Aboriginal Art and Torres Strait Islander Art - Limited Edition Prints, Paintings, Sculptures and Books

Printmaking Techniques

What Is An Original, Limited Edition, Fine Art Print?

There are two kinds of prints.

The ones commonly know as prints or posters, are reproductions from an original painting, drawing or photograph and are produced by a photomechanical process, usually in large quantities. They are produced using the cheapest possible materials, which makes them affordable.

Original or fine art prints are quite different in that they have been created by the artist working on a metal plate, lithographic stone, linoleum or wood block or screen and are printed in limited numbers. Furthermore they are hand printed using light fast archival quality inks on high quality acid free paper.As a result original prints have a long life measured in hundreds of years.

Limited edition prints are numbered and signed by the artist. That is why they are called ‘original’ prints. They are not reproductions. They are produced by hand, one at a time from a matrix that the artist has worked on especially for the edition.

There are several other hallmarks that distinguish original prints from their mass market counterpart.

The print run or edition is limited in number. This can be as few as five but usually not more than 100.

They are often referenced to the printmaking technique that was used. For example an original print may be referred to as a limited edition or fine art lithograph, etching, aquatint, screenprint, linocut or woodcut.

The prints are numbered and hand signed by the artist. The numbers are usually found below and to the left of the image. An edition marked 25/99 indicates that it is the 25th print in an edition of 99 prints. The signature is usually below and to the right of the image. Many indigenous artists, especially the older ones who do not read or write, sign with an X or thumbprint in ink. Often the title of the print is hand written below and in the centre of the image.

The making of Original Prints is usually a collaborative process between the artist and a master printmaker. These printmakers are highly regarded artisans who are able to make a valuable contribution to the printmaking process through their skill, knowledge and expertise. Most printmakers will place their studio’s ‘Chop’ or embossed logo outside the image to the bottom right of the paper

Featured above, The ‘Chop’ or embossed logo of Basil Hall Editions and signature of the artist Judy Napangardi Watson.

There are a handful of printmakers working with Australian indigenous artists who are held in high esteem. The appearance of their ‘Chop’ adds to the provenance and often the value of the print.
These printmakers include Basil Hall, Theo Trembley and Martin King.

In addition there are a number of important studios that have worked with a large number of Aboriginal artists. These include

  • Northern Editions
  • Editions Tremblay
  • Basil Hall Editions
  • Under The House of Art
  • Australian Print Workshop
  • Cicada Press
  • Megalo Prints
  • Port Jackson Press
  • Open Bite
  • Red Hand, and
  • Studio One.

Caring for Prints

Works on paper are more fragile than most other art forms so care needs to be taken to maintain them in good condition.

With proper care limited edition prints, can remain in excellent condition for hundreds of years. Do not puncture the paper with thumb tacks or pins.

Never cut the edges of the paper. Uneven edges on a paper sheet are often the hallmark of hand made and fine art papers.

Handle prints with care. Use white gloves (available at most pharmacies) or very clean hands. When moving a print use both hands on opposite sides of the sheet so the paper bows and does not crimp.

Flatten rolled prints placing the curled side on a flat surface. If the printed side is face down lay tissue paper or clean paper sheets between the print and the flat surface. Lay a sheet or sheets of cardboard over the print and weigh down with books or other weights.

If you are storing prints use a solander box * or other container made of acid free materials that allows the prints to lie flat. Interleave each print with a sheet of acid free tissue paper. Try to avoid storing flat on the floor. Elevate so air can circulate around the box.

Avoid dusty, humid or moist environments and areas that could harbour insects, particularly silverfish.

Never hang your prints in an area that gets direct sunlight. It is also best to keep them away from bright artificial light. Sunlight and fluorescent bulbs emit UV light which can cause colours to fade and papers to discolour.

Avoid hanging on the inside of an exterior wall as temperature changes can cause deterioration. Avoid hanging close to radiators or other heat sources.

* Solander boxes were used originally for the safe transportation of botanical specimens and were named after the 18th century Swedish botanist, Daniel Charles Solander who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour on his expedition to the Pacific.

Solander boxes are made from acid free materials and are used by libraries, art galleries and museums for the safe storage of prints and manuscripts.

They are usually a clam shell design with a collapsible spine to minimise damage to the prints.

An internet search for Solander boxes is likely to find a supplier near you. In Australia, Duck Prints are a reliable source for standard and custom made boxes.

Framing Prints

The best advice we can give on framing is to find a good, honest and reliable framer. When you collect your print from the framer you can’t see what has gone on behind the mat and print so you need to be confident that your framer is competent and has used good quality acid free boards and tapes.

Finding such a framer is not that difficult. Often the gallery where you purchased your print will provide a framing service. If they are a reputable gallery you can be confident they will have the print framed properly.

Some public libraries and art galleries will tell you the framers they use. Many cities and countries have framing associations that require their members to meet ethical and competency standards. These can be found quite easily on the internet. For example, in USA try www.PPFA.com .

  • Use acid free tapes, backing boards and mats.
  • Make sure that the print is not in contact with the glass. Use a mat or float the print in a box frame.
  • Do not use glues, double sided tape or dry mounting

The Aesthetics

Traditional Aboriginal culture and everyday living was not bound by squares and rectangles as it is in Western cultures. This is partly why, in Aboriginal art, you see irregular shapes that are not contained within 90 degree angles commonly seen in Western art.

Give this some thought when you are deciding how to frame your Aboriginal print. Irregular shapes often suit the print being floated in the frame.

Matting tends to emphasis the image rather than the paper and is a more formal approach to framing prints. The matting acts as a border that allows the image to breath by separating it for the external environment.

Collecting

Collecting Aboriginal art is, for the most part, just like collecting any other object or art form. 

As with any art, an individual piece is attractive to the buyer according to its aesthetic value, but its real financial value will depend on the renown of the artist, their resume, and where the particular work fits in to the artist’s oeuvre. Aboriginal art, however, has an additional overlay. It is important to recognise the artist’s age and seniority within his or her own tribe and their position in the historical development of the Aboriginal art movement.

