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Have you ever heard the terms lithography, intaglio printmaking, etching, screenprinting, or lino cutting and wondered what they are? They’re all printmaking techniques, each with its own unique process and end result.
Read on to learn more about printmaking in all its forms, including printmaking definitions for these techniques and more.
What Is Printmaking?
Printmaking is the process of transferring an image or design from one surface (usually wood, glass, metal, or lino) onto another (usually paper or fabric). Inks or paints in different colors and of varying consistencies are painted or rolled onto the surface before making the transfer. Prints may be one-offs or replicated many times.
You might have heard the terms relief printmaking and intaglio printmaking. Relief printmaking is when ink is applied to the surface of a printing surface (often called the matrix) but not the recesses or grooves that have been carved into it. Intaglio printmaking is the opposite: Ink is applied to the matrix and sits within the grooves.
While artists may create prints of their paintings, drawings, or graphic design for sale, here we focus on prints made for their own sake, as a work of art, rather than as a reproduction of art in another medium.
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The History of Printmaking
Like many art forms, the history of printmaking can be traced back to ancient China. The earliest known woodblock print was produced in China sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. From there the printmaking technique spread to nearby Japan for use in Buddhist materials. Movable type, and thus the printing of books, was developed in China in the 11th century.
European artisans and artists took up printmaking from the 15th century. Simple woodblock prints appeared first in Germany, and engraving on metal (a form of intaglio printmaking, or reverse relief) then followed. Movable type was developed in Europe at this time, too, and books started to be mass-produced.
Throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, German, Dutch, and Italian artists refined etching techniques. At the same time, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were being produced in large numbers in Japan. These were influenced by Chinese aesthetics and techniques, and in turn, inspired European artists by the 19th century.
In the 19th century, the technique of lithography (painting onto and printing from a stone) was developed in Germany. Impressionist artists also experimented with monoprints, one-off prints that captured their painterly style.
With the invention of photography in the 19th and 20th centuries, printing was no longer the only way to reproduce an image, as it once had been. However, artists still experimented with different types of printmaking tools and printmaking as an art form.
What Are the Different Types of Printmaking?
Different printing techniques produce widely varying effects, which keeps printmaking exciting as an art form, even in this digital age. Printmaking supplies vary but generally include a printing surface/matrix, a form of ink or paint, a brayer/roller, and printmaking paper or fabric. A printmaking press is also helpful if you do a lot of printing.
How you use these supplies varies depending on your technique. Let’s dive in to the different types with some printmaking definitions.
Monoprints can only be made once, so they’re more like a painting than other types of prints in that respect. They’re also perhaps the easiest type of print to make as they require few special printmaking tools: just a glass, acetate, or gel plate and some paints or ink, as well as printmaking paper. You paint directly onto the plate and make a single print from that.
In lithography, a design is drawn with an oil-based crayon onto a slab of polished limestone. It’s then coated in special powders and gums to create a chemical reaction. The paper is pressed on top of the stone, and the image transfers.
In etching, lines are scratched into a metal plate that has been coated with ink. The plate is then placed in acid, which eats away at the scratched areas. Ink is then rolled over the plate, ready for printing.
Engraving is similar to etching but without the use of acid. Designs are scratched directly onto a metal plate, which is then inked and used for printing.
Lino and Woodblock Printing
The process of creating lino and woodblock prints is essentially the same. A sharp cutting tool is used to cut grooves into the surface of the lino or wood, which is then rolled with ink, ready for printing. Lino tends to be softer than wood, so it’s somewhat easier to work with. You’ll get the best results with a printmaking press.
Woodblock printing is also a common technique for making hand-printed textiles. The western Indian state of Rajasthan is especially renowned for its block-printed textiles.
Screen printing is a process in which ink is squeezed through the surface of a fine mesh screen using a squeegee. Designs are cured onto the screen with photographic-type emulsions in a dark room. Screen printing can be done on paper, but it’s more commonly used for printing onto fabric, like t-shirts.
Many famous artists have made prints. Here are some of the most famous and influential.
Introduction to Lino Printing
Printmaking at Home: Creating Linocut Patterns