An Introduction to Printmaking
Table of contents
What is Printmaking?
Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints with an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of mono-typing, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a ‘print’. Each piece produced is not a copy but considered ‘an original’ since it is not a reproduction of another work of art and is technically known as an ‘impression’.
Printmaking (other than monotyping) is not chosen only for its ability to produce multiple copies, but rather for the unique qualities that each of the printmaking processes lends itself to.
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, linoleum for linocuts and fabricplates for screen-printing. But there are many other kinds of matrix substrates and related processes discussed below.
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 artist’s books. A single print could be the product of one or multiple techniques.
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, the process uses the principle of viscosity to print multiple colours of ink from a single plate, rather than relying upon multiple plates for colour separation.
Other types of printmaking techniques outside these groups include collography and foil imaging. Collography is a technique used in printmaking where any textured found material is adhered to the printing plate. This texture is captured on the paper after the print is created. Modern printing technology may be included such as Digital printers, 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, 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 can be used for each colour, or a technique called reduction printing can be used.
Reduction printing is a name used to describe the process of using one block to print several layers of colour on one print. This usually involves cutting a small amount of the block away, and then printing the block many times over on different sheets before washing the block, cutting more away and printing the next colour on top. This allows the previous colour to show through. This process can be repeated many times over. The advantages of this process is that only one block is needed, and that different components of an introcate design will line up perfectly. The disadvantage is that once the artist moves on to the next layer, no more prints can be made.
Another variation of woodcut printmaking is the cukil technique, made famous by the Taring Padi underground community in Java, Indonesia. Taring Padi Posters usually resemble intricately printed cartoon posters embedded with political messages. Images, usually resembling a visually complex scenario, are carved unto a wooden surface called cukilan, then smothered with printer’s ink before pressing it unto media such as paper or canvas.
The process was developed in Germany in the 1430s from the engraving used by goldsmiths to decorate metalwork. Engravers use a hardened steel tool called a burin to cut the design into the surface of a metal plate, traditionally made of copper. Engraving using a burin is generally a difficult skill to learn.
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.
To make a print, the engraved plate is inked all over, then the ink is wiped off the surface, leaving only 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 printing plate shows much sign of wear, except when drypoint, which gives much shallower lines, is used.
In the 20th century, true engraving was revived as a serious art form by artists including Stanley William Hayter.
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 or acrylic ground. The artist then draws through the ground with a pointed etching needle. The exposed metal lines are then etched by dipping the plate in a bath of etchant (e.g. nitric acid or ferric chloride). The etchant “bites” into the exposed metal, leaving behind lines in the plate. The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate, and the printing process is then just the same as for engraving.
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 colours 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 technique used in Intaglio etchings. Like etching, aquatint technique involves the application of acid to make marks in a metal plate. Where the etching technique uses a needle to make lines that retain ink, aquatint relies on powdered rosin which is acid resistant in the ground to create a tonal effect. The rosin is applied in a light dusting by a fan booth, the rosin is then cooked until set on the plate. At this time the rosin can be burnished or scratched out to affect its tonal qualities. 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.
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.
Screen-printing (also known as “screenprinting”, “silk-screening”, or “serigraphy”) creates bold colour using a stencil technique. Stencil printing is arguably the oldest form of graphic arts. Screen-printing lends itself well to printing on canvas. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and many others have used screen-printing this way.
The first time man placed his hand against a cave wall and blew ash and dried blood against it was the first time a stencil was used. Around 500 BC in Japan, artists were gluing human hair between pieces of paper to create floral stencils which were used with brushes to tamp colour. The hair was later replaced with a silk mesh (hence the name “silk screen”). Stencils were even used to print the bold red crosses on the shields and cuirasses of the crusading knights, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that silk screen printing became industrialized and was used in the printing of fabrics and textiles throughout the western world. After that, it was only a matter of time before artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol began experimenting with the technique for artistic purposes.
In screen printing, the artist draws or paints 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 that the pieces which are cut away are the areas that will let ink through). A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood or aluminium frame. The stencil is fixed to the screen.
Modern technology uses direct and indirect photo emulsions which are UV sensitive. This means that the artist’s renderings on transparent film can be exactly reproduced on the nylon screen coated with light sensitive (UV) emulsion. The light sensitive emulsion fills in the entire screen, the transparent film upon which the artist has drawn is laid upon the screen and both are placed in the exposure unit. Where the light passes through the transparent film, the emulsion is exposed and hardens. Where the artist’s markings on the film stop the light, the emulsion is NOT exposed and releases upon washing, creating a stencil on the screen that exactly reproduces the artist’s markings to the finest detail.
The screen is then placed on top of almost any substrate, paper, glass, fabric, golf balls, etc. 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 through the open mesh onto the paper/fabric below. The screen is lifted once the image has been transferred onto the paper/fabric, which is replaced with the next, unprinted, substrate. Colours are added layer by layer and each colour requires a separate stencil on a separate screen. The screen can be re-used after cleaning.
Printmakers apply colour 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 colour techniques, a number of plates, screens or blocks are produced, each providing a different colour. Each separate plate, screen, or block will be inked up in a different colour 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 colour will interact with the colour already applied to the paper, and this must be kept in mind when producing the separation of colours. The lightest colours are often applied first, and then darker colours successively until the darkest.
The reductionist approach to producing colour is to start with a lino or wood block that is either blank or with a simple etching. Upon each printing of colour the printmaker will then further cut into the lino or woodblock removing more material and then apply another colour and reprint. Each successive removal of lino or wood from the block will expose the already printed colour to the viewer of the print. Picasso is often cited as the inventor of reduction printmaking, although there is evidence of this method in use 25 years before Picasso’s linocuts.