There are literally thousands of Aboriginal artists, at least 500 represented in major gallery collections, and more than 50 identifiable traditional tribal styles. While this may seem to be a maze for the uninitiated it is really not all that difficult to demystify.

Whether you are buying for pleasure, or for investment, the field of Aboriginal art is diverse and full of visual surprises. It falls generally in to three categories: images executed in natural earth pigments; acrylic ‘sand’ paintings, and urban ‘contemporary’ art.

Aboriginal Prints

Since the early 1980’s artist’s, whose work fits in to each of these categories, have embraced the mediums of lithography, etching, linocut, woodcut and screenprinting in collaboration with fine art print making studios. As a result all of these artistic styles are now represented in limited edition prints.

Collecting limited edition prints is much the same as collecting works in other media. Look for a good print by a good artist and you can’t go far wrong. Printmaking is usually a collaborative arrangement for many indigenous artists who choose to work along side a master printmaker. These master printmakers are highly trained artisans in their own right so their skill and reputation is an important factor in the printmaking process.

Traditional Artforms

Traditionally, artists from Australia’s far north paint with earth pigments (ochres ground from rock) to create figurative, minimalist and abstracted works on bark, art papers, canvas and linen, as well as making wooden sculptures decorated in ochres along with utilitarian and ceremonial items. The work, which ranges from Arnhem Land’s classic X-ray art and other styles derived from cave painting, to the ochre canvases and boards originally carried in ceremonies in the Kimberley, has often been characterised as ‘ethnographic’, but it is as contemporary in its rendering of ageless mythological images and stories as any ‘Western’ art.

Desert ‘sand paintings’ often generally referred to as ‘acrylics’ because of the medium used, are so named because of their derivation from ceremonial, low relief ground constructions made in the desert sand. These are painted on canvas or high quality Belgian linen by tribal people throughout the Central and Western deserts. Like Arnhem Land art, they are referred to as ‘traditional’ because they come from communities where Aboriginal people continue to live a relatively traditional lifestyle and practice their ancient ceremonies to this day. Desert paintings range from the highly decorative and geometrically formal Anmatjerre tribal works, to the bold, linear and vibratory images of the Kukatja, Warlpiri and Warlmatjarri people, each tribe has its own recognisable style and within it each artist’s work is individually identifiable. The best of these artists’ work is exhibited and collected by major public and private art galleries and institutions around the world.

Collectable urban Aboriginal work is strongly identity based and may make references to traditional themes, politics, or contemporary situations and issues. These artists work in similar ways to their European contemporaries while drawing on their own cultural origins. If you are attracted to this urban art it is important to remember that it is improper for any Aboriginal artist to appropriate tribal imagery that does not come from their own particular tribal group. For this reason it is important when looking at this type of ‘contemporary’ art to look for an individual style reflecting the artist’s heritage.

Whether you are looking at canvasses, barks or prints you will recognise, in time, the various regional styles and style of the individual artists.

Collecting

If you intend to spend an extended period in Australia, contact the main Aboriginal galleries in your city and ask to be put on their mailing list to receive invitations.

Many of these galleries show prints, however, if you are a dedicated print collector and visiting Sydney, you should call in to Aboriginal Art Prints who have, by far, the largest range of current editions and secondary market prints by indigenous artists from all over Australia.

Look in the best bookshops for the many excellent books currently in print. Two indispensable references are Vivien Johnson’s Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert  which lists most of the important desert artists with their background, and the small Thames and Hudson paperback Aboriginal Art, written by the former curator of the National Gallery of Australia’s Aboriginal collection, Wally Caruana . Another excellent small book of the same name is published by Phaidon and written by noted scholar Howard Morphy . However there are a large number of books currently available which cover individual art styles and in some cases individual important artists which are beautifully illustrated. A few hours browsing in a good bookshop will be both fun and highly informative.

Check the books section on this website . These titles and a wide selection of other books can be ordered online. To help narrow your choice, all the books are referenced by region, artist, subject and themes.

During the past 30 years many individual collectors and museums have, with the help of expert Australian curators and gallery directors, developed extremely fine collections of Aboriginal art. These are now located in every Australian capital city and overseas including Seattle, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Vienna and many many more.

Value

While you can buy a painting for as little as $50, the highest price paid for an Australian Aboriginal painting has been $770,000. It is therefore vital, should you want to buy a fine individual work, or go on to develop a good collection, to know who you are dealing with, what you are collecting and consider your budget.

Generally, the work of important Aboriginal artists has increased in value markedly over the past 30 years. Prudent buyers who develop a good relationship with specialist galleries can not only get an enormous amount of pleasure from collecting and living with the art of the world’s oldest continuous living culture, they can be assured their investment is secure. In fact many collectors purchase the work of prominent artists through their personal superannuation funds or under leasing arrangements, while others trawl the galleries for that special work and then try to arrange the terms to pay it off.

Collecting Aboriginal Prints

While the price of barks and canvasses by our better known indigenous artists are beyond the budget of many people, collecting prints is an affordable way of being able acquire an original work by one of these artists at a fraction of the cost.

The National Gallery of Australia, all state galleries, many regional and university galleries as well as some overseas institutions collect indigenous prints. Our National Gallery has a particularly fine collection that has been acquired over the years with the generous assistance of the Gordon Darling Foundation. Many of the state galleries, university collections and smaller institutions that lack the resources of their larger counterparts collect prints and other works on paper almost exclusively as it allows them acquire works by important artists within their limited budgets.

