While most types of artworks are identified as individual pieces that can never be completely replicated, printmaking techniques make an exceptional set of practices that possess the ability to create multiple copies of a single piece of art. As such, pieces of printmaking are considered original artistic works despite the fact such artworks can exist in multiple copies. From a practical standpoint, prints are made from a sole original surface known by its technical name as a matrix or a plate. After a matrix is created upon a block, plate, stone or screen, the depicted design is transferred by contact on the surface of the actual piece which then becomes the print. Conventional fine prints are normally produced in limited edition sets and each print needs to be numbered and signed by the artist personally. Afterwards, the matrix is usually destroyed as to prevent any future prints from being made.
Many modern readers tend to hear the words printmaking techniques and immediately think of mechanically mass-produced commercial products, such as books, newspapers and textiles. However, printmaking techniques usually refer to a set of methods through which a fine arts print is made, an original creation of an artist who, instead of using a paintbrush or the chisel, has opted to use printmaking tools to express himself. Usually, the ability to have multiple originals is not the crucial feature for an author to choose printmaking over other mediums. Instead, what seems to be the key characteristic is the unique visual qualities that all types of printmaking have in their arsenal.
Different Types of Printmaking Techniques
Many experts agree that printmaking techniques can be roughly divided into four basic categories of relief, intaglio, planographic and stencil. The relief method is one of the simplest types of printmaking in which the material is carved or otherwise taken away from around the protruding design that is to be printed. Here, the ink is applied to the raised surface of the matrix. Technically speaking, intaglio printmaking is the reverse of the relief method – the ink is applied beneath the original surface of the matrix, such as the case with the techniques of engraving and etching. The difference between the relief/intaglio method and the planographic one is that, in the latter, the design is printed onto a flat surface. The matrix retains its original surface but is specially prepared to allow for the transfer of the image. Last but not least, stenciling is a special variant of printmaking and it involves carving the design out of a thin material and then printing the design by rubbing or spraying paint around the spaces that are cut out. This method is extremely popular in the world of street art as stencils are one of the most popular techniques urban interventionists tend to use.
The Most Popular Ways of Printing
All the types of printmaking are based on the idea of multiplying designs from a matrix, but all of the methods carry their own set of distinctive styles, tools, materials and, ultimately, visual appearances. Depending on what they desire to accomplish, authors choose different types of printmaking and the differences between the final artworks can be rather dramatic. It should be noted that many of the printmaking techniques are often combined, especially if they belong to the same methodical category. We shall now go through what we believe to be the nine most popular printmaking techniques in order to investigate both their technical processes and the overall characteristics.
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Featured Images: Roy Lichtenstein – Crying Girl – Image via georgetownframeshoppe.com; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – Two Heads Looking at Each Other, 1930 – Image via wikiart.org; Joseph Hogarth – After Stanfield C1840 – Image via albion-prints.com; Richard Hamilton – Adonis In Y Fronts (detail) – Image via img.nowness.com;
Woodcut is the oldest printmaking technique and it involves carving an image into a wooden surface before covering it in ink with a roller, which is followed by printing, leaving an image only where the block has not been carved away. By leaving the carved-out image in negative, the author is able to make some very detailed pieces which are only enriched visually by occasional traces of the wood’s grain. Originating in China and reaching the West in the 13th century, woodcuts were mastered by the 15th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer who took the ancient method to a whole new artistic level. Centuries later, Expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde revived the woodcut tradition, examining the medium’s graphic potential with aggressive marks and flat planes of color.
Featured Images: Emil Nolde -Fischdampfer, 1910 – Image via wikimedia.org; Patrick Siler – The Malignant Moon of the Palouse, 1986 – Image via patricksiler.com
A similar yet much more modern version of the woodcut, linocut is made via a method that uses a sheet of linoleum is as a relief foundation upon which a design is formed. The composition is carved into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife or a chisel, with the raised and uncarved areas being a mirror image of the parts that will be printed. Although the actual printing can be done by hand or with a printer, the result is always the same – a printed composition with clear and fluid lines, much more fluent visually than any piece of woodcut.
Featured Images: Jennifer Hood – Fog of War – Image via hoodzpahdesign.com; Catherine Howel – Untitled – Image via redbubble.net
In order to produce an etching, authors incise a design onto a wax-coated metal plate and then soak the entire matrix in strong acid. After the chemicals are done exposing the lines and leaving the wax virtually intact, the plate can be inked and pressed. A part of the intaglio category, the etching process is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536) who used to decorate armor in this fashion. Its great advantage was that it required no special skill in metalworking and was relatively easy to learn for anyone who had some training in drawing. Prints made by etching are usually linear and contain fine detail and contours. Although the legendary Rembrandt is considered to be the greatest master of this method, many modern authors have also worked with etchings. Authors such as Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso and Cy Twombly are only some of the names that come instantly to mind.
