Prints And Printmaking


The two basic categories of prints are those that are made photomechanically, such as newspaper and magazine illustrations or reproductions of original art sold in museum shops and other stores, and those created by hand for limited reproduction by any of several techniques that require artistic skills and special materials.

Printmaking originated in China after paper was invented (about AD105). Relief printing first flourished in Europe in the 15th century, when the process of papermaking was imported from the East. Since that time, relief printing has been augmented by the various techniques described earlier, and printmaking has continued to be practiced as one of the fine arts.


The graphic artist can use any of several hand-printing methods: relief, intaglio, planographic, monotype, or stencil. The terms fine print or original print are used to describe the finished work.


In relief printing, the artist carves the image into a block of wood, either as a woodcut or as a wood engraving.

  • Woodcut

    This is the oldest method of printmaking. For centuries the basic technique of relief printing has been the cutting away of a portion of the surface of a wood block so that the desired image remains as a printing surface. Traditionally, fruitwoods such as cherry and pear are used; the surfaces of maple and oak are too hard for cutting. In the 20th century, artists have favored softer woods, such as pine. The surface, first smoothed, may be hardened by treating it with a shellac, which makes it more durable under the pressure of a press and facilitates the carving of strong, bold images. The artist may paint or draw the image on the surface; the wood is cut away between the drawn lines, and only the drawn image is left standing on the surface of the block. In essence, this is a relief image.

    A roller holding a film of oil-based ink is rolled completely over the block. A sheet of paper - ideally a highly absorbent type such as rice paper - is placed over the block, and the artist may then print the image by hand rubbing the surface with the bowl of a spoon or with any other burnishing instrument. The block and paper may also be run through a press; under the pressure of the press the image is transferred to the paper. The impression is pulled by carefully lifting a corner of the paper and peeling it off the block. Separate blocks are used for color woodcuts, with one block for each color.

  • Wood Engraving

    Historically, the wood engraving was chiefly used for illustrations in magazines and books. It is similar to the woodcut, but in the wood engraving, the artist uses a graver to incise the image directly into an end-grain block (or cross section) of wood. Boxwood is commonly used, but cherry and pearwood are also suitable. These woods have naturally hard surfaces that allow the artist to create extremely detailed images with fine lines. By varying the spaces between the engraved lines, the artist can build subtle tonal effects and can create the highly illustrative quality associated with this medium. A printer's ink with a stiff consistency is cautiously applied to the surface, so that the ink does not fill the engraved lines. A sheet of thin, smooth paper is placed on the block and printed, either by hand or by running it through a press.


Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing, in that the image is cut or incised into a metal plate with various tools or with acids. The wide variety of methods used gives this medium its enormous range. The two basic types of intaglio printing are engraving the image into the plate with finely ground tools called needles, burnishers, scrapers, and rockers, and etching the image with acids.

  • Engraving

    In an engraving, the artist, by the placement and thickness of the line, determines either a dense and detailed image, or an image with a sketchy or feathery quality. After the image is cut into the plate (usually metal or wood), soft ink is applied with a roller across the entire plate, making certain that all the incised lines are filled with ink. Then the surface of the plate is carefully wiped clean, leaving behind only the ink held in the drawn lines or crevices. The plate is then placed on the bed of the press; dampened paper is placed over the plate, and felt blankets or padding are laid on top of the paper. Under the pressure of the rollers from the press, the paper and padding draw the ink up from the incised lines onto the paper.

  • Etching

    To make an etching, a metal plate is coated with an acid-resistant wax-base substance called a ground. An etching needle, which has an extremely fine point, is used to draw the image on the plate. The surface ground is removed wherever the point of the needle makes contact with the plate. The plate is immersed in a tray containing an acid bath. The acid bites into the plate in the lines exposed by the etching tool; the length of time the plate is exposed to the acid determines the strength of the line.