The collectable Aboriginal prints are the ones produced by artists working on etching plates, acetate cells or screens (for screenprints), lithographic stones and linoleum or wood blocks. They are created by the artists and printmakers especially for the edition. The number of prints in each edition are strictly limited. They are numbered and individually signed by the artists. This is in fact what imparts added value to each piece and makes them collectable. Aboriginal Art Prints was established specifically to assist Australian Aboriginal artists to work in the print medium. It is involved with the artists and their communities from the commissioning stage through to publishing, production, marketing and distribution. Aboriginal Art Prints is dedicated to fair and equitable dealing with Indigenous artists and to advancing opportunities for them to exhibit their work internationally. Purchasing a print from the Aboriginal Art Prints or one of the many fine galleries it supplies is your guarantee of quality workmanship, authenticity and cultural integrity.

Article By Adrian Newstead

Investing

There are several reasons why you should consider investing in original prints. If you are new to collecting or investing, or have a limited budget, prints provide an economical and less risky entry point.

The affordability of prints allows you to acquire works by a number of different artists. Any financial advisor would not recommend that you invest all your funds in a single stock or asset class. The rationale for this also applies to art. Diversify your risk by investing in a range of different artists. If you are working with a limited budget, prints are the ideal medium that allows you to accomplish this investment strategy.

As we have said elsewhere on this website, ‘buy a good print by a good artist and you can’t go far wrong’. But, who are the good artists? A measure we use, and one we apply when deciding which artists to publish, is their reputation. Reputation is largely made up of two components. Firstly, what price are their works selling for and how quickly are their prices escalating? And secondly, which major institutions, and how many have collected their work?

There are however excellent prints available by lesser known artists that will appreciate in value. These are a little harder to identify but, none the less worth looking for. Adopt the philosophy of experienced art collectors – if you really like a work, and you have taken the trouble to find about the print and the artist, buy it.

Senior Deceased Artists

If you are looking at investing or collecting within the short term there is a window of opportunity that is closing and will finally shut within a year or two. What we are talking about here is the fact that there are still prints available from a group of artists that will be seen as being unique in the history of Aboriginal art. These are those artists, mostly in their 80s, who were born into a traditional lifestyle that was largely unchanged for thousands of years. Many of them did not come into contact with white people until they were in their teens or even later. Because of this they have, or had, an unadulterated link with their culture. The knowledge and ownership of stories that this brought is reflected in their art and that is what makes it unique. The era of these artists has almost past. The price of their canvasses, barks, boards and sculptures are way beyond the budgets of most people, but original prints by some of these artists are still available on the primary market at reasonable prices from Aboriginal Art Prints. However, as many of them are now deceased, and some are no longer active, the quantities available are limited.

These artists include – Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, Jack Britten, Peter Nabarlambarl, England Banggala, David Malangi, George Milpurrurru, Freda Warlipini, Abie Jangala, Lucy Yukenbarri Napanangka, Tjamma Napanangka, Susie Bootja Bootja, Samson Martin Japaljarri and Jimmy Pike,

Senior Living Artists

This window of opportunity we mentioned earlier also applies to a group of very important artists that are still alive and some of who are still active in printmaking and producing works in other media.

The artists in this group that Aboriginal Art Prints have current editions of include – Paddy Carlton, Hector Jandanay, Freddy Timms, Mick Kubarkku, Lofty Nadjamerrek, Thompson Yulidjirri, Eubena Nampitjin, Boxer Milner, Butcher Cheryl, Bai Bai Napangarti, Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, Helicopter Tjungurrayi, Judy Martin, Judy Watson Napangardi, Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi, Liddy Nelson Nakamarra, Paddy Sims Japaljarri, Paddy Stewart Japaljarri, Ronnie Lawson Jakamarra, Rosie Tasman Napurrula, Teddy Morrison Jupurrurla, Tjumpo Tjapanangka, Uni Martin Nampijinpa, Billy Thomas, Clara Wubukwubuk, Djardi Ashley, Sam Tjampitjin, Fred Tjakamarra, Ada Bird, David Ross, Lindsay Bird, Lily Karedada, Marle Naparula, Mary McLean, Namiyal Bopirri, Phillip Gudthaykudthay, Peggy Griffiths, Alan Griffiths, Peter Newry Thompson Yulidjirri

The ‘Yilpinji, Love Magic & Ceremony’ portfolio of prints includes works by 15 of these senior artists, some of whom are now deceased. This is an ideal opportunity to obtain works by this important group of artists for a fraction of the price it would cost to acquire their original canvasses.

Important Younger Artists

This group includes artists in their 30s through to their 60s. They are artists whose works have been acquired by major Australian institutions and overseas collections. They have been recognised because of their artistic integrity and often because they are seen as having picked up the baton from their peers. These artists include Dennis Nona, Johnny Bulunbulun, Arone Meeks, Sally Morgan, Judy Watson, Andrew Margalulu, Bronwyn Bancroft, Banduk Marika, Billy Missi, Bede Tungutalum, David Bosun, Mable Juli, Mignonette Jamin, Maryanne Mungatopi, Michelle Possum, Pedro Wonaeamirri, Roy Burrunuyla, Timothy Cook, Victor Motlop, Molly Tasman Napurrurla, Bruce Nabegyo, Terry Ngamandara and Jimmy Wululu

Emerging Artists

Aboriginal Art Prints is passionate about giving younger indigenous artists the opportunity to develop and commercialise their art practise. In order to help accomplish this we have identified a group of artists who we think have enormous talent and potential. Many of these artists have finished or about to finish their tertiary printmaking education mostly at TAFE (Tertiary Adult ??) colleges. These artists have been brought to our attention through our contacts and knowledge of indigenous printmaking, their lecturers and the artists themselves.

Signatures from Aboriginal artists often take the form of thumbprints Investing in these artists is more risky than buying the work of established artists as there is no guarantee that they will move on to be recognised artists. However, many investors who have taken the trouble to seek out the work of emerging artists have been handsomely rewarded. Some of the artists in this group whose prints you can see at Aboriginal Art Prints include Joey Laifoo, Robert Mast and Matatia Warrior

Provenance

When buying any form of art, provenance is all important. With prints you would want to know – something about the artist. Which major institutions have collected his or her work? When and where the artist has exhibited.? Who was the publisher of the print? Which studio printed the edition and who was the printmaker? How, when and where the plates, stones, screens or blocks were created? When was it printed?

