Printmaking is the process of making artworks by printing, normally on paper. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each piece is not a copy but an original since it is not a reproduction of another work of art and is technically known as an impression. Painting or drawing, on the other hand, create a unique original piece of artwork. Prints are created from a single original surface, known technically as a matrix. Common types of matrices include: plates of metal, usually copper or zinc for engraving or etching; stone, used for lithography; blocks of wood for woodcuts, linoleum for linocuts and fabric plates for screen-printing. But there are many other kinds, discussed below. Works printed from a single plate create an edition, in modern times usually each signed and numbered to form a limited edition. Prints may also be published in book form, as artist's books. A single print could be the product of one or multiple techniques.
Other types of printmaking techniques outside these groups include collography and foil imaging. Collography is a technique used in printmaking where any textured found material is adhered to the printing plate. This texture is captured on the paper after the print is created. Modern printing technology may be included such as Digital printers, photographic mediums and combination of both digital process and conventional processes.
Many of these techniques can also be combined, especially within the same family. For example Rembrandt's prints are usually referred to as "etchings" for convenience, but very often include work in engraving and drypoint as well, and sometimes have no etching at all.
Woodcut, a type of relief print, is the earliest printmaking technique, and the only one traditionally used in the Far East. It was probably first developed as a means of printing patterns on cloth, and by the 5th century was used in China for printing text and images on paper. Woodcuts of images on paper developed around 1400 in Europe, and slightly later in Japan. These are the two areas where woodcut has been most extensively used purely as a process for making images without text.
The artist draws a sketch either on a plank of wood, or on paper which is transferred to the wood. Traditionally the artist then handed the work to a specialist cutter, who then uses sharp tools to carve away the parts of the block that he/she does not want to receive the ink. The raised parts of the block are inked with a brayer, then a sheet of paper, perhaps slightly damp, is placed over the block. The block is then rubbed with a baren or spoon, or is run through a press. If in color, separate blocks are used for each color.
The process was developed in Germany in the 1430s from the engraving used by goldsmiths to decorate metalwork. Engravers use a hardened steel tool called a burin to cut the design into the surface of a metal plate, traditionally made of copper. Engraving using a burin is generally a difficult skill to learn.
Gravers come in a variety of shapes and sizes that yield different line types. The burin produces a unique and recognizable quality of line that is characterized by its steady, deliberate appearance and clean edges. Other tools such as mezzotint rockers, roulets and burnishers are used for texturing effects.
To make a print, the engraved plate is inked all over, then the ink is wiped off the surface, leaving only ink in the engraved lines. The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of paper (often moistened to soften it). The paper picks up the ink from the engraved lines, making a print. The process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions (copies) could be printed before the printing plate shows much sign of wear.
Etching is part of the intaglio family (along with engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, and aquatint.) The process is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470-1536) of Augsburg, Germany, who decorated armour in this way, and applied the method to printmaking. Etching soon came to challenge engraving as the most popular printmaking medium. Its great advantage was that, unlike engraving which requires special skill in metalworking, etching is relatively easy to learn for an artist trained in drawing.
Etching prints are generally linear and often contain fine detail and contours. Lines can vary from smooth to sketchy. An etching is opposite of a woodcut in that the raised portions of an etching remain blank while the crevices hold ink. In pure etching, a metal (usually copper, zinc or steel) plate is covered with a waxy ground. The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where he wants a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid, or has acid washed over it. The acid "bites" into the metal, where it is exposed, leaving behind lines to the plate. The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate, and the printing process is then just the same as for engraving.
Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones: first, because an evenly, finely roughened surface holds a lot of ink, allowing deep solid colors to be printed; secondly because the process of smoothing the texture with burin, burnisher and scraper allows fine gradations in tone to be developed.
The mezzotint printmaking method was invented by Ludwig von Siegen (1609-1680). The process was especially widely used in England from the mid-eighteenth century, to reproduce portraits and other paintings.
Goya used aquatint for most of his prints.
The technique appears to have been invented by the Housebook Master, a south German fifteenth century artist, all of whose prints are in drypoint only. Among the most famous artists of the old master print: Albrecht Dürer produced 3 drypoints before abandoning the technique; Rembrandt used it frequently, but usually in conjunction with etching and engraving.
Lithography is a technique invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder and based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water. A porous surface, normally limestone, is used; the image is drawn on the limestone with a greasy medium. Acid is applied, transferring the grease to the limestone, leaving the image 'burned' into the surface. Gum arabic, a water soluble substance, is then applied, sealing the surface of the stone not covered with the drawing medium. The stone is wetted, with water staying only on the surface not covered in grease-based residue of the drawing; the stone is then 'rolled up', meaning oil ink is applied with a roller covering the entire surface; since water repels the oil in the ink, the ink adheres only to the greasy parts, perfectly inking the image. A sheet of dry paper is placed on the surface, and the image is transferred to the paper by the pressure of the printing press. Lithography is known for its ability to capture fine gradations in shading and very small detail.
A variant is photo-lithography, in which the image is captured by photographic processes on metal plates; printing is carried out in the same way.
The first time man placed his hand against a cave wall and blew ash and dried blood against it was the first time a stencil was used. Around 500 BC in Japan, artists were gluing human hair between pieces of paper to create floral stencils which were used with brushes to tamp color. The hair was later replaced with a silk mesh (hence the name “silk screen”). Stencils were even used to print the bold red crosses on the shields and cuirasses of the crusading knights, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that silk screen printing became industrialized and was used in the printing of fabrics and textiles throughout the western world. After that, it was only a matter of time before artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol began experimenting with the technique for artistic purposes.
In screen printing, the artist draws or paints an image on a piece of paper or plastic (film can also be used). The image is cut out creating a stencil (keep in mind that the pieces which are cut away are the areas that will let ink through). A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood or aluminium frame. The stencil is fixed to the screen.
Modern technology uses direct and indirect photo emulsions which are UV sensitive. This means that the artist’s renderings on transparent film can be exactly reproduced on the nylon screen coated with light sensitive (UV) emulsion. The light sensitive emulsion fills in the entire screen, the transparent film upon which the artist has drawn is laid upon the screen and both are placed in the exposure unit. Where the light passes through the transparent film, the emulsion is exposed and hardens. Where the artist's markings on the film stop the light, the emulsion is NOT exposed and releases upon washing, creating a stencil on the screen that exactly reproduces the artist’s markings to the finest detail.
The screen is then placed on top of almost any substrate, paper, glass, fabric, golf balls, etc. Ink is then placed across the top length of the screen. A squeegee (rubber blade) is used to spread the ink across the screen, over the stencil, and through the open mesh onto the paper/fabric below. The screen is lifted once the image has been transferred onto the paper/fabric, which is replaced with the next, unprinted, substrate. Colors are added layer by layer and each color requires a separate stencil on a separate screen. The screen can be re-used after cleaning.