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ABCs of Printmaking

ABCs of Printmaking
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An introduction to printmaking.

By Andrea Mulder-Slater

Printmaking is a sometimes misunderstood aspect of visual art. The distinction between fine art prints and “limited edition prints” which are actually commercially reproduced prints (posters which have been signed) is not always easy to make.

Fine art printmaking involves the creation of a master plate from which multiple images are made. Simply put, the artist chooses a surface to be the plate. This could be linoleum, styrofoam, metal, cardboard, stone or any one of a number of materials. Then the artist prepares the printing plate by cutting, etching or drawing an image onto the plate. Ink is applied (in a variety of ways) and paper is pressed onto the plate either by hand or by way of a hand-run printing press. The finished print is pulled from the plate.

Often the first three or four prints of are different than the rest of the edition. These first prints are called artist’s proofs. The number of prints pulled from one plate is called an edition. Once a certain number of prints are pulled, the plate is destroyed so that more prints won’t be printed later, thus ensuring the value of the edition. At the bottom of a print are two to three things always written in pencil. On the left is a number that appears as a fraction (e.g. 6/25), this means that the print is number six of a total of twenty five prints pulled from one plate. This number excludes the artist proofs which are designated with an A/P. In the centre of the bottom of the print is the title (if any). At the bottom right, is the artist’s name and sometimes a date.

There are four main types of printmaking. The process and materials of these techniques influence the appearance of the final print…


Relief Printing


This is printing from a raised surface. A simple example of relief printing is a rubber stamp pressed into a stamp pad and pressed onto a piece of paper. Relief printing plates are made from flat sheets of material such as wood, linoleum, metal, styrofoam etc. After drawing a picture on the surface, the artist uses tools to cut away the areas that will not print. A roller – called a brayer – is used to spread ink on the plate. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the plate and the image is transferred by rubbing with the hand or a block of wood, or by being run through a printing press. The completed print is a mirror image of the original plate.

Woodcut – Historical uses: Textiles and other decorative purposes, playing cards, calendars and book illustrations.
Woodcut – Artists worth studying: Holbein the Younger, Fred Hagen, Vincent Van Gogh, James Whistler, any Japanese printmaker.


Intaglio print Intaglio plate








This describes prints that are made by cutting the picture into the surface of the printing plate. Using a sharp V-shaped tool – called a burin – the printmaker gouges the lines of an image into the surface of a smooth polished sheet of metal or in some cases a piece of plexiglass. To make a print, ink is pushed into the lines of the design. The surface is then wiped clean so that the only areas with ink are the lines. A sheet of paper which has been soaked in water is then placed on the plate which is run through a printing press. The paper is literally forced into the small lines that have been cut into the plate. A variation of this technique is known as etching. With etching, acids are used to eat into the metal plate.

Artists worth studying: Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Thomas Gainsborough, Rembrandt van Ryn, Albrecht Durer

Planography (Lithography)

Pulling a litho print.

As we have just learned, relief prints are created from a raised surface, and intaglio prints are created from a cut surface. Planography however, is the printing of a flat surface. Lithography is the art of printing from a flat stone (limestone) or metal plate by a method based on the simple fact that grease attracts grease as it repels water. A design or image is drawn on the surface with a greasy material – grease crayon, pencil or ink – and then water and printing ink are applied. The greasy parts absorb the ink and the wet parts do not. Acids are often used with this type of printmaking to etch the stone and prevent grease from traveling where it should not. For example, if a finger is placed on the surface, enough grease is transferred and as such, the fingerprint will attract the ink. Unfortunately, lithography is a printing process which requires the use of proper facilities and materials. However, showing your students examples of lithography will help them to appreciate the fine art of printmaking even more.

History and uses: Lithography was invented in 1798. Its main advantage is the great number of prints that can be pulled.
Artists worth studying: Eugene Delacroix, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edvard Munch

See the Creation of a Lithograph

Stencil: Serigraphy


Jon ‘ShakataGaNai’ Davis

A stencil is a sheet of paper, fabric, plastic, metal or other material with designs cut, perforated or punched from it. Ink is forced through the openings onto the surface (paper, fabric etc.) to be printed. Sometimes called silk screening, serigraphy (seri means silk) is a type of stencil printing. A stencil is fastened to a sheet of silk which is tightly stretched across a wooden frame. Or, an area of the silk is “blocked out” using glue, gum arabic or shellac. The frame is placed against the material to be printed. A squeegee (rubber mounted in wooden handle) is used to push the ink through the open areas onto the material or paper below.

Stencil & Serigraphy – History: A long time ago in the Fiji Islands, stencils made of banana leaves were used to apply patterns to bark cloth. The idea of using silk fabric as a screen was developed in 1907 by Samuel Simon of Manchester England.
Stencil & Serigraphy Uses: Signs and posters, decorating furniture, textiles (t-shirts)
Artists worth studying: Andy Warhol, Ben Shahn, Robert Guathmey

For a very thorough history of printing, visit Wikipedia:

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