What is Printing?


Prints can be confusing; it’s not always clear what you’re looking at when you see them framed on the wall.

Much of the issue stems from the word “print.” It can refer to a mechanically made reproduction of a painting or sketch, such as those found in many museum shops, or to a photographic image. It can even refer to something completely nonvisual, such as the print on a book page. In art terms, however, it refers to an image generated on a piece of paper by an artist using the mechanics of a printing press and one of several processes.

When an artist decides to draw a work using one of the printmaking techniques, it is essentially the same as when he selects to paint or draw directly onto canvas or paper.  As with a drawing, the piece made is an original work of art by the artist; the only difference is that the printing process permits the image to be reproduced several times, i.e. in an edition. There is a close relationship between an artist’s prints and the bronze castings of work by a sculptor. It is typical for a sculptor to create multiple casts, but each is considered an original sculpture.

When artists create images using printmaking in this manner, their works are referred to as “original prints.” This is to emphasise that they created the work personally and that it is an original piece of art, not a mechanical reproduction.

Valuation of Original Prints


Why are original prints more valuable than regular reproductions? is a frequently asked question. The value of an artist’s printed work, his “original prints,” is comparable to that of his drawings and paintings, in contrast to machine reproduced copies. They are original works, however, with a few exceptions, the fact that they may exist in an edition makes them more affordable than an equally significant drawing.

The value of original prints is determined by a number of criteria, including the size of the edition, the significance of the work within the artist’s oeuvre, the condition (as with any piece of art), and, for contemporary prints, the question of whether it is signed by the artist.


Editions and signatures


It is often assumed that the status of a print is determined by whether or not it bears the artist’s handwritten signature. In actuality, there are a great number of mechanically produced reproduction prints that are shown to be authorised by the artist through pencil signatures; yet, they are still reproductions. Similarly, an artist can use one of the printmaking techniques to create a “original print” without signing the piece. Although unsigned, such a piece is still a creative original work of art.

In reality, the notion of an artist signing his prints is a rather contemporary one. During the age of the old masters, no artist deemed a handwritten signature necessary. Goya, for instance, never signed his prints by hand, although they are highly prized works of art. The practise of hand-signing prints began in the 1890s, but it did not gain widespread acceptance until the 1910s and 1920s.

The concept of a limited edition is also contemporary. Rembrandt and Durer printed and reprinted impressions of their engravings and etchings to meet market demands. As the market for artists’ prints became increasingly organised towards the end of the 19th century, the concept of limited editions and numbering was also established. Numerous extremely significant prints from the early 20th century are not numbered, but the edition sizes are known through documents kept by the artists or their studios.



Lithography is probably the most well-known printing process. Invented in the latter years of the eighteenth century, it permits an artist enormous drawing freedom and the construction of a vast array of visual effects, many of which are not feasible with traditional drawing or painting. It is the combination of this creative flexibility and the ability to use various colours that has made lithography so popular among artists.

To create a lithograph, the artist uses a greasy substance, such as a particular crayon or grease washes, to draw on the polished surface of a porous limestone block or a zinc plate, which can be treated to have the same features. The surface is then sprayed with water, which the oily artwork repels but the block or plate absorbs. The surface is then rolled with ink, which adheres to the oily portion and is repelled by the moistened portion. The surface is then covered with a sheet of paper, and the block and paper are run through a press to transfer the inked picture to the paper.

To print in colour, the artist must draw on a separate block or plate each part of the image that he wishes to be a distinct colour. The colours are then sequentially printed onto a single sheet of paper, gradually constructing the image.




In etching, acid is employed to incise the line. The metal plate is initially coated with wax. Using either a stylus or instruments with a pointed tip, the artist then sketches into the wax. Through the wax, the tool strokes show the metal plate’s surface.
Ink is transferred across the surface of the plate and retained in the markings made by the artist. The remaining surface of the plate is wiped to remove excess ink, and the plate is then placed in a press. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the plate. The paper is then pressed with considerable force against a roller or flat surface in a press. The ink is driven from the plate’s markings and onto the paper. The plate may be fashioned from copper or another metal of sufficient strength. To print in colour, the artist must either create the parts of the image that he wants in different colours on separate plates, printing each colour ink separately onto the sheet, or paint the various colours onto the various parts of the plate and print them simultaneously.