Printmakers often include their chop mark on the print (as above) the above chop is from Basil Hall editions, on of the most reputable printmakers working with indigenous artists today. A link to this studio only adds the prints reputation and provenance.

There are only a handful of printmaking studios working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. These studios are very zealous about protecting their reputation so it is highly unlikely that they would cut corners or compromise their integrity even if this was the wish of an opportunistic publisher. There are also a limited number of publishers so it is not that difficult to find out if your print has been published and printed by known and reputable people.

Most Aboriginal art depicts country, spirit beings, creation ancestors, creation legends, ceremonies and sometimes the everyday. Because the meanings are not always obvious by looking at the imagery, the artist often provides an explanation, which is documented by the publisher and provided as part of the provenance.

Art Centres, who represent many Aboriginal artists, usually issue a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’. While this does not always include the entire provenance information mentioned here, it is a document readily accepted and adequate as provenance.

If you purchase a print from Aboriginal Art Prints, or from one of the galleries it supplies you will receive two documents. One that includes the story associated with the print and the full provenance information mentioned here. The second document is a comprehensive artist’s biography that profiles the artist and gives an exhibition history, bibliography and a list of institutions that hold work by the artist.

When you come to sell your print, prospective buyers will want this provenance information. If you can’t provide it, you may have difficulty in liquidating your investment.

The Publisher

The publisher is the person or company that pays for the production of the prints and becomes the owner of the edition.

In most cases the publisher is a wholesaler who sells the prints to indigenous and other art galleries.

The publisher can also be a gallery or Art Centre who retails the print exclusively.

The publisher more or less determines the price of the print while it is a current edition selling on the primary market.

The Primary Market

Most publishers sell to art galleries at a set price. These galleries work on much the same mark up so this means that while an edition is current, or in the primary market, the price of the print will be much the same no matter where you buy it.

It is not uncommon for a publisher to increase the wholesale price of print while it is still a current edition. Different publishers have different formulas but a common one is to increase the price after 1/3rd of an edition is sold and then again after 2/3rd of the edition is sold.

So, if you purchase a print soon after it is released on to the market, your investment could appreciate even before it becomes a secondary market print.

The Secondary Market

A print enters the secondary market when all the prints in the edition have been sold by the publisher. A print edition may take some time to sell out, so unlike a canvass, bark or sculpture, prints do not enter the secondary market immediately.

Once a print enters the secondary market there are no easily accessible pricing benchmarks. This is due partly to the fact that the market for indigenous prints is smaller than it is for paintings and as a result, prints do not change hands as often. However, as most indigenous artists producing prints also paint, the movement in the prices of their work in other media do provide a barometer as to the market value of their prints.

The auction houses, in recent times, have taken more of an interest in prints and they are now a regular inclusion in all indigenous art auctions.

In Sotheby’s July 2003 auction, a Rover Thomas print that was published by Aboriginal Art Prints, and last sold through galleries for $AU750 in 1998, fetched just over $AU10,000 (including buyer’s premium). While we think this price is at the top end of what the print is currently worth, it does confirm what we said earlier, a good print by a good artist will appreciate in value at much the same rate as other work by the same artist. The Australian Auction Sales Digest – www.aasd.com.au is an excellent resource for getting a fix on prices if you are buying or selling on the secondary market. It is an online subscriber service that lists auction results going back to the 1970s. It does provide some free information but if you want to trawl the auction results for a particular artist it will cost you a modest $AU22.00 for a month or $110.00 for a 12 month’s subscription. The subscription payment also provides you with a wealth of other useful information. Aboriginal Art Prints has a wide range of secondary market prints available. These can be viewed in our Sydney gallery or on this website.

Edition Numbers

In the early days of original printmaking, plates and blocks tended to wear as the print run progressed, so the prints later in the edition were of a lesser quality. Because of technology advances this is not the case today. Blocks, plates, stones and screens are capable of giving at least one hundred perfect impressions which is about the maximum number you will see in a fine art edition printed in Australia today.

This debunks the theory that the lower numbers, including APs (artist’s proof), in an edition are more valuable. Besides, there is no guarantee that the prints were numbered sequentially as they were printed.

However, if you have the opportunity to purchase APs or lower edition numbers, go for it as the person you end up selling to may believe that they are more valuable.

If for some reason a plate, block or screen does become damaged a reputable publisher and or printmaker will stop the editioning process and number the edition out of the total number of prints that are the perfect impressions.

We have no evidence to support the often held belief that a print in a small edition should be more valuable than one in a larger edition. As long as the edition is 100 or less, it is our experience that it is the calibre of the artist and artistic merits of the print that dictate the price, rather than the size of the edition.

Condition

Like any commodity, an item in poor condition will be difficult to sell, and if it does, it will realise a lesser price than one in mint condition. It is therefore critical that you care for your prints properly.

When you are buying prints, especially secondary market prints, check that they are in perfect condition. Things to look for are –

  • Foxing and water stains. Small brown stains caused by moisture and fungus.
  • Mat discolouration. A variation in paper tone caused by the use of non acid free mats.
  • Surface Tears and Marks. Check the front and back of the paper sheet to ensure that there is no damage from handling or the improper use of framing tapes or glues.
  • Insect Damage. Silverfish and other insects can cause marks to poorly cared for prints.

You should be cautious about buying a framed print at auction or from any source other than a reputable dealer or gallery as you will have no guarantee as to the condition of that part of the print that is covered by the mat and frame.

Self Managed Super Funds (SMSF)

In Australia, SMSF are able to invest 5% of the fund’s total assets in art or other collectables. There are certain conditions that apply as to how these assets can be displayed and enjoyed so you should talk to a financial advisor before committing your Super Fund to an art purchase.

