What is a Print?

Just like oil painting or bronze sculpture, printmaking is a medium and a technique used by artists to create original works of art. A fine art print is not a copy of an existing work of art.

A print is produced by utilizing an indirect, and sometimes, very complicated process. The artist creates a composition by drawing or carving into a hard surface such as a woodblock, metal plate or stone. The surface is inked in a methodical fashion, and then the image is transferred on to the paper by applying pressure. This is done by running it through a special, finely calibrated printing press, running ink through a screen or by rubbing directly by hand. This creates the impression or the print, which is the reverse of the image on the block/plate. Re-inking and re-pressing produces multiple prints. The artist decides how many impressions or prints to create in an edition.

Prints with multiple colors require multiple impressions for each print. Generally speaking, a multicolor technique requires carving or drawing different pieces of the composition on multiple blocks/stones and successively printing each block/stone to build the color image. Another multicolor technique uses a reductive method: this requires printing the starting image in one color and then successively carving more of the block and printing in varying colors. This reduction technique is not only time-consuming and precise, it also produces a limited number of prints and once the edition is printed the original source block cannot be reused. 

The printing process is intricate and exact, as the impression, or portions of the impression, may be too lightly printed or flooded with ink, and in multicolor printing the registration can become misaligned. There are many variables the artist must control such as the uniform application of ink and the amount and uniform application of pressure. 

The artist reviews all the prints in an edition for quality, selects the best, and signs and numbers each impression in the edition. For example, an artist may produce 40 prints and selects 30 to sign and number. The prints are numbered 1 of 30 or 1/30; 2 of 30 or 2/30, and so on. Additional print editions may not be run without the artist’s permission.

Click on the image to view a short video

This video shows the process involved in making a print from a stone lithograph. The name of this piece is "Splitting the Creative Block", which Gary created in 2013. The image took two months to draw on the stone with a grease litho pencil. The complete edition of 30 prints took about 7 hours to print.

Relief Prints

Relief prints are characterized by their highly contrasted areas of dark and light and the inked lines leave a marked impression in the paper. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving and linocut.

  • Woodcut is the earliest form of printmaking going back to 900 CE in China. It remains the most enduring and still practiced of all print techniques. Woodcut was traditionally used in book arts where the woodblock set next to the text in the same press and both printed together. (See also Letterpress & Book Arts below)
  • The most beautiful and well-known woodcut prints are from the ukiyo-e style in the 17th and 18th century Japan, where woodcuts were developed to an exceptional level of artistic achievement.
  • Some notable artists who used the woodcut printmaking techniques were Albrecht Dürer, Gustave Baumann, Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Edvard Munch.

Various methods of printmaking produce a distinctive appearance, so artists choose the technique based on the specific, desired effect they want to create. There are three main categories of printmaking:

Intaglio Prints
In intaglio printing, an image is cut into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc with a pointed tool or acid. Intaglio printmaking techniques include engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, aquatint, and spitbite aquatint.

Mezzotint is known for the luxurious quality of its tones. This technique engraves areas of tone rather than lines. First the entire surface of the plate is roughed by a spiked tool called a rocker, so when the plate is inked, the print is solid black. Then the artist works “from black to white” by scraping or burnishing areas to pick up less or no ink - gradually developing varying tones. The artist is able to produce limitless gradations of tone and tonal areas. Contemporary artist Chuck Close used the mezzotint printmaking technique to create the instantly recognizable artwork titled “Keith”.

Planographic Prints

In planographic printing the ink lies in a flat plane on the surface instead of pressed down onto the paper or raised above the surface of the paper. This printmaking technique includes stone lithography, screenprinting, and monotype/monoprints.

In stone lithography an artist is able to create prints with as much rich detail, mood and color variations as painting. A good stone lithograph print is almost indistinguishable from an original drawing.  Stone lithographs are made of limestones, some weighing as much as 300 or more pounds. The best stones are Bavarian limestone which are gray in color and have a clear complexion free of fossils and other flaws. These stones are becoming increasingly rare.

In the process of lithography, the artist:
- Draws on the stone with a greasy substance such as litho crayon, a soft waxy/greasy crayon; the stone will pick up this greasy substance and hold it

- Moistens the stone water – the parts of the stone missing the grease markings will soak up the water

- Rolls oil-based ink onto the stone – the grease-marked area will absorb the ink, but the wet parts will not

- Presses a piece of paper onto the stone by running it through a litho-press, so the ink transfers from the stone to the paper

M.C. Escher is considered a master of stone lithography. John McNeil Whister used lithography to capture the subtle grays of seascapes veiled in fog. Edgar Degas explored variations between natural and artificial lighting at night. Initially creating theatrical advertisements, Toulouse Lautrec quickly adapted his lithography to narratives of the eccentrics living the seamier side of Parisian night life.

Letterpress & Book Art

In the 1990’s Martha Stewart featured letterpress wedding invitations in her magazine, sparking renewed interest in letterpress and the 'Small Press Movement'. The history of letterpress and the history of the book parallel people and its culture. For many decades, typography was used to express both language and visual imagery in books. Craftsmanship and artistry has elevated letterpress to fine typography. Its crisp lines and patterns produce greater visual definition to the type and artwork, which small presses use to produce handmade, fine editions of books, artists' books, and high-end cards and stationery.

As depicted in the illustration below, Book Art is an interesting hybrid of art and books. With Book Art, artists explore the book through the creative development and innovation in the book’s conceptual structure and design, reproduction techniques and binding, including paper decoration, adhesion and clasps and enclosures.

Booktrek: Selected Essays on Artists’ Books since 1972

Clive Phillpot

Ramayana, Hand binding, Elyssa Campbell

Letterpress-printed Christmas card, Xin Su

Relativity, Escher

Nocturne, James McNeil Whistler

Divan