Woodcuts/Relief Prints


The earliest types of printing utilised carved blocks. This is the exact opposite of intaglio or incised blocks. In a block print, the artist removes portions of the image that he does not want, leaving the image as regions of flat surface. The ink is then put to this flat surface, and the image is printed onto a sheet spread over it, either in a press or with pressure from any flat surface or even from a spoon’s back. The flat surface areas of the block print appear as forms, whereas the cutaway portions are white or unconnected.

Woodblocks were used to produce the earliest block-prints, which were frequently composed of many pieces of wood glued together. Printing from the ‘flat’ of the wood, with the grain on the surface, produced highly textured images, a quality utilised extensively by Expressionist artists of the early 20th century. In the early 20th century, artists also realised that the newly produced substance of linoleum, whether in the shape of floor tiles, sheets, or specially made thicker pieces, could be cut with a great deal more freedom. Simultaneously, the block’s smoother, more anonymous surface enabled a sharper type of image.

Also uncovered were variations on woodblock and lino prints in which the artist etched a line into the flat surface and then inked the block in the manner of an etching (with the ink pushed into the lines and the surface wiped clean, rather than the opposite which is usual in a blockprint). Consequently, only the line was printed.

Matisse is an example of an artist who utilised the reverse of this block-printed “line printing” to great advantage. He carved an incised line into a linoleum block and then inked only the surrounding flat surface, leaving the cut line uninked, so that the printed picture was a white line on a black background.

Silkscreen/Stencil Print


As a result of the present emphasis on graphics with vibrant colours, screenprinting has grown increasingly popular. Its true development occurred in the 1960s, following the idea of stencil printing, and it does not require a hefty press. A screen with an extremely fine mesh is stretched over a frame. The artist then covers the areas of the mesh where he does not want ink to be printed, leaving a “cut-out” of the desired shape. A sheet of paper is then pushed against the underside of the stretched mesh, and ink is run over it. In open regions, it will pass through onto the sheet of paper, whereas it will be prevented in masked areas.

To print several colours, the artist must create a separate screen for each hue and then print each hue individually onto the sheet.

In the stencil prints that preceded screenprinting, no screen was needed. The artist cut out the desired shape from paper, cardboard, or even plastic. This stencil was placed directly over the paper sheet, and when ink was run over it, it was transferred to the sheet beneath. Several cubist artists in the 1920s were attracted to this method because of the solid areas of colour it produced, despite the fact that it existed much earlier.

The plate is subsequently submerged in an acid bath. The acid eats through the plate where the artist’s lines reveal bare metal, but the wax preserves the remainder. Different lengths of time in the acid will yield different line thicknesses and, thus, different drawing density in the final print. After each bite, the plate is wiped clear. Ink is then rolled over it in the same manner as an engraving, so as to fill the bite lines. The remaining surface is wiped, a sheet of paper is placed on top of the plate, and the plate and paper are run through the press under intense pressure. The pressure transfers the ink from the plate’s lines to the paper.

Etching allows the artist to produce many types of lines to get the desired aesthetic effects for his image. The line might be softly bitten or strongly bitten. Wide open spaces can be cleared on the surface of the copper plate so that the acid bites a tonal region; this technique is known as “open-bite.”



The misleading term aquatint (it has nothing to do with ‘aqua’ – water – or colour tinting) refers to a technique of etching that produces patches of tone rather than lines. Typically, it is mixed with pure etching to contrast line and tone.

The plate is initially coated with a solution containing acid-resistant micro-granules, such as resin. The plate is then heated so that the resin wash will adhere to it. The artist then covers the portions of the plate he does not wish to bite with wax, leaving only the desired forms exposed. The plate is then bitten as with any other etching; the acid eats into the plate around each grain of resin to create a network of minute grooves. When the ink is placed to the bitten plate, the ink-retaining grooves are so close together that a tone rather than a line is produced.

The issue with aquatint is that the artist must work in negative, he must block the parts that he does not want to take.  To create a cloud, for instance, he must paint the rest of the sky, leaving the cloud’s free of colour.

A technique known as ‘sugar-lift aquatint’ was developed to circumvent this (one used to great effect by such artists as Picasso). In this technique, the artist paints the desired images, such as clouds, onto the plate using a solution containing dissolved sugar. He then applies a special  varnish solution to the entire plate, including the picture, and immerses it in water. As the water progressively penetrates the areas he doesn’t want to cover, it causes the sugar in the picture areas to swell, and the overlying varnish ultimately peels away, revealing the artist’s painted forms.

Resin is then put to the open sections of the plate, as in traditional aquatint, and the plate is heated and bit as previously. The outcome is a tone of aquatint solely in the areas where the artist painted, without his having to consider the image in a “negative” light.