If 5% of your fund’s assets prohibit you from buying a masterpiece you should consider prints. For the price of a mediocre canvass you can purchase several prints by a number of different artists thereby spreading the risk of your investment

For many people, acquiring art is more interesting, pleasurable and exciting than acquiring a portfolio of stocks and bonds. This is why increasing numbers of SMSF are including art as part of their investment strategy.

Other Information

Collecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prints is a must read section if you would like to be better informed about investing in indigenous prints.

A History of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Printmaking

Aboriginal printmaking emerged in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Although it can be said that it began much earlier in the form of stencilled images of hands that are found on cave walls throughout Australia.

The first prints were linocuts produced by Aboriginal artist, activist and writer Kevin Gilbert in the mid 1960’s who learnt the technique while in Long Bay Prison as part of a prison art program. These Prints were later exhibited after Gilbert’s release in 1970 and remain amongst his most powerful works, although they did not become well known until a decade later.

The first “traditional” Aboriginal people to learn printmaking were Tiwi artists Bede Tungutalum and Giovani Tipungwuti. In 1970 they learnt woodblock printing from Madeline Cleer on Bathurst Island. In the same year Bede and Giovani established Tiwi Designs. In 1971 on Elcho Island John Rudder provided Charlie Matjuwi, Monydirri and Botu with linoblocks which they carved with designs traditionally incised on wooden sculpture and utilitarian implements. This was the first example of how traditional carving techniques and imagery could be transposed without compromise into a contemporary printmaking medium.

Around the same time, Jorg Schmeisser, head of printmaking at the Canberra School of Art demonstrated how prints were made to an Aboriginal from Arnhem Land called Albert. Albert in return demonstrated the preparation of bark for painting. As a result of this cultural exchange Albert produced a small drypoint, the first etching intaglio printing link produced by an Aboriginal artist.

The publication of prints was developed through the commissioning of already successful painters. The first organisation to publish Aboriginal prints was the Aboriginal Artists Agency established by the Australia Council for the Arts. In 1979 Dinny Nolan Jampijinpa was commissioned via the Agency by the Canadian Government to produce a print for the Commonwealth Print Portfolio for the Alberta Winter Olympics. The portfolio also included a print by an Inuit artist Kenojuah. The Inuit had been producing limited edition prints since 1958 and a strong market for these prints had developed, enabling many Inuit artists to be financially independent.

Given the success of printmaking for Inuit artists and the reception that Nolans print received, The Aboriginal Artists Agency went on to commission Johnny Bulunbulun and David Malaybuma from Manigrida linkto Arnhem Land to produce a set of six screenprints link to screenprinting in collaboration with Port Jackson Press. These were the first limited edition prints by Aboriginal artists to be widely marketed.

In the 1980’s A number of Urban Aboriginal artists link to urban Aboriginal art were on the forefront of the development of printmaking as a region for indigenous expression. They included Arone Meekes, Fiona Foley, Judy Watson, Sally Morgan, and Jeff Samuels. Urban Aboriginal artists were attracted to printmaking not only for the qualities of fine art printing but also for the production of posters that were used for political protest. The Bicentennial of European colonisation in 1988 was treated by Aboriginal People as a year of mourning, giving rise to a huge output of potent political posters. Of particular mention are Kevin Gilbert’s “Treaty ’88”, Wendy Dunn’s “Australia Day (Australia Day= Invasion Day, 1988- What’s there to celebrate)” and Sally Morgan’s “People United In Sorrow”.

Until the 1990’s almost all prints were produced in major southern cities, many of these prints were made at the Canberra School of Art from 1976, Studio 1 Canberra (1979) and the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne. Workshops were quite often facilitated by government funding organisations. There were also early workshops set up in Aboriginal communities by printmakers such as Theo Tremblay, who from 1989 has taken a lithographic press to the Tiwi Islands, Central Arnhem Land and South Australia. A lecturer at the Canberra School of Art, Tremblay initiated ‘Mara Maru’ (Black Hands), a workshop dedicated to furthering collaborative printmaking with Aboriginal Artists. Over the next 10 years, artists such as Banduk Marika, Bede Tungutalum, Arone Meekes, Jimmy Pike, Judy Watson and many others participated. This culminated in the exhibition ‘Groundworks – collaborative prints at the Canberra School of Art’.

In 1992 the exhibition ‘Old Tracks New Land’ began a four year tour of the USA. This exhibition and accompanying 88-page catalogue was the first historical overview of Aboriginal printmaking. The exhibition resulted in unprecedented sales and lead to a dramatic increase in the number of artists working in the medium.

A year later the exhibition toured Australia, corresponding with “‘Getting into prints’ – A Symposium on Aboriginal Printmaking ” which was held at the Northern Territory University. The Symposium was a watershed for indigenous printmaking and lead to the opening up of the University facilities to Aboriginal communities and eventual establishment of Northern Editions, with master printmaker Basil Hall as director.

Since the mid ninety’s many Aboriginal communities particularly in Arnhem Land ,Tiwi Islands and the Torres Strait have had access to printmaking equipment. Workshops have been established at Yirikala, Oenpelli, Bathurst Island (Tiwi Designs), and Mua Island in the Torres Strait. The opening of such work shops has allowed for the exploration of many forms of printmaking; most commonly screen-print, woodblock and linocut prints as the equipment for these printing techniques are relatively inexpensive and easy to maintain.

The establishment of a print workshop in the Torres Strait Islands is an exciting recent development in indigenous printmaking. Torres Strait art and culture has undergone an expansion through the hands of four young printmakers; Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun and Victor Motlop. These artists, with the knowledge and permission of their tribal elders have transposed stories originally told though traditional wood carving and the spoken word to limited edition prints. These prints are a visual interpretation of the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. Thus these linocut prints have become a way of preserving Torres Strait Island culture for future generations and bringing it to much wider audience.