  • Aquatint

    Aquatint, an intaglio process similar to etching, produces a print of an entirely different appearance. Large segments of the plate are exposed to the acid bath, creating tonal areas rather than lines. Aquatint prints date from the 18th century, when artists endeavored to recreate the effect of watercolor and wash drawings in prints. To create an aquatint, certain areas of the plate are sprinkled with resin, then heated to make the resin adhere to the plate surface. The plate is then immersed in a mild acid, which bites the areas of the plate not covered with resin. If the artist wishes some areas to be darker than others, those areas are exposed to the acid somewhat longer. The plate surfaces exposed to acid become pitted and thus retain the ink more readily. The aquatint method is often difficult to control and is usually used in combination with etching and drypoint techniques.

  • Drypoint

    Drypoint technique is similar to line engraving. A pencil-like tool, usually with a diamond point, is used to draw an image on an untreated copper or zinc plate. Each movement of the tool makes a furrow with a soft metal ridge on either side called a burr, pushed up from the plate by the tool. The artist endeavors to retain the fragile burr throughout printing, because the burr holds the ink and results in a print with rich, velvety lines. The delicacy of the burr and the continuous pressure of the press seldom allow more than 20 to 30 impressions to be printed before the burr is lost. As in the aquatint process, the drypoint print is produced by inking the plate, wiping it clean, placing dampened paper over the plate, and putting the plate through the press.

  • Mezzotint

    Another technique used in intaglio printing is the mezzotint. The primary tools are various scrapers and the mezzotint rocker, a heavy instrument with a semicircular serrated edge. When the tool is rocked over a copper plate, the edge leaves serrated “teeth” marks. Each movement of the rocker, in effect, leaves the surface covered with burr. In this long and tedious process, the artist completely covers the surface, first working the rocker in one direction, then at right angles to the first direction, then in diagonal directions, and finally once more between the diagonals. If the plate were inked and printed at this stage, the image would be a solid velvety black. The artist creates the image by working a scraper over the surface of the plate, reducing or in some cases completely eliminating the teeth created by the rocker. When the burnishing is complete, the plate is inked and printed. The gradation of tone from solid black areas to pure white gives the mezzotint the striking contrasts for which this medium is best known.


In planographic printing the image is created directly on the surface of a stone or a metal plate without cutting or incising it. The most common method is called lithography, a process based on the incompatibility of grease and water. Traditionally, the material used for lithography is a special limestone, usually from Bavaria, that is quite heavy and often expensive. Limestone is sensitive to water, particularly in the open areas of the surface left untouched. Zinc or aluminum plates, however, are also often used.

The artist first draws the image on a freshly ground surface with a grease crayon or with a pen or brush loaded with thin greasy ink. A mixture of nitric acid and gum arabic is then applied to the entire surface to increase the stone's ability to hold water in a thin film all over. Next, water is poured or wiped over the entire surface; the water is repelled by the grease of the crayon marks but is absorbed elsewhere. When a roller impregnated with greasy ink is passed over the surface, the ink adheres to the greasy drawn areas but is rejected by the wet part of the surface. After the stone is placed on a press and paper is applied, the pressure of the press transfers the image to paper.


The monotype is a unique print; only one good impression can be pulled from a plate. The artist draws an image with oils or watercolors, or inks, on virtually any smooth surface. Glass is most often used, but a polished copper plate or porcelain can also be employed. The image can be created either by painting it on the surface directly or by the reverse process: first covering the plate completely with an even coat of pigments and then carefully rubbing this away with the fingers or with a brush to form the image. Paper is then applied to the plate and the image is transferred either by rubbing the back of the paper or with the use of an etching press.


Although the stencil process was used in ancient Rome, its greatest popularity began in the United States during the 1960s, when many artists expressed themselves with blocks of pure color and hard-edged imagery. A stencil is a cutout with open and closed areas. The easiest way to create a stencil is to cut the desired image into paper; the design appears as an open space with solid areas around it. The completed stencil is then placed over a piece of paper, and paint is brushed over the surface. Only the cutout portion will allow the paint to pass through and reproduce the image below.

In producing a silk screen - also called serigraph or screenprint - a piece of silk or another porous material is stretched tightly across a wooden frame. In the most direct method, the artist produces the image by creating a design on the fabric with a blocking agent - a stencil, glue, or a combination of glue and a solvent. Paper is placed beneath the screen. Ink is pushed across the entire surface of the screen with a squeegee, and as the squeegee passes over the exposed areas (where there is no blocking agent), the ink is deposited below and the design is transferred to the paper. Artists can also use stencil film or photographic techniques to create the image.


