Tips for Collecting Prints, from a Printmaking Expert
Portrait of Miranda Metcalf. Courtesy of Miranda Metcalf.
Tanekaya Word, “Supernova Study: No. 6” [a work in progress], 2018–20. Courtesy of the artist.
Meet Miranda Metcalf, powerhouse of the printmaking world. In 2018, after years as director of contemporary prints at Seattle’s Davidson Galleries, Metcalf launched her own podcast and magazine, Pine | Copper | Lime (PCL), which quickly became a leading voice in the field. In less than two years, she’s released over 35 episodes featuring renowned artists from nearly every continent, and has amassed over 25,000 followers on Instagram. Despite it being a fairly new presence in the art media landscape, PCL already makes regular appearances on university syllabi and has received rave reviews. In a recent conversation, this grande dame of printmaking shared pro tips and common misconceptions about print collecting she wants Artsy readers to know.
The fine print
Any aspiring print collector should note that there are two kinds of fine art prints—reproductions of an artist’s work and original works of printmaking. “There are definitely nefarious entities taking advantage of that ambiguity, selling photocopies at the price of original lithographs,” Metcalf said. In one episode of her podcast, she shared a heartbreaking anecdote of a man who’d invested in what he thought were limited-edition, original Miró lithographs. Turns out, they were reproductions. “One is worth the paper it’s printed on, and the other is truly an original,” she said. Both, however, could technically be advertised as limited runs. In order to distinguish the two, Metcalf suggests checking for a dot matrix under magnification. Its existence is a sure sign it’s a printed copy, not the solid ink of printmaking. As for a certificate of authenticity? “Anyone with a printer can make that,” Metcalf cautioned—not to mention the fact that the art world’s definition of “authenticity” is very up for debate. Luckily, that’s a secondary market worry. Collectors need not fear the grift when perusing the primary market, where most contemporary works are sold.
Up close and personal
It’s important to note that most printmaking calls for remarkably durable paper. Take, for example, Kozu paper: “You could print it, dry it, fold it up in your wallet, take it somewhere, and then just wet it, flatten it, and you’ve got your image again,” said Metcalf. This hardiness, plus the typically smaller scale of a print, allows for a more intimate experience. You can pick prints up, hold them, bring them close, and examine the fine details without having to worry about ruining them. Metcalf explained that paper is the silent partner in printmaking. In addition to the image, the quality and materiality of the paper can truly make a print. If you’re displaying your prints behind glass, Metcalf encourages a floated frame to showcase the considered play between the image and paper edge.
Price of entry
Compared to other art forms, printmaking’s lower price point offers greater accessibility to collecting. “Say you’re a merchant at the tulip mart in Antwerp 500 years ago,” Metcalf explained. “You’ll never get Jan van Eyck to paint a portrait of you and your wife in oil, but you can collect woodcuts that will bring you joy.” The same price differential applies today. According to Metcalf, instead of purchasing an IKEA stock image printed on canvas, you could enjoy an original work of art for not much more expense. With many extremely talented printmakers selling at the three-digit price point, collecting isn’t reserved for the wealthiest. In a recent episode of PCL, Armstrong Fine Art owner Bernard Derroitte compared the price of purchasing an original print to the cost of a night on the town. “Take that same money and turn it into a Jenny Robinson print,” Metcalf echoed. Besides bringing lasting joy, buying contemporary prints allows collectors to support living, working artists, which, according to Metcalf, “is always good karma.”
A medium for the people
Printmaking’s roots are democratic. The nature of its reproducibility means that a single image can be dispersed anywhere and everywhere and be seen by anyone and everyone. And while other art forms tend to represent the ethos of the ruling class, prints have historically told the story of the people—what Metcalf called “the messiness of humans that’s been around forever.” Since its earliest days, printmakers have detailed the subversive. “Revolutionary ideas, the erotic, the taboo—all of the underbelly,” she continued. In the words of printmaker Joseph Velasquez, prints are the “elevator of society.” With prints, as Velasquez has argued, the same block of wood can be printed on beautiful paper behind gallery glass, on a T-shirt, or on newsprint to be wheatpasted throughout the city. But even with its democratic leanings and relative accessibility, printmaking isn’t immune to inequity. Virtually every artist on Metcalf’s podcast discovered printmaking at a university. In addition to requiring robust facilities, printmaking often requires cost prohibitive materials. “We’re still talking ‘accessible’ within an already high tier of privilege,” she said. Many printmakers, like Tanekeya Word, address these inequities through concrete action, like making scholarship programs available at all print shops.
“Printmakers are social creatures,” Metcalf said. Unlike the trope of the solitary painter, creatives in the print industry are drawn to the medium’s spirit of community, activism, and collaboration. Because few artists have access to a private studio or print facilities, most utilize community or university print shops. This logistical necessity creates a communal mindset. Metcalf described it as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Artists who enjoy that shared way of working are drawn to that space, exchanging a cup of tea or feedback on a proof. Even PCL’s slogan—“Shun the non-believers”—pays a tongue-in-cheek homage to the community’s tight-knit, us-against-the-world spirit.
Prints on the move
There’s nothing quite like the early romance of a new print. All too often, however, that honeymoon phase passes. “You have a very dynamic relationship with it,” Metcalf explained, “but after six months, it fades into the background.” To account for this, she recommends rotating artworks periodically, particularly after significant events—a potentially fruitful activity for self-isolation. Metcalf even described going to loved ones’ houses after a lawsuit or a separation to kick off that refresh. “You dust the floorboards, you clap the corners, and you move the art around,” she said. Or, alternatively, “Buy a new print!”
Ye olde “Netflix and chill”
Before there was “Netflix and chill,” there was “Come up and see my etchings.” Metcalf suggested bringing back this long-lost, once en vogue ritual. “The same way you might invite someone over for wine and a movie, you could go through your print portfolio,” she said. Back in the day, the cost and scarcity of glass would have made framing prohibitive. Art, therefore, was enjoyed via portfolio. “Setting time aside in your life for actually appreciating art—looking at each print, holding it, passing it around—in the privacy of your own home is something we miss out on in the 21st century,” Metcalf lamented.
Trust your gut
As both gallerist and art adviser, Metcalf has worked with countless first-time collectors. Her main piece of advice for all her clients is to trust your intuition. There’s no right or wrong answer. “Understanding your own intuitive response to art is a skill,” she said, explaining that the most satisfied collectors she works with are those whose foremost criterion is delight. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping it that simple.”
Correction: A previous version of the headline of this article referred to Miranda Metcalf as a printmaker; she is a printmaking expert.