More recent benchmarks in the history of Aboriginal printmaking have included the series of Yuendumu Door prints produced by Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. Also Yilpinji, Love, Magic and Ceremony, is the first exhibition of thematic prints on “Yilpinji”, the love magic practiced by the Warlpiri and Kukatja people of the Central and Western deserts of Australia.

In 1996, the Australian Art print Network was established and in 1999, aboriginalartprints.com.au went online. This website is the most extensive site devoted to limited edition prints by Australian indigenous artists. Through it’s website, sales to other Australian and overseas galleries, and Australian and international touring print exhibitions, the Australian Art Print Network has given collectors around the world the opportunity to view and purchase the latest Aboriginal prints published in Australia. The Australian Art Print Network was the first and still is the only company to widely market and publish limited edition prints by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Many of the Art Centres who represent the artists in their communities are also publishers of prints. These prints tend to be sold from the Art Centre and are not widely seen in the capital city galleries. Apart from a handful of communities that have their own printmaking facilities almost all the prints produced today emanate from the printmaking studios of:

  • Basil Hall Editions, Darwin
  • Northern Editions, Charles Stuart University, Darwin
  • Editions Tremblay NFP, Cairns
  • Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne

A noted exception is the Torres Strait Islander artists who are also their own printmakers. This has come about largely because of the highly successful educational printmaking facility at Cairns TAFE where many of these artists have studied. The first printmaking studio and art centre in the Torres Strait will open on Moa Island late 2004 Printmaking is now a major field of artistic endeavour for indigenous artists, with currently over 500 editions being produced annually. Print studios, and publishers such as the Australian Art Print Network have in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists around Australia, expanded the media for the expression of both contemporary and traditional Aboriginal culture. This partnership is greatly increasing accessibility to Aboriginal art and has created a new income stream for indigenous communities throughout Australia which in turn has resulted in greater autonomy for indigenous people.

Printmaking techniques

Read and learn about the printmaking techniques…

Intaglio Prints

Intaglio is Italian for  ‘engrave or cut into’. Intaglio prints are produced using copper, zinc or steel plates. Copper is popular as its malleability allows corrections to be more easily made. Zinc a less forgiving, economical option and steel plates, being by far the hardest material, are used when large editions are required such as in book illustration.

Unlike relief printing, it is the engraved areas that hold the ink and print. Before printing, the untouched, raised areas of the plate are carefully wiped free of ink with a cloth followed by the ball of the hand. The paper is dampened to make it more flexible, and rolled through a press with enough pressure so that it is squeezed into the areas that contain the ink. The image can be created in a variety of ways, such as direct incising as in drypoint or engraving, or depressions created by the use of acid as in etching and aquatint. Alterations to the design can be made by burnishing and reworking  an area An intaglio print is easily identified, as a recessed impression of the plate is left on the paper from this printing process.

Intaglio printing can be divided into the following categories-

Drypoint

As the name suggests, drypoint prints are produced by scratching the surface of the metal plate using a needle, this scratching creates a metal bur that holds the ink The bur is very fragile and the wear created through the process of printing means that the plate will only yield an edition of ten to twenty prints of good quality.

Visually, drypoint produces characteristically soft and heavy lines.

Engraving

Engraving is visually characterised by fine, smooth, flowing, lines of varying width according to how much metal the engraving tool has removed.

Tonality is achieved by the use of engraving fine parallel lines closely together (hatching), cross hatching, or closely spaced fine dots (stippling). Engraving is done on copper or steel plates. The use of steel plates for book illustration was popular in the nineteen century as they are capable of producing thousands of impressions without any image degradation. Today engraving is most commonly used in the production of currency and stamps.

Mezzoprint

The mezzotint process has the ability to create subtle variations of tone; from beautiful rich blacks to delicate, glowing highlights. Mezzotint prints are unique to the intaglio process as the print is developed from dark to light. The plate is initially roughened with a mezzotint rocker, and if printed at this stage it would produce a solid black. Using various tools the roughened plate is then burnished (smoothed by rubbing) to produce the subtle midtones and brilliant highlights that characterize this printmaking method.

Etching

The line in etching is unlike the smooth line produced in engraving. It is characteristically sharper and slightly irregular due to the action of acid used in this process. Etching can be divided into soft ground and hard ground etching, Soft ground allows for a freer line as it offers less resistance to the drawing instrument.

Etchings are produced on, copper, zinc or steel plates that are covered with a thin coat of wax. The design is drawn into the wax using an etching needle exposing the metal but not scratching it as in engraving or drypoint. The sides and the back of the plate are covered in varnish to protect the plate when it is immersed in acid. The acid bites into the exposed metal of the design and the quality of the line produced can be varied by the concentration of the acid and the immersion time. This process can be repeated numerous times; areas of the design can be covered with varnish (stopped out), which will greatly increase the variety of marks produced on a single plate. Line variation can also be produced by successive acid immersion and only drawing one section of the design at a time. The first lines drawn on the plate will be the darkest and last lines the lightest. Soft- ground as the name implies uses a softer wax.

Paper is laid onto the wax and the design is drawn onto the paper. When the paper is lifted off the plate it removes the wax where the pressure was applied by the pencil. Fabrics can also be pressed into the soft wax to create subtle textural qualities in the final print. Before printing an etching or aquatint the wax or resin must be removed from the plate.

Aquatint

Aquatint is commonly used in conjunction with etching where the the etched line expresses the design and the aquatinting provides tone. Resin is dusted onto the metal plate and melted forming an irregular pattern of globules on the plate. Variations in the method and distribution of the dust creates a large range of textural and tonal effects in the print. The resin acts as resistance to the acid when immersed. The process can be repeated, creating a large range of tones, that are visually similar to ink wash drawings.

Sugar Lift

Sugar lift is variation on aquatinting. It is technique that can record the freedom and spontaneity of a brushstroke on the plate. The design is created by painting a sugar solution onto a plate. The sugar solution is allowed to dry until it is sticky; At this point a hard wax ground is painted onto the plate. The sugar dissolves, lifting the hard ground from the plate when it is submerged in water. These exposed areas are then aquatinted before printing. The aquatint can also be applied before the sugar and hardground to create more delicate effects.

