most if not all forms of subject. Shapes do not resemble a form of natural objectivity, in the favour of geometric shapes and solid colours. 

Contemporary Art

The Genre of contemporary art has many categories within itself. From Postmodernism to Digital art, there are many subgenres that fall into this category. One of the most important in the modern day is feminist art. Feminist art prints are known for their barrier breaking themes, trying to balance the malesentric world that has dominated throughout history. Printmaking has a predominant feminist audience and it one of the many ways the feminist movement can get their message heard. Feminist art prints are inexpensive and affective way to show support.

Why do people buy art prints?

Art prints can mean different things to different people. Most assumptions are correct, but it depends on what type of art print they are looking at. In the context of mass production art prints, these are decorative extensions of the buyer. They like how it looks and makes them feel and they are not expensive. Art prints can also mean where an artist has made the stencil or stamp themselves and then manually transferred the image to a handful of canvases, these are usually more expensive as they can be more limited edition. However, not all art is bought because it may hold some value in the future. A lot of art prints are bought just for decoration. To fill a gap on an empty wall, or just add some personality to a home. The most popular art style in modern layouts in homes would be abstract pieces. They are simplistic, usually inoffensive and easy to either match the colour of the room or add some contrast for a bold feature.

What are popular sizes for art prints? 

Having mentioned why people buy art prints, and how they are great for blank wall space, it is important to make sure to get the right size art print. There is some debate on which print sizes sell most frequently. Most sizes are acceptable providing they fit. Although, art prints seem to do best in the 5x7 inches range. Small enough to fit virtually anywhere in the home, but will not be a feature of the room. In other instances, it is said art prints around the size of A3 are the perfect size. It is larger so will not fit on a coffee stand, but will become a prominent feature in any home. It does seem to be the case that there are a lot of A3 size prints available, more so than other sizes. 

Where do people put art prints?

There is no one specific place to have art prints. It all depends on the space of the office, living area or public area. If the art print is to be at home, it might be a feature on the living room above a fireplace, or in the bedroom overlooking the bed. Art prints are versatile and different enough to accommodate any room or area. For business premises, they could easily be in the waiting area or reception. Also around the office to add some colour to the otherwise plain interior. Whatever the location, art prints work virtually everywhere.