2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Art

Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Except in the case of Monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiple copies of the same piece, which is called a print. Each copy is known as an impression. Painting or drawing, on the other hand, create a unique original piece of artwork. Prints are created from a single original surface, known technically as a matrix. Common types of matrices include: plates of metal, usually copper or zinc for engraving or etching; stone, used for lithography; blocks of wood for woodcuts and linoleum for linocuts. But there are many other kinds, discussed below. Each print is considered an original work of art, not a copy. Works printed from a single plate create an edition, in modern times usually each signed and numbered to form a limited edition. Prints may also be published in book form, as Artists' Books. A single print could be the product of one or multiple techniques.

mount Fuji, from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji), color woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai
mount Fuji, from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji), colour woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai


Printmakers apply color to their prints in many different ways. Often colour in printmaking that involves etching, screenprinting, woodcut, or linocut is applied by either using separate plates, blocks or screens or by using a reductionist approach. In multiple plate color techniques are a number of plates, screens or blocks produced, each providing a different color. Each separate plate, screen, or block will be inked up in a different color and applied in a particular sequence to produce the entire picture. On average about 3 to 4 plates are produced but there are occasions where a printmaker may use up to seven plates. Every application of another plate of color will interact with the colour already applied to the paper and this must be kept in mind when producing the separation of colors. The lightest colors are often applied first and then that darker colors successively until the last one.

The reductionist approach to producing color is to start with a lino or wood block that is either blank or with a simple etching. Upon each printing of color the printmaker will then further cut into the lino or woodblock removing more material and then apply another color and reprint. Each successive removal of lino or wood from the block will expose the already printed colour to the viewer of the print.

With some printing techniques like chine-collé or monotyping the printmaker may sometimes just paint into the colors they want like a painter would and then print.

The subtractive colour concept is also used in offset or digital print and is present in bitmap or vectorial software in CMYK or other colour spaces.



Printmaking techniques can be divided into the following basic families or categories:

  • relief printing, where the ink goes on the original surface of the matrix. Relief techniques include: woodcut or woodblock as the Asian forms are usually known, wood engraving, linocut and metalcut;
  • intaglio, where the ink goes beneath the original surface of the matrix. Intaglio techniques include: engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint, chine-collé and drypoint;
  • planographic, where the matrix retains its entire surface, but some parts are treated to make the image. Planographic techniques include: lithography, monotyping, and digital techniques.
  • stencil, including: screen-printing and pochoir
  • Viscosity printing

Other types of printmaking techniques outside these groups include collography and foil imaging. Digital processes include giclée, photographic mediums and combination of both digital process and conventional processes.

Many of these techniques can also be combined, especially within the same family. For example Rembrandt's prints are usually referred to as "etchings" for convenience, but very often include work in engraving and drypoint as well, and sometimes have no etching at all.


Woodcut print by Edvard Munch.
Woodcut print by Edvard Munch.

Woodcut, a type of relief print, is the earliest printmaking technique, and the only one traditionally used in the Far East. It was probably first developed as a means of printing patterns on cloth, and by the 5th century was used in China for printing text and images on paper. Woodcuts of images on paper developed around 1400 in Europe, and slightly later in Japan. These are the two areas where woodcut has been most extensively used purely as a process for making images without text.

The artist draws a sketch either on a plank of wood, or on paper which is transferred to the wood. Traditionally the artist then handed the work to a specialist cutter, who then uses sharp tools to carve away the parts of the block that he/she does not want to receive the ink. The raised parts of the block are inked with a brayer, then a sheet of paper, perhaps slightly damp, is placed over the block. The block is then rubbed with a baren or spoon, or is run through a press. If in colour, separate blocks are used for each colour.

Artists using this technique include

Albrecht Dürer, Werner Drewes, Hiroshige, Hokusai.

"Melancholia I", engraving by Albrecht Dürer, one of the most important printmakers.
" Melancholia I", engraving by Albrecht Dürer, one of the most important printmakers.


The process was developed in Germany in the 1430s from the engraving used by goldsmiths to decorate metalwork. Using the burin is a difficult skill to learn.

Engravers use a hardened steel tool called a burin to cut the design into the surface of a metal, traditionally copper, plate. Gravers come in a variety of shapes and sizes that yield different line types. The burin produces a unique and recognizable quality of line that is characterized by its steady, deliberate appearance and clean edges. Other tools such as mezzotint rockers, roulets and burnishers are used for texturing effects.