Lithography

Lithography was invented at the end of the eighteenth century. The process has an immediacy and affinity to straight drawing techniques making it popular with artists who have a strong graphic style. Early practitioners included Degas, Delacroix, Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet.

Due to the technical difficulties and the equipment required, few Aboriginal artists practice lithography as opposed to other printing techniques such as screen-printing or linocuts, however there are some notable exceptions, in particular Judy Watson, Arone Meekes , Peter Nabarlambarl and Andrew Margalulu have all at one time or another produced highly accomplished lithographs.

Lithography’s main difference to other printmaking mediums is that rather than the plate having a design incised into the surface to hold ink, Lithography is based on the mutual antipathy between grease and water.

The print is produced from a stone or plate with a smooth porus surface that has been drawn or painted on with a greasy medium such as an oil crayon or lithographic ink (tusche). Tusche is applied using pens or brushes, and can be diluted to create wash effects. Once the drawing is finished it is fixed to the surface using Gum Arabic mixed with a small amount of acid. The Gum Arabic protects the surface from any more grease, and the acid opens up the pores of the stone or plate allowing it to penetrate.

During the print process, the plate or stone is first dampened with water; this water is repelled from the greasy areas created by the drawing mediums. The ink, applied to the stone using a roller, is attracted to the oily drawing while being simultaneously repelled from the damp un-drawn areas. Thus the ink only falls where the artist intends. Paper is then overlaid and a thin metal plate or ‘tympan’ placed on top. It is then rolled through a special press that uses a scraper to apply downward pressure to the ‘tympan’, producing the print.

Lithography was initially practiced using limestone slabs; nowadays specially prepared zinc or aluminium plates can also be used. There are notable differences between the two. Stone is more absorbent than metal and tends to lend itself to more subtle wash or Mezzotint techniques. Stone also has the advantage of being more forgiving than metal in that alterations to the design can be made simply by grinding back the unwanted area and reapplying the crayon or lithographic ink.

Aboriginal Artists and Lithography

Aboriginal artists in remote regions rarely practice lithographic techniques. The process and materials required are highly impractical for their environment. Obviously the transport of special lithographic stones to desert and Arnhem Land communities would be a logistical nightmare though their are notable exceptions to this rule.

Workshops have been set up in Aboriginal communities by printmakers such as Theo Tremblay, who from 1989 has taken a lithographic press to the Tiwi Islands, Central Arnhem Land and South Australia .

Relief Printing

Relief printing is a printing process in which the raised areas of a plate or block are printed. The most common forms of relief printing are woodcuts, linocuts and wood engraving.

Within Aboriginal communities relief printing from linocuts is quite common. The process of carving linoleum is not unlike the traditional incising of designs onto sculpture and domestic objects. In recent years young artists from the Torres Strait Islands have created an entirely new art movement based on relief printing techniques

In relief printing the block is carved with a design using various chisels, knives and scribes, leaving a raised surface to carry the ink. Linoleum is made of powdered cork, rosin and linseed oil mounted on burlap backing. It is a popular medium as its soft uniform surface can be carved with ease. It produces bold prints with large flat areas of uniform colour due to its consistent surface.

Woodcuts are visually quite different and many artists use the grain of the wood to enhance the character of their relief prints. The directional nature of the grain  also places restriction upon the carving, unlike linocuts that can be carved easily in any direction. Wood engraving can produce very fine, detailed prints. It is different from woodcuts as it is the end-grain that is utilised as the printing surface. Wood engraving has been most commonly used for book illustration.

Alterations to wood or lino blocks are difficult, so the design is normally carefully drawn onto the block and the negative spaces removed only after this drawing has been finalised. For multiple colour prints a number of blocks are usually created; one for each colour. However, it is also possible to carefully apply different coloured inks to different sections of the block to achieve a similar effect as a multiple block print.
The term‘ Kaidaral’ has been coined to describe a variation on the above technique developed in the Torres Strait. The term literally means ‘spirit that creates ripples on the surface of the water’. In Kaidaral, the linocut is initially rolled though the press, printing a single uniform colour, which is normally black. The paper is then lifted off the block with the trailing edge of the paper still caught in the press so that when the print is lowered back over the block it remains in perfect registration. Isolated areas of the block are wiped clean and different coloured inks are applied to these areas. The paper is lowered back on to the block and pressure applied, often with the back of a spoon, transferring the  coloured ink to the final print. This process results in a generous amount of ink being transferred to the paper giving it a rippling effect, hence the name, Kaidaral. This technique, also known as ‘a la poupe’, results in each print in the edition being different and having its own unique qualities.

Reduction block prints are another variation on relief printing; here block is printed in progressive stages to create a multiple colour print. If there is to be any white in the print these areas are printed first. The block is then re-carved and the next lightest colour printed. The process is continued until the edition is complete.  Each progressive printing of the block obscures the previous layers except for the areas of the block that have been altered between impressions.

Printing of a relief block is a straightforward process. Ink is uniformly applied to the block with a roller and a sheet of paper placed on top. It is important not to over- ink the block as this can result in the loss of the print’s fine detail. After the paper is laid over the inked block, the raised inked areas of the block are rubbed by hand with a burnisher or a spoon to transfer the ink to the paper. Because of its consistent surface, linoleum prints can also be produced by rolling the block though a standard etching press.

The exceptional two and three metre lino prints created by Torres Strait Islander artist, Dennis Nona, are printed on a hydraulic press by master printmaker, Theo Tremblay, in his Cairns studio. Because of their size, and the associated problems with registration, they cannot be produced on a conventional press.

