Printmaking is a unique process that allows for the reproduction of text or image over multiple impressions. In this brief guide, we touch on a few of the hand-processed techniques used by our artists, such as relief, intaglio, lithography, and screen, and explain the distinct characteristics of each approach. For quick reference, head to the bottom of the post for a glossary of common terms.
Prints can be any form of art that involves a transfer process using a plate. Plates can take many forms, from a piece of wood where carved areas act like a stamp, to a sheet of metal where recessed areas suspend ink. Plates are not always a durable material. In collagraphy, the plate could be found materials, like cardboard, thread, bubble wrap, or leaves, which are inked to create direct indexes of the material. In screen printing, the plate is replaced with a mesh screen. A broader term, matrix, can be used to describe the plate, screen, or other tool that is repeatedly used to print.
Broadly, there are four types of printmakingrelief prints, intaglio prints, lithography prints, and screen prints. While there are many subtypes within these categories (along with countless combinations of multiple techniques), these four types of prints are unique in their inherent methods.
Relief prints operate much like stamps. The printed area (the positive) is the un-carved portion of the plate. The plate is typically a relatively soft material that can either be carved by hand or machine, like wood or linoleum. Types of relief prints includewoodcut, linocut, letterpress, collagraphy, and blind embossing/debossing. Relief prints can be burnished by hand or run through a press.
Intaglio prints (pronounced in-tal-yoh) are the inverse of relief prints. The printed areas correspond to the carved or recessed portion of a metal plate. Plates are typically made of zinc or copper, which are carved into with sharp tools and acid. Once the image is engraved, the plate is inked and then wiped clean so that ink only remains in the carved areas. The plate is then run through a press with damp paper, which aids in the ink’s transfer. There are many different intaglio techniques that allow for different effects in both line quality and tonal range including engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, aquatint, spitbite aquatint, and photogravure.
Lithography prints utilize the resistance between oil and water. Traditional stone lithography uses porous limestone, which is directly drawn on with greasing materials like tusche (carbon pigment) and oil-based litho crayon. Next, the surface is fixed with gum arabic to establish the non-image and image areas. When inked, the greasy image areas become water repellent and the non-image areas become water receptive, so that when printed, only the image areas receive the ink and print.
Screen prints (also known as silkscreens and serigraphs) are a stencil-based method of printmaking. In screen printing, a frame is stretched with a mesh fabric that is coated with photosensitive emulsion. A 1:1 scale negative image is then laid over the screen - this can be as simple as dark pieces of paper, or as complex as a photographic image printed in halftone on acetate. Once exposed, the emulsion will cure wherever it hasn’t been blocked out by the black portions of the negative. These areas will then be able to be washed out of the screen, allowing for paint or ink to pass through with a squeegee, while the negative space is blocked by the cured emulsion.
If a print run is a limited edition, the artist will print a set number of impressions before destroying or retiring the original matrix.
In an editioned print, all pieces within the edition will be nearly identical to the others, with the possibility of small variations. The prints are numbered according to the order in which they’re printed. A limited edition work has a defined number of times it can be printed (such as 5, 10 or 15), while an open edition work can be printed as many times as the artist or printer chooses. Limited editions are typically denoted as “edition 5 of 10”, while an open edition would simply be “edition 5”.
For some editions, the artist or printer may choose to include an Artist Print (AP) or Printers Print (PP). PPs are rarely available to collectors since they’re kept as records by the printers, but APs are often available as an early version of the work. An AP might have a different color scheme or another element that makes it different from the rest of the edition.
Monotypes and monoprints are one-off prints where no two impressions are identical. Monoprints are created from a plate that has been manipulated in the printing process with an experimental application of ink or another unique intervention by the artist. A monotype image is a work painted directly onto a smooth unaltered plate and then transferred to paper in a press.
-Aquatint and Spitbite Aquatint: An acid-based intaglio technique that works alongside etching to produce tonal variations to complement linework.
-Blind-embossing/debossing: A relief printmaking process that creates a raised or recessed image.
-Engraving: A type of intaglio printing where a metal plate is incised with a tool called a burin that is manipulated at different angles with different degrees of pressure to create a varying line weight.
-Etching: After a plate has been coated with an acid-resistant ground, the image is scratched away with a sharp tool. This process of intaglio printing uses acid to deepen the image that has been cut into the plate by exposing the plate underneath the ground.
-Drypoint: A type of intaglio printing similar to engraving, drypoint is a process in which marks are made on a plate using a sharp, pointed instrument. In drypoint, the curled burr of the displaced metal gives the final print a soft velvet-like quality.
-Intaglio: A category of prints made from cutting into the printing plate with tools or acid. The recessed portions of the plate hold the printing ink.
-Limited Edition Prints: Prints made with a limited number of impressions.
-Lithograph: A printing process that relies on the opposition of oil and water.
-Mezzotint: A type of intaglio printing where the entire metal plate is roughened by marking fine lines into the plate in all directions with a tool called a rocker. Tonal values are built up by burnishing or scraping into the plate, working from the darkest portion of the image into the highlights, allowing the print to have continuous tonal range.
-Monoprint: A one of a kind print that utilizes a premade plate.
-Monotype: A one of a kind print.
-Open Edition: A print run with unlimited impressions.
-Photogravure: An intaglio process for replicating photographic images.
-Photolitho: A lithographic process for replicating photographic images.
-Plate/Matrix: A template used to create a printed impression.
-Pochoir: A stencil-based printmaking method where color is hand applied with a blunt brush.
-Press: A press is a piece of machinery used to apply pressure to the printmaking plate in order to create a printed impression.
-Printers Proof/ Artist Proof: An impression printed separately from the numbered edition.
-Reductive Print: A technique in relief printing where each print layer is carved from the same block.
-Relief Print: A category of prints made from a raised surface of a printing plate. The raised portions of the plate hold the printing ink.
-Screen print/ Silkscreen/ Seriograph: A stencil-based printmaking process where iInk is squeegeed through a screen.
-Woodcut: A method in which a block of wood is carved and the image stands out in relief.