Counterproofs of drawings are made by dampening a sheet of blank paper and placing it against a chalk or crayon drawing (which might also be moistened) and rubbing, or, ideally, running it through a press, so that the chalk will transfer to the blank page. A mirror image of the original is created this way. Counterproofs are also known as offsets. In the example illustrated below, Nicolaes Pietersz. Berchem (1622 – 1683) created the drawing (right) and counterproof (left) on the same sheet. More commonly, a drawing and its counterproof would be on two different sheets of paper. The counterproof would have aided Berchem in his preparation of the etching plate. Berchem’s 1652 etching, for which the drawing and counterproof were used, is also illustrated below.
Counterproofs are mostly used by artists involved in printmaking. Counterproofs of prints must be made immediately after the print is taken off the press, while the ink is still wet. Counterproofs of drawings can be taken decades and hundreds of years later–as was the case in the 18th century when counterproofs were made of earlier drawings, even 16th century drawings. At least some of these counterproofs were meant to deceive and were sold as original drawings. Others would have been innocently made–with the thinking that having two great images is better than having just one. The trouble is that drawings are weakened through the process of counterproofing–chalk dust is transferred away from the drawing to the counterproof. The 18th century artists Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) and Hubert Robert (1733 – 1808) often made counterproofs of their own drawings and would then rework the counterproof and, sometimes, the original. Collectors far prefer an original to a counterproof, even a reworked counterproof.
Evenness of tone, faintness, hatching direction, backwards lettering, and creased paper are telltale signs of counterproofs. The greatest proof is seeing the stronger original in the opposite direction.