Linocuts

Aboriginal Art Prints has a large range of linocuts from, artists of the Torres Strait. In 2001, Aboriginal Art Prints, working closely with Torres Strait artists, Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, Victor Motlop and David Bosun produced the international touring exhibition GELAM NGZU KAZI – DUGONG MY SON. These young Torres Strait island artists use of printmaking as their primary medium has lead to an expansion and revival of artistic and cultural practice within the Torres Strait. Through printmaking they relate the stories and cultural beliefs that were handed down to them from their elders, in effect, preserving Torres Strait culture for future generations.

Screen Printing

Screen printing has become a popular printing technique for many Aboriginal artists. Its ability to emulate effects similar to acrylic painting makes the medium particularly suitable for artists in the central desert. Artists from desert communities such as Balgo Hills, Yuendumu, Lajamanu and Utopia have easily been able to transfer their painting techniques to this medium with great success.

Origins

Emerging in the early 20th century, Screen printing was derived from the stencil method of painting. In the stencil method, a design is cut out of thin card and laid on top of a piece of paper. A brush is used to dab paint through the cut out areas of the     card, transferring the design to the paper. This early forerunner to screen printing reached its peak in Asia. Oriental stencils were at times so complex that they had to be held together with a mesh of human hair.

The Mesh

With Screen printing, the design is applied to a fine open weaved mesh stretched on a wooden or metal frame. Originally meshes were made of silk. Nowadays, meshes are also made of nylon, cotton or polyester. For most purposes, polyester is considered an ideal material; it is impervious to acids and alkalies and is hardly affected by increases in humidity that cause other materials to become less taut. Polyester screens have superior directional stability, meaning that the mesh can be stretched very tightly and that distortion is minimised when pressure is being applied during printing. This is very important when creating large, complex, multiple colour prints, where very precise registration is required between different colour layers so that the final image remains true to the original design.

Meshes come in different grades, the choice of screen coarseness is dependant upon the amount of detail in the design; fine screens render finer detail, coarse screens allow more ink to flow through the screen to the paper and this can be utilised to create prints with a textured, painterly surface. The meshes can be in monofilament and multifilament forms. Multifilament screens offer greater adhesion for stencil materials such as photographic and hand-cut films, this greater adhesion is also an advantage when drawings are made directly on the screen.

Screen-printing techniques

Stencils can be produced in a variety of ways –

Direct drawing

To produce positive images using direct drawing techniques, oil based mediums such as lithographic pencils or ‘tuche’ can be painted onto the screen. Once this has dried the screen is coated with a water-based glue or meths based medium like shellac to fill in the negative spaces around the drawing. The drawing is then removed using turps, white spirit or kerosene, creating open areas for the ink to pass through during the printing process and effectively reproducing the original drawn marks onto the print. It should be noted that there are a number of materials that can be used to produce a positive image apart from the example above, each material brings different qualities to the final printed image.

Stencils

Stencils can be made of paper, lacquer film or a water soluble film such as Ulano Aquafilm. Lacquer and water soluble film has distinct advantages over paper stencils; they are much stronger allowing for infinitely more detailed designs that are able to be printed in larger editions. The stencil method is the simplest of all screen printing techniques. The design is cut out of the film using a knife and adhered to the bottom of the degreased screen. Stencils of various thicknesses can be used to vary the amount of the ink that transfers during the printing process.

Photosensitive Emulsions

There many techniques to produce stencils using photosensitive emulsions. These techniques can at their most basic, be divided into two categories – direct photo emulsion techniques and indirect film techniques.
Direct Photo emulsion techniques involve the application of the photosensitive emulsion to the screen, Ironically, using this technique it is possible to derive more detail results from an original drawing or painting than through the application of ‘Tuche’ or lithographic pencil applied directly to the screen.
The artist paints onto sheets of acetate or Mylar one colour at a time. With each colour completed, a new transparent sheet is laid on top. This process is not unlike an artist painting a canvass. Instead of the image being on one surface (the canvass) it is on several surfaces (the acetate of Mylar sheets). Once the painting is finished, each acetate layer is used produce a separate screen. The acetate films are laid onto the mesh and exposed to a light source that is high in ultra-violet light, contact printing the design directly onto the screen. Emulsions exposed to ultra violet light harden while areas masked by the original painted acetate sheet do not, the unexposed photo emulsion is simply removed by spraying the screen with a high pressure hose, resulting in a positive record of the painting. This is a particularly useful method that has been favoured by printmakers working with Aboriginal artists in the field. Aboriginal Art Prints has meny prints produced in this way. Note that screens can also be produced by exposing the screen to a photograph using an enlarger, this technique is more common in commercial screen printing processes rather than in the area of limited edition prints.

Indirect film techniques use pre-sensitised films composed of a thin sensitised gelatine layer adhered to a backing sheet made of clear polyester. The design can be applied using a photographic positive that is projected through the backing sheet using an enlarger or by a hand drawn positive that is contact printed to the film. Areas of the gelatine film exposed to light harden, causing it to adhere to the backing sheet so that the unexposed areas that are still soft can be washed out after the development process. The film is adhered to the screen by dampening it, placing the screen on top and gently blotting the screen which has the effect of transferring the softened emulsion from the backing to the mesh

Printing

The process of screen-printing differs considerably from other techniques. A piece of paper is placed under the screen and a rubber squeegee is used to squeeze ink through the screen, printing the design onto the paper. An important aspect of screen printing is the flood stroke which is used to thoroughly cover the design with ink so that it prints consistently. The flood stroke is performed firstly by lifting the screen so that it has no contact with the paper and by gently pushing the ink over the screen in the direction opposite to which the squeegee is pulled during printing; no downward pressure is applied, the weight of the squeegee is enough to evenly distribute the ink. The print is performed by firmly pulling the squeegee across the screen. The squeegee should be at an angle of 45 degrees during the printing stroke and the correct amount of pressure applied, too much pressure or the wrong squeegee angle can result in distorted prints being produced. Immediately after printing, the paper is placed on a rack to dry. This process is repeated for each colour until the final print is achieved.