From New World Encyclopedia

mount Fuji, color woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai, early nineteenth century

Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. 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, creates a unique original piece of artwork.

Prints are created from a single original surface, known technically as a matrix. Common types of matrices include: metal plates for engraving or etching; stones used for lithography; blocks of wood for woodcuts. However, there are many other kinds of prints. Each print is considered an original work of art, not a copy. Works printed from a single plate create an edition. In modern times these are usually signed and numbered individually to form a "limited edition." Prints may also be published in book form, as "artists' books." A single print is sometimes the product of multiple techniques.

Hand-colored etching of royal fireworks, 1749


A rubbing of an image of Jie, last ruler of Xia-dynasty, from the Wu-family Shrines, Jiaxiang, Shandong, China, around 150 C.E.

Before the printing press, printmaking was not considered an art form in the West, but primarily a medium of communication. It was not until the eighteenth century that art prints began to be considered originals and not until the nineteenth that artists began to produce limited editions and to sign their prints along with the technical information necessary to authenticate the work.

Engraving itself—though not to make prints—goes back to cave art, executed on stones, bones, and cave walls. The duplication of engraved images dates to approximately 3,000 years ago with the Sumerians, who engraved designs on stone-cylinder seals in order to create prints. Scholars believe that the Chinese produced a primitive form of print, the rubbing, as far back as the second-century C.E. The Japanese made the first authenticated prints, wood-block rubbings of Buddhist charms, in the late-middle eighth century.


Printmakers work with a variety of media, including water-based ink, water-color paint, oil-based ink, oil pastels, and any water-soluble solid pigment. The work is created on a flat surface called a plate. Printmaking techniques that utilize digital methods are becoming increasingly popular and in many markets are the preferred form.

Matrices used in printmaking include planks of wood, metal plates, panes of acrylic glass, pieces of shellacked book board, sheets of linoleum, or lithographic stones. A separate technique, called serigraphy or silk-screening makes use of a porous fabric mesh stretched in a frame, called a screen. Small prints can even be made using the surface of a potato or virtually any surface into which a pattern can be carved.


Poster by Toulouse-Lautrec

Printmakers apply color to their prints in many different ways. Color that involves etching, screenprinting, woodcut, or linocut is applied either by using separate plates, blocks or screens or by using a reductionist approach. Multiple-plate color techniques involve a number of plates, screens or blocks produced, each providing a different color. Each matrix is inked in a different color and applied in a particular sequence to ultimately produce the entire picture. Usually three or four plates are produced but there are occasions where a printmaker may use up to seven plates. Every application of color will interact with the color 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 the darker colors successively until the last one.

The reductionist approach starts with a block that contains a simple etching, or may even be blank to produce a solid background color. Upon each printing, the printmaker will remove more material, apply another color, and reprint.

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

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

Other types of printmaking techniques outside these groups include collography and foil imaging. Digital processes include giclée, photographic mediums, and combinations 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 known 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 fifth 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 color, separate blocks are used for each color.

Artists using this technique include:

  • Albrecht Dürer
  • Werner Drewes
  • Hiroshige
  • Hokusai.


Engraving was developed in Germany in the 1430s from the technique 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, traditionally copper, plate. Burins 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 engraved 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 with re-inking; 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.


The process of etching is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470-1536) of Augsburg, Germany, who decorated armor in this way and also applied the method to printmaking. Etching soon came to challenge engraving as the most popular printmaking medium. Its great advantage was that, unlike engraving, it is relatively easy to learn for an artist trained in drawing. The final steps in creating etched prints are the same as in engraving, but the preparation process is very different.

The Three Crosses, etching by Rembrandt

Etched 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.

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 is where first the plate 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 color 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.


Drypoint is 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 10 or 20 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 three drypoints before abandoning the technique; Rembrandt used it frequently, but usually in conjunction with etching and engraving.


La Goulue, Lithograph poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lithography is a technique invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder and is based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water.

A porous surface, normally limestone, is used; the image is drawn on the limestone with an oily medium. Acid is applied, transferring the oil 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 oil-based residue of the drawing; the stone is then "rolled up." A sheet of wet 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 in progress

Screen-printing (also known as "silk-screening," or "serigraphy") creates bold color 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. A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood frame. The stencil is affixed to the screen which resists the ink, and 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 color requires a separate stencil. The screen can be re-used after cleaning and another design placed on it.

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 blurring the images. 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 color 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.

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, and Zazie (surrealist).

Foil Imaging

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

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Griffths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking. London: British Museum Press, 1996. ISBN 071412608X
  • Ivins, Jr. William. Prints and Visual Communication. Harvard University Press, 1953. ISBN 0262590026
  • Saunders, Gill, and Rosie Miles. Prints Now: Directions and Definitions. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006. ISBN 1851774807

External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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