Every artist works differently and is inspired by different things, but print-making gives us the unique opportunity to view the creative process at work. When an artist makes a print, they create the matrix from which prints can be pulled. This might be a copper plate that has been etched or a lithographic stone that the artist has drawn on with crayon, but the process has an inherent flaw. The finished artwork is an impression from that matrix rather than the matrix itself, so the artist needs to pull an impression in order to know how their art actually looks. This is where states and trial proofs come in. An artist can make an impression of their print at any time to see how the composition is developing. This test impression helps the artist decide what to do next. This impression remains extant long after the plate is etched further (artists rarely destroy such proofs), giving us the unique opportunity to see what is changed and what is preserved. Such proofs allow us to see specific steps in an artist’s thought process.
When Frank Benson made his etchings he almost always began by drawing the figures—whether they were hunters or waterfowl—as in this trial proof of Two Canoes, 1927. Compare it to the published state to see the dramatic difference. In the trial proof the figures are largely finished, but their canoes are merely outlined and appear to float in space. The published state shows the shadows and highlight on the canoes, the ripples on the surface of the water, a horizon line dotted with trees in the distance, and even a hint of clouds in the sky. Benson almost always followed this process; first create the figures, then complete their surroundings.
Other artists made more subtle changes. Whistler’s Billingsgate has nine different states (the figure below shows the final state), but the composition was essentially complete in the first state. His changes were the additions of shading, the subtle lengthening of a mast, changes in definition, positions, and features of the figures, and minor adjustments to the cloud cover above. These more nuanced changes are typical of Whistler’s process.
Other artists were more inconsistent. Rembrandt might only make nuanced changes or he might make radical ones. Only subtle changes are seen in the two states of his The Circumcision in the Stable, 1654. His main adjustments between the first and second state (figures 3 and 4) are the shading of two small areas in the background; one near the upper left corner of the composition, and the other along the upper edge.
In his Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses, of 1653 things couldn’t be more different. The plate was completed almost entirely in dry point, resulting in heavy, deep shadows that contrast with highlighted portions in the composition. The first state (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a beautiful impression visible on their website) shows a cone of light emanating from heaven and illuminating Christ, the two thieves, and most of the figures in the foreground. The figures are fully developed, highlighted, and shadowed. Their emotions run the gamut, some looking up to Christ in horror or sorrow; the Virgin swoons as is traditional; soldiers and several figures wearing turbans (to indicate the Middle-eastern setting) largely ignore the crucifixions, and some wander away seemingly unconcerned. Christ is in the center of the composition and the light, so the divinity of the scene is undeniable, but the number of surrounding figures and their emotional responses might seem more like they are witnessing a car wreck than the salvation of humankind. Small adjustments are made in the second and third states, but for the fourth state the work (below) is entirely different both compositionally and emotionally.
The light from on high descends more directly onto Christ. The thief to his left, thus the impenitent thief, is almost entirely obscured in heavy shadows. This shadow obscures many of the figures on the right side of the composition. The horseman, probably Longinus, to Christ’s right is facing the opposite direction, and many of the figures in the lower left corner have been replaced by boulders. The effect is much more other-worldly, and the focus on Christ much greater. This first three states are thus a tour de force, showing Rembrandt’s unparalleled skill in creating varied figures, while the fourth and fifth (the final) states focus on the divine nature of the Crucifixion.
We will never be able to read Rembrandt’s mind to understand what motivated the dramatic changes between the third and fourth states. However, knowing that they occurred—knowing that he was willing to change directions so far along in the creative process—indicates his willingness to change directions mid-process. Similarly, that Benson was so intent on perfecting his figures before illustrating their settings tells us that the figures were paramount in his mind. The various states illustrate for us some of the unique thought processes running through the minds of the artists. Thus collecting various states of a single print can be one of the most satisfying experiences in print collecting.