The plate is inked all over, and then the ink wiped off the surface, leaving only the ink in the engraved lines. The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing-press together with a sheet of paper (often moistened to soften it). The paper picks up the ink from the engraved lines, making a print. The process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions (copies) could be printed before the plate shows much sign of wear. The work on the plate can also be added to by repeating the whole process; this creates an engraving which exists in more than one state.

In the 20th Century copper-plate engraving as a serious art form was revived by Josef Hecht and Stanley William Hayter (founder of the hugely influential Atelier 17 and closely associated with the revival of experimental printmaking in France and later in the USA)


"The sleep of Reason creates monsters", etching and aquatint by Francisco Goya
"The sleep of Reason creates monsters", etching and aquatint by Francisco Goya

Etching is part of the intaglio family (along with engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, and aquatint.) The process is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470-1536) of Augsburg, Germany, who decorated armour in this way, and applied the method to printmaking. Etching soon came to challenge engraving as the most popular printmaking medium. Its great advantage was that, unlike engraving which requires special skill in metalworking, etching is relatively easy to learn for an artist trained in drawing.

Etching prints are generally linear and often contain fine detail and contours. Lines can vary from smooth to sketchy. An etching is opposite of a woodcut in that the raised portions of an etching remain blank while the crevices hold ink. In pure etching, a metal (usually copper, zinc or steel) plate is covered with a waxy ground. The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where he wants a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid, or has acid washed over it. The acid "bites" into the metal, where it is exposed, leaving behind lines to the plate. The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate, and the printing process is then just the same as for engraving.

The Three Crosses, etching by Rembrandt
The Three Crosses, etching by Rembrandt
Artists using this technique include

Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, Whistler, Jim Dine, Otto Dix, James Ensor, Lucian Freud, Paul Klee, Einar Hakonarson, Edward Hopper, Horst Janssen, Käthe Kollwitz, Mauricio Lasansky, Brice Marden, Henri Matisse, Giorgio Morandi, Pablo Picasso, Peter Milton, Paula Rego and Cy Twombly.


An intaglio variant of engraving where the plate first is roughened evenly all over; the image is then brought out by scraping smooth the surface, creating the image by working from dark to light. It is possible to create the image by only roughening the plate selectively, so working from light to dark.

Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones: first, because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink, allowing deep solid colors to be printed; secondly because the process of smoothing the texture with burin, burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed.

The mezzotint printmaking method was invented by Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1680). The process was especially widely used in England from the mid-eighteenth century, to reproduce portraits and other paintings.


A variant of etching. Like etching, Aquatint uses the application of acid to make the marks in the metal plate. Where the etching technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever colour ink is used), aquatint uses powdered resin which is acid resistant in the ground to create a tonal effect. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of acid exposure over large areas, and thus the image is shaped by large sections at a time.

Goya used aquatint for most of his prints.


A variant of engraving, done with a sharp point, rather than a v-shaped burin. While engraved lines are very smooth and hard-edged, drypoint scratching leaves a rough burr at the edges of each line. This burr gives drypoint prints a characteristically soft, and sometimes blurry, line quality. Because the pressure of printing quickly destroys the burr, drypoint is useful only for very small editions; as few as ten or twenty impressions. To counter this, and allow for longer print runs, electro-plating (here called steelfacing) has been used since the nineteenth century to harden the surface of a plate.

The technique appears to have been invented by the Housebook Master, a south German fifteenth century artist, all of whose prints are in drypoint only. Among the most famous artists of the old master print: Albrecht Dürer produced 3 drypoints before abandoning the technique; Rembrandt used it frequently, but usually in conjunction with etching and engraving.


La Goulue, Lithograph poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.
La Goulue, Lithograph poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lithography is a technique invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder and based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water. A porous surface, normally limestone, is used; the image is drawn on the limestone with a greasy medium. Acid is applied, transferring the grease to the limestone, leaving the image 'burned' into the surface. Gum arabic, a water soluble substance, is then applied, sealing the surface of the stone not covered with the drawing medium. The stone is wetted, with water staying only on the surface not covered in grease-based residue of the drawing; the stone is then 'rolled up', meaning oil ink is applied with a roller covering the entire surface; since water repels the oil in the ink, the ink adheres only to the greasy parts, perfectly inking the image. A sheet of dry paper is placed on the surface, and the image is transferred to the paper by the pressure of the printing press. Lithography is known for its ability to capture fine gradations in shading and very small detail.

A variant is photo-lithography, in which the image is captured by photographic processes on metal plates; printing is carried out in the same way.