Giclée (pronounced "zhee-clay") is a French word meaning "a spraying of ink". With the advent of giclée, the art of reproducing fine art has become even more precise. Giclée's have the highest apparent resolution available today - as high as 1,800 dpi. In addition, since no screens are used, the prints have a higher apparent resolution than lithographs and a color range that exceeds that of serigraphy. Displaying a full color spectrum, giclée prints capture every nuance of an original and have gained wide acceptance from artists and galleries throughout the world.

The patented printing technology utilizes microscopically fine droplets of ink to form the image. A print can consist of nearly 20 billion ink droplets. The microscopic droplets of ink vary in sizes (approximately the size of a red blood cell) and density. This unique patented feature produces a near continuous tone image, smoother gradation between tones, and a more finely differentiated color palette.

This unique patented feature produces a near continuous tone image, smoother gradation between tones, and a more finely differentiated color palette. Numerous examples of giclee prints can be found in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Chelsea Galleries. Recent auctions of giclee prints have fetched $10,800 for Annie Leibovitz, $9,600 for Chuck Close, and $22,800 for Wolfgang Tillmans (April 23/24 2004, Photographs, New York, Phillips de Pury & Company.)


Printmakers, print dealers, and print collectors use terms that are necessary for the comprehension of prints. Here are some important terms:

Limited Edition: An edition that is restricted to a specific number of copies.

Edition: The group of images printed from the plate, stone, block, or the like is called an edition. These identical images are pulled either by the artist or, under the artist's supervision, by the printer. Each sequential print from the body of the edition is numbered - as, for example, 1/100 through 100/100 - directly on the print, usually in pencil. Additional proofs, such as artist's proofs, are also part of the edition.

Hand Embellishment: A process of painting onto a fine art print after it has been printed. The artist will usually pick out certain areas to highlight, either to create a texture similar to the original, or add other material such as gold and silver leaf.

Numbering: Numbering indicates the size of the edition and the number of each particular print. Therefore, 25/75 means that the print is the 25th impression from an edition of 75.

Artist's Proofs: Artist's proofs are those impressions from an edition that are specifically intended for the artist's own use. These impressions are in addition to the numbered edition and are so noted in pencil as artist proof or A/P.

Restrike: Subsequent printing from an original plate, stone, or block is called a restrike. Restrikes are usually printed posthumously.

States: Once the artist has drawn an image, he or she may pull several prints. If the artist subsequently changes the image, the prints made before the change are called first state, and the subsequent prints made after the change, second state. The artist can continue to make changes, with the number of states going as high as ten or more.

Catalogue Raisonné: A scholarly reference text in which each print known to have been executed by a particular artist is completely documented and described is a catalogue raisonné. The information given may include title, alternate titles, date, medium, size of the edition, image size, paper used, and other pertinent facts. The term is also used for similar catalogs of paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, or other works by a single artist or workshop.

Provenance: Record of ownership for a work of art, ideally from the time it left the artist's studio to its present location, thus creating ownership history.

Watermark: Watermark is a design embossed or embedded into a piece of paper during its production and used for identification of the paper and papermaker. The watermark can be seen when the paper is held up to light.

2nd Ed (Second Edition): Impressions of the same image as the original edition but altered in some way (as in change of color, paper or printing process).

2nd st (Second State): Prints of proofs which contain significant changes from the original print.

AP or A.P.: Artist's Proof.

EA or E.A. (French, Epreuve D'Artiste): Artist's Proof.

Del (Latin, Delineavit): He (she) drew it. Generally inscribed next to the artist's signature.

HC (French, Hors d'Commerce): Impressions from an edition intended to be used as samples to show to dealers and galleries. These proofs may or may not be signed and numbered by the artist.

PP: Printer's Proof.

TP: Trial Proof.

CP: Cancellation Proof. Final impression made once an edition series has been finished to show that the plate has been marred/mutilated by the artist, and will never be used again to make more impressions of the edition.

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