Featured Images: Carl Wilhelm Kolbe – Et in Arcadia ego, 1801 – Image via artinprint.org; Robert Hills – Horses, 1801 – Image via albion-prints.com; Teresa Oaxaca – Laughing Clown – Image via bp.com
By far the less forgiving variant of etching is the process of engraving, a method which demands that an artist carves his image directly onto a metal plate. By removing the wax and chemical steps of etching, engraving left much less room for mistakes and required a great amount of skill. The matrix is usually made from copper. Although challenging, this technique results in a unique and recognizable quality of the line that is characterized by its steady, deliberate appearance and clean edges. Another advantage of engraving is that the printing process can be repeated many times before the plate starts showing signs of wear. Via this method, an artist can easily produce several hundred copies with just one matrix. Many authors worked with engraved prints, including such names as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró. The aforementioned Albrecht Dürer was also the master of this technique.
Featured Images: Albrecht Dürer – St Jerome, 1514 – Image via wikimedia.org; William Blake – Beggar’s Opera, Act III – Image via tate.org.uk; Robert Dodd – The Indian Emperor, 1792 – Image via tate.org.uk
Monotype is a term used to define the printmaking techniques that produce editions of one print instead of multiples. The process of monotyping involves manipulating additional ink on a previously etched and inked plate. After which the exact reverse of the original drawing is conveyed to a new surface, the original design and its details are lost forever. Many famous authors worked in this method, such as Edgar Degas and Jean Dubuffet. Their work with monotypes were full of spontaneity and was praised for the painterly quality of the final images despite such a technique challenging the fundamental definitions of printmaking. It should be noted that some pieces of monotype can result in a second and weaker impression which is referred to as a ghost and is considered to be a much less worthy print than the original imprint.
Featured Images: Ruth Hesse – Cell Series – Image via ruthhessemonotype.com; Patricia Canelake – Unleashed – Image via patriciacanelake.com
Frequently regarded as the most difficult printmaking method ever invented, lithography demands that the designed drawing is directly applied onto a stone or metal plate with an oil-based implement. Acid is then applied, transferring the grease to the surface and leaving the image burned into the matrix. A water-soluble substance is then applied in order to seal the sections not covered with the drawing. Finally, the stone or metal is moistened, with water staying only on the surface not covered in the grease-based residue of the design. Based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water, lithography was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder. A more modern version of this technique is photolithography, a method that has the image captured by photographic processes on metal plates.
Featured Images: Thomas Hart Benton – Planting, 1939 – Image via ohio.edu; A Lithography Matrix – Image via wikimedia.org
One of the most ubiquitous printmaking techniques ever invented, the screen printing process commences with an ink-blocking stencil being implemented to a screen. When the ink is applied, it selectively passes through and transfers the image to the ground. Originally used for commercial purposes in the early 20th century, this process blossomed as the technology was rapidly developing towards the 60s and 70s. Out of all the types of printmaking, this is the only method that was almost solely popularized by only one artist and that is, of course, Andy Warhol who authored the greatest screen print examples to date. Roy Lichtenstein, another Pop-art icon, also made his fair share of screen prints.
Featured Images: Andy Warhol – Big Electric Chair. Image via letsexploreart.com; Roy Lichtenstein – Pistol 1964 – Image via huffingtonpost.com; Roy Lichtenstein – The Oval Office, 1992 – Image via Sotheby’s; Andy Warhol – Marilyn Monroe, 1967 – Image via wikimedia.org
The most modern of all the printmaking techniques on our list, digital prints are produced using a computer and are usually made with an ink-jet printer. The results are uniformly toned images with highly saturated in details. It should be noted that a digital print is only considered an original piece if it was intended as a unique artwork – it must not be a copy or a reproduction of an artwork initially made in a different medium. Although this method demands the least amount of practical skill, digital prints truly shine in the details department as no other process is capable of resulting in more precise prints.
Featured Images: Carl McCrow – AKA0 – Image via pinterest.com; David King Reuben – Read Between the Lines, 2015 – Image via wikimedia.org; Simen Johan – From the series Until the Kingdom Comes, Untitled #183, 2015 – Image © Simen Johan
The print transfer is a general label for the technique of transmitting an image from one surface to another, whether by spreading, tracing, pushing or any other manual technique. This practice has long been incorporated by countless artists who used it in a variety of artistic applications. It dates all the way back to the 14th century Renaissance when the painters were creating fresco pieces that demanded that the preparatory drawings or designs be transferred to moist plaster. Another example is the centuries-old technique of decorating enamels and ceramics. Of all the modern artists, Robert Rauschenberg was the most notable practitioner of transfer. He used the technique in the 1960s in order to make drawings from found imagery collected from newspapers and magazines which he dipped in water and pinned face down onto paper.