What is printmaking?
Printmaking is an artistic technique that involves transferring images onto another surface, typically paper or fabric.
Printmaking is a unique art form that involves a transfer method rather than direct drawing on paper. The artist creates a composition on an alternative surface, such as metal or wood, which is called a matrix. The transfer occurs when the matrix is inked, and a sheet of paper is pressed into contact with it using a printing press. There are four main traditional printmaking techniques: woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprinting. Each method has its own distinct characteristics and requires specialized skills and tools. Woodcut involves carving the image onto a wooden block, while etching involves using acid to create grooves in a metal plate. Lithography uses oil and water to create an image on a flat surface, while screenprinting uses stencils to apply ink onto the paper. Despite the differences in technique, all forms of printmaking require patience, attention to detail, and creativity from the artist.
12 types of printmaking
There are many types of printmaking, divided into three major processes: relief, surface and intaglio. Below, we’ll explain 12 popular forms of printmaking, ranging from traditional to modern techniques.
Aquatint is a printmaking method similar to etching, pioneered by printmaker Jan Van del Vede in 1650. With aquatint printmaking, the artist uses a sharp tool or acid to create an image on a metal plate. They then put ink on the lower parts of the plate, resulting in a raised image on the paper and various tones from light to dark through the use of tonal effects.
For this printmaking art, you use tiny particles of acid-resistant material, usually powdered resin, to form the image on the plate. The plate is then placed in an acid bath, which eats into the plate between the resin particles, giving the image a special texture. After this process, the artist uses the plate to make their print, and the result is a pattern of small dots instead of clear lines. This gives the print a textured and slightly blurred look, similar to a watercolour painting. The amount of time the plate is kept in the acid bath determines the quality of tones in the resulting print: the longer it is etched, the darker the tones will be, making the length of time a crucial factor in the final result.
Lithography, created by Alois Senefelder in 1798, is one of the most demanding printmaking techniques. The artist directly draws on a stone or metal surface using a grease-based medium, then treats the stone with a chemical solution, ensuring the image retains printing ink. This solution plays a crucial role in making sure that unmarked areas repel the ink while being receptive to water on the entire surface of the stone.
At first, lithography was primarily used for producing musical scores and maps, with occasional use in fine art printmaking. However, today’s commercial lithography methods use plastic components and polymer coatings rather than stones and oil-based inks.
Screen printing involves the use of a stencil placed on a screen to block ink. Printmakers then apply ink to the screen, allowing it to pass through selectively to form the final image.
This technique found widespread commercial use and reached its peak of popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly as a key element of the pop art movement. Andy Warhol, a prominent figure in this movement, used screen printing to create iconic portfolios featuring Campbell's Soup and Marilyn Monroe.
Today, screen printing continues to be widely used in the clothing industry, serving as the go-to method for producing logo-adorned merchandise.
Woodcutting is one of the oldest printmaking arts, in which artists carve an image into a piece of wood, cover it with ink, then press it onto a surface to create an image.
It’s similar to linocutting, but with woodcuts, because the texture of the wood's grain adds a unique quality to the image. Woodcutting originally came from China and made its way to the Western world around the 13th Century, with the German artist Albrecht Durer popularising this method in the 15th Century. Later on, in the late 1800s, expressionist artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde brought the woodcut prints technique back into the spotlight.
Linocut (Linoleum) printmaking
Linocut is a relatively beginner-friendly technique that uses cost-effective materials, allowing hand-printing with tools like a spoon or a baren, as well as printing with a press due to linoleum's thinness and flexibility.
Woodcuts and linocuts share a graphic quality due to their relief process, creating images with flat colour planes and fluid lines. Linocuts (or linoleum printmaking), a 20th-century form of relief printmaking, use linoleum sheets instead of a block of wood, making it a popular alternative to traditional wood engraving. Linoleum's smooth, grain-free surface allows versatile carving directions using woodcut or engraving tools.
For a long time, linocuts faced disapproval within the art industry due to their simplicity. However, perceptions shifted in the 1950s when Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse embraced the medium.
Collagraphy, which was introduced by artist Glen Alps in 1955, involves the application of various materials onto a flat surface, often cardboard or thin wood plates, to create a unique image.
Once the image is created, ink is applied to the plate, such as a printing plate, and it is then transferred onto paper using either hand tools or a printing press. When the paper is peeled away from the plate, you'll see an impression that is full of textures and depth, which vary based on the materials used in the collage.