Artists using this technique include

George Bellows, Pierre Bonnard, Honoré Daumier, M.C. Escher, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miró, Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Pablo Picasso, Odilon Redon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Stow Wengenroth


Screen-printing (also known as "screenprinting", "silk-screening", or "serigraphy") creates bold colour using a stencil technique. The artist draws an image on a piece of paper or plastic (film can also be used.) The image is cut out creating a stencil. (Keep in mind the pieces that are cut away are the areas that will be colored.) A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood frame. The stencil is affixed to the screen. The screen is then placed on top of a piece of dry paper or fabric. Ink is then placed across the top length of the screen. A squeegee (rubber blade) is used to spread the ink across the screen, over the stencil, and onto the paper/fabric. The screen is lifted once the image has been transferred onto the paper/fabric. Each colour requires a separate stencil. The screen can be re-used after cleaning.

Artists using this technique include

Josef Albers, Chuck Close, Ralston Crawford, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Julian Opie, Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley, Edward Ruscha, and Andy Warhol.

Digital prints

Digital prints refers to editions of images created with a computer using drawings, other prints, photographs, light pen and tablet, and so on. These images can be printed to a variety of substrates including paper and cloth or plastic canvas. Accurate color reproduction is key to distinguishing high quality from low quality digital prints. Metallics (silvers, golds) are particularly difficult to reproduce accurately because they reflect light back to digital scanners. High quality digital prints typically are reproduced with very high-resolution data files with very high-precision printers. The substrate used has an effect on the final colors and cannot be ignored when selecting a colour palette.

Digital images can be printed on standard desktop-printer paper and then transferred to traditional art papers (Velin Arch or Stonehenge 200gsm, for example). One way to transfer an image is to place the printout face down upon the art paper and rub Wintergreen oil upon the back of the print, and pass it through a press.

Digital prints that are stored and sold electronically are problematic when it comes to authorship of the print and the protection of pecuniary interests. Adobe Systems tried to overcome the digital edition problem with their Adobe Reader application.

Electronic images are truly multiple originals as they rely upon code to produce the image and every copy is actually the writing of code upon a disk or reproduction of code. Prints produced via any other medium are copies and not truly original unless a process of manual editing of the final result or plate is applied.

Sociologist Jean Baudrillard has had a large influence upon digital printmaking with theories expounded on in Simulacra and Simulation.

Artists using this technique include

Istvan Horkay, Zazie (surrealist)

Foil imaging

In art, foil imaging is a printmaking technique made using the Iowa Foil Printer, developed by Viginia A. Myers from the commercial foil stamping process. This uses gold leaf and foil in the printmaking process.

Protective printmaking equipment

Protective clothing is very important for printmakers who engage in etching. In the past many printmakers did not live far past 35 to 40 years of age due to their exposure and soaking up of various acids and liquids or their inhaling of rosin from aquatinting.

Whereas in the past printmakers used to put their plates in and out of acid baths with their bare hands, nowadays printmakers use industrial strength rubber gloves. They also wear industrial gas masks that are fitted with fume filters for the acid baths. Acid baths are often built with fumigators above them also.

Often an emergency cold shower is nearby in case of acid spillages and eye wash. Some printmakers wear goggles when dealing with acid.

The masks often have particle filters for aquatinting. Plates are put into an aquatinting cabinet and a fan is turned by hand blowing rosin up into the top of the cabinet. The rosin floats down and settles upon the plate (anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes until covering the plate properly). When the plate is taken out of the cabinet often rosin powder is still floating down and comes out into the area where the printmaker is. Should this rosin powder be inhaled it is taken into the lungs where it remains throughout life, without dissolving or being removed from the lungs. Rosin is a serious health hazard and especially to printmakers in the past who used to just hold their breath inside an aquatinting room.

Barrier cream is often used upon a printmaker's hands both when putting them inside the protective gloves and if using their hands to wipe-back plates (remove ink from plates).

Sterile plasters and bandages are always available especially if using steel plates that become extremely sharp when beveling the edges of the plate down so as not to tear the paper with the edges of the plate when passing the print through the press.

Suggested reading

  • Griffiths, Antony, Prints and Printmaking, British Museum Press, 2nd ed, 1996 ISBN 0-7141-2608-X
  • Ivins, William Jr. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. ISBN 0-262-59002-6
  • Gill Saunders and Rosie Miles Prints Now: Directions and Definitions Victoria and Albert Museum (May 1, 2006) ISBN 1-85177-480-7

Retrieved from ""