5 Techniques of Printmaking as Fine Art

Linocut printmaking in a classroom
Linocut printmaking in a classroom

Printmaking, as an art-form, has existed in China since 105 AD and made its appearance in European art during the 15th century. Though printed impressions are not one of a kind, fine art prints can still be extremely valuable.


Related: What Makes Prints Valuable


Most printmaking methods fall under three categories: intaglio, relief, or planographic. Intaglio styles utilize methods to fill crevices in the printing block with ink and those carved incisions are what mark the paper. Relief prints are the opposite. They raise up an area of the block that will be inked by removing the negative space for the final image. The raised areas are inked and that is what shows up on the paper. Planographic techniques print with flat blocks and use different methods to repel ink from certain areas of that block.

Each of these categories cover multiple, more specific printmaking methods. There are countless styles of printmaking but the ones below are some of the more common ones.

Using a handheld gouger to cut a design into linoleum for a linocut print.
Using a handheld gouger to cut a design into linoleum for a linocut print.

1. Engraving

St. Jerome in His Study by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, engraving
St. Jerome in His Study by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, engraving

Engraving dominated printmaking from 1470-1539. Notable engravers include Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Van Leyden, and even Rembrandt Van Rijn. Most of Rembrandt’s prints are classified solely as Etchings but a significant number included both Etching and Engraving styles within the same impression.

Engraving slowly lost favor to Etching, since that was an easier method. Engraving became more of a commercial printmaking method as opposed to a fine art. It was used for postage stamps and reproduction paintings. At the time it was cheaper than photographing art.

Engraving is an intaglio style of printmaking that uses a burin to incise softer metal plates. Ink is added to the plate and then wiped off the surface, only leaving ink in the incisions. After that, the plate is pressed against paper and the incised lines leave inked marks on the page. Engraved plates cannot be used more than a few times since the softness of the metal cannot hold up through many reproductions.

2. Etching

Three German Soldiers Armed with Halberds by Danierl Hopfer, 1510, original etched iron plate from which prints were made, National Gallery of Art.
Three German Soldiers Armed with Halberds by Danierl Hopfer, 1510, original etched iron plate from which prints were made, National Gallery of Art.

Etching is another method of intaglio printmaking. To create the plate, an artist will begin with a block of metal and cover it with a waxy, acid resistant material. The artist will then scratch this waxy material off where desired and dip the block into an acid. The acid will eat away at the now exposed metal and cause indentations where the artist removed the wax. Once treated, the remaining wax is removed, the block is dipped in ink, and the ink will pool into new indentations. After wiping the rest of the plate clean, the block is pressed against the paper, leaving the image created in the relief lines.

Etching can use a harder metal block than engraving since the indentations are made with chemicals instead of a burin. The sturdier metal can create many impressions using the same block.

Daniel Hopfer of Augsburg, Germany applied etching (which was, at the time, used for goldsmithing) to prints between 1490-1536. Famous printmakers like Albrecht Dürer also dabbled in etching, though he did return to Engravings after making six Etchings. Given their rarity, these specific etchings are worth significantly more than some of his other works.

3. Woodblock/Woodcut

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1844, woodblock, three tiles.
Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1844, woodblock, three tiles.

Woodblock printing was widely used in East Asia. Its use dates back to antiquity where it was originally used to print patterns on textiles. Later, this same method was used to print on paper. Ukiyo-e Woodblock prints are the most well-known example of this printmaking method.

In European art, Woodblock printing is referred to as Woodcut printing though there is no notable difference. Woodblock printing was used most often to create books before the invention of moveable type printing press.

The Woodcut method is a relief style of printmaking and the opposite of intaglio. Woodcut prints begin with a wood block and then the areas that the artist does not want inked are removed. What remains after an artist chips, sands or cuts the excess wood away is the image that will be inked, raised above the negative space. The block is then pushed against a piece of paper, inking the raised area. If multiple colors are needed, different blocks will be created for each color.

4. Linocut

Woman Lying Down and Man with Guitar by Pablo Picasso, 1959, linocut in colors.
Woman Lying Down and Man with Guitar by Pablo Picasso, 1959, linocut in colors.

Linocut prints were first used by Die Brücke artists in Germany between 1905 and 1913. Before that, Linocuts were used to print designs on wallpaper. Later, Pablo Picasso became the first artist to use multiple colors on a single linoleum plate.

Linocut printing is a relief style of printmaking, very similar to Woodcuts. Artists cut into a piece of linoleum with a sharp knife or a gouge. After removing these pieces, a roller, or a brayer is used to apply ink to these raised areas before it is pressed onto a piece of paper or fabric.

The act of pressing the linoleum block onto the surface can be done by hand or through the help of a printing press. Sometimes a linoleum sheet is put on a block of wood to create the printing block and other times it is just a full piece of linoleum.

5. Lithography

Angel Bay with a Bouquet of Roses by Marc Chagall, 1967, color lithograph
Angel Bay with a Bouquet of Roses by Marc Chagall, 1967, color lithograph

Lithography is a planographic style of printmaking that begins with a lithographic limestone plate as the block. An image is then drawn on the stone using a waxy material that will protect the limestone from acidic material. Next, the stone treated with acid, affecting the areas unprotected by the waxy material. After this the acid and wax are wiped off.

The stone is then moistened, and the areas treated with acid retain the water. Oil based ink is then smeared on the stone and repelled from these wet areas. The ink sticks to the original image that was drawn on with the wax and is pressed onto paper. In modern times, a polymer mix is more often used as opposed to the waxy material.

Artists such as Delacroix and Gericault made Lithographic prints in the 1820s. Francisco Goya’s last series, The Bulls of Bordeaux, was printed using lithography in 1828. Once the 1830’s came around, Lithography fell out of favor and was used for more commercial printing until it regained interest in the 20th century.

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