Collagraph prints are different from linocuts and woodcuts, which often emphasise bold lines and shapes. Instead, collagraph prints offer more opportunities for intricate textures and subtle marks created by the pressure applied to the back of the paper. This can result in prints that are incredibly detailed and visually stunning.
Engraving is the oldest and most challenging form of intaglio printmaking. Unlike relief printmaking where ink is applied to the surface, intaglio involves incising grooves into a plate, inking the plate, and then wiping the surface, allowing the ink to remain in the grooves. When the plate is pressed with paper using an etching press, the paper is forced into the grooves, picking up the ink and achieving effects ranging from crisp, clear lines to large areas of deep, velvety blacks.
The term 'intaglio' comes from the Italian word 'intagliare,' meaning 'to cut in.' The various intaglio techniques, such as engraving, etching, drypoint, mezzotint, and aquatint, differ based on how the incisions are made.
Engraving involves manually carving the plate with a burin, a tool with a sharp, oblique tip, creating V-shaped grooves. Precision is crucial, and errors can only be rectified by skillfully reshaping the plate with a hammer and smoothing it with a scraper and burnisher. Engraving's complexity lies in its demanding technique, requiring both dexterity and craftsmanship.
Etching is a common intaglio technique. Unlike engraving, where you carve lines with a burin, etching involves creating marks by a process known as 'biting.' The process begins by applying a wax-like layer called the 'ground' to a metal plate. Then, you draw a design on the plate using a sharp needle, using only light pressure to scratch through the ground's surface. After completing the drawing, the artist coats the plate's back with varnish, and it's submerged in an acid bath. The acid will bite the exposed areas of the plate, creating the desired design.
Etching printmaking was further popularised by artists including Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso and Francisco Goya.
Monotype is a widely-used planographic method in which images are created on flat surfaces, like glass or acrylic. In monotype printmaking, you first apply paint or ink to a smooth surface, then press it onto paper – often using a printing press, or a brayer, or even just your hand.
The print that comes out is one-of-a-kind and can't be copied exactly, which is why it's called 'monotype.' Sometimes, there's still enough ink left on the surface to make a faint second print, but it's not as valuable as the original.
Artists like James Rosenquist and Edgar Degas have used monotypes in their work, combining them with other techniques.
Offset printing, also known as offset lithography, is a mass-production printmaking method where images from metal plates are transferred to rubber blankets or rollers and then onto the print material. This indirect contact with the metal plates extends their lifespan.
The flexible rubber easily adapts to the print material's surface, making it suitable for rough surfaces like canvas, cloth, or wood. Offset printing is prized for its consistently high image quality, making it ideal for small, medium, or large-volume printmaking jobs.
C-type, also known as Chromogenic fine art prints, are created from film negatives, named after c-type or chromogenic paper. Kodak originally trademarked the process, but it's now a generic term.
C-type paper comprises three emulsion layers, each sensitive to one primary colour. After exposing the image on the paper, it's immersed in a chemical solution. While this darkroom technique has become less popular, modern c-type prints are typically produced from digital image files using lasers or LEDs to expose colours on photosensitive paper, resulting in a wider range of tones.
In contrast to inkjet photo prints, c-type prints exhibit colour tones blending smoothly, making them preferred by many artists for their photography. This characteristic is seen as the superiority of c-type prints over inkjet digital prints.
Giclée, pronounced 'zhee-clays,' is a fine art printmaking technique produced by large-format digital printers that use small sprayers to precisely apply ink, creating high-quality prints from high-resolution digital images. Jack Duganne coined the term in 1991 when his company, Nash Solutions, used specialised printers that sprayed ink like an airbrush to achieve precise reproductions.
Giclée is commonly used for limited edition fine art prints, with artists able to produce giclée prints as long as a high-resolution image file of the artwork is available, either through photography or scanning.
These prints are popular due to their durability, lasting over 100 years with proper care. Best of all, they faithfully replicate the original artwork, making them ideal for reproductions and displaying digital works.
How did printmaking change the world of art?
Printmaking is believed to have started during China's Han Dynasty in the 1st century AD, following the invention of paper in 105 AD. For artists working before cameras and scanners, printmaking provided a revolutionary way to easily replicate works, enabling wider dissemination of their creations.