Printing Techniques


What is an original print?

Printmaking is a fine art process that allows the artist to produce multiple copies of his original image. But in no sense is the original print a copy or a reproduction or a giclée: the artist’s hands steer its creation from start to finish. As Carl Zigrosser has written, “The print is created through contact with an inked or uninked plate, stone, block, or screen that has been worked on directly by the artist alone or with others.” There are four main categories of printmaking: relief, intaglio, lithography, and screenprinting. Each color in a print usually requires a separate stone, plate, block, or stencil, and any of these basic processes may be combined in the creation of a finished work. Unique works (or works in an exceedingly limited number of copies) are sometimes produced as monotypes or monoprints.

The total number of multiples of a print is called an edition. Since early in the 20th century it has been customary for the artist to sign and number each print in the edition (e.g., “3/75,” where the first number refers to the individual print at hand, the second to the total number in the edition). Still, many screen printers give only the total number of the edition (e.g., “ED 25”), and artists in all processes may designate a very limited number of copies in an edition as “AP” (artist’s proofs) or even “TP” (trial proofs), the total of which should not exceed about ten percent of the total number of prints produced. Such proofs may display slight variations from the prints in the main body of the edition.

Veronica Barker Barzal Kelly

Relief printmaking processes

In relief processes the artist cuts away areas not requiring to be printed from a smooth wood, metal, or plastic surface, leaving raised portions which are then inked before the print is taken.

WOODCUT is the oldest known printmaking method, one which reached its full maturity in the 15th and 16th centuries. The design is drawn on a piece of smooth hardwood, and negative areas are cut away; woodcut tends to yield a rather severe, powerful image.

LINOCUT is a 20th century development of the woodcut, capitalizing on the relative ease with which linoleum can be cut and handled. This method works especially well in large prints with broad areas of flat color; a major drawback is the fragility of the linoleum, which makes large editions problematic.

Henrik Sundqvist

Intaglio printmaking processes

INTAGLIO (from the Italian itagliare, to carve or cut) comprehends a number of related printmaking techniques usually done on a metal (copper, zinc, or steel) plate. Grooves or pits are incised into the surface of the plate either with the use of a sharp instrument or by the action of a strong acid solution. A greasy ink is then worked into these depressions, and the surface of the plate wiped clean. The high pressure of a press enables a soft, dampened paper to reach and take on the ink in the depressions. The basic intaglio processes execute without acid include engraving, drypoint, and mezzotint.

Etching, aquatint, soft ground, and viscosity techniques all require the use of acid to produce the image. A collograph may be executed as either a relief or an intaglio print as the artist desires.

ENGRAVING developed in Europe in the 15th century. The image is created by the action of the burin, a wedge- or lozenge-shaped tool, directly on the plate. The tool is held steady and the plate is turned to produce the line, the hardness or crispness of which results from the metal removed from the plate by the burin. Shading effects are produced by cross-hatching, by the multiplication of parallel lines, or by stippling.

DRYPOINT is executed with a sharp needle on the metal plate, in which the tool both incises a line and raises a burr. Both the line and the burr will hold ink, and the resulting print therefore frequently displays a slightly ‘soft,’ irregular line. Because the raised burr is fragile, large editions of drypoints can only be achieved by the application of a thin layer of steel plating.

MEZZOTINT was developed late in the 17th century. It is similar to drypoint in that a burr is raised over the entire surface of the plate by the action of a serrated tool (or ‘rocker’). In this first state the plate will print entirely black. Tones are developed by the use of various burnishing tools, and the overall finished effect is one of continuous tone and velvety blacks.

ETCHING is a process in which the incisions in the plate are produced by drawing with a sharp tool through an acid-resistant wax ground and subsequently immersing the plate in an acid bath. The resulting line is less crisp than that achieved by engraving; ‘darker’ lines are produced by longer immersion times in the acid bath. Etching is also used as a catch-all term for all intaglio processes employing an acid bath in the production of the image.

AQUATINT is a term derived from the Italian acquatinta, from the Latin aquafortis (strong water, or acid) and tincta (dyed); as a printmaking technique it was developed in the late 18th century. The plate is covered with a fine dust of rosin particles which adhere when melted; the acid bites around the particles and produces a tonal effect, the depth of tone varying according to the length of time the plate is left in the acid. A recent alternative ground is created by a light coating of spray enamel paint.

Lyla Shlon

Lithographic printing

LITHOGRAPHY, from the Greek words for stone and writing, was invented by Aloys Senefelder in 1796, who originally called his invention ‘chemical printing’ because the process is based on the antipathy of grease and water. Lithography is a planographic, or flat-surface process executed on a smoothly grained slab of limestone, zinc, or aluminum plate. The naturally grease-receptive surface is drawn on with grease crayons or liquid grease solutions. After treatment with a chemical desensitizing solution of gum arabic and nitric or phosphoric acid, the plate or stone is dampened with a sponge and a very still ink is rolled on the surface. The ink adheres only to the grease particles in drawn areas and is rejected elsewhere. If the chemical processing has been done correctly, the print will duplicate exactly the tonalities and textures drawn on the stone or plate. Many techniques can be accommodated by this process, including crayon techniques, washes, pen and ink effects, and textural transfers as well as ‘flat’ areas of color and tints.

Penny Barringer

Monotype and monoprint printing

MONOTYPE is a direct process that yields a ‘one of a kind’ print. The design is drawn with ink, paint, or other material(s) on the metal or glass plate, and the print is taken. Since most of the ink or other drawing material generally transfers, only a relatively pale ‘ghost image’ is possible as a second print.

MONOPRINT is a similar process which also yields a unique print. It differs from monotype, however, in that some part of the image is produced from a repeatable matrix or plate executed in one of the other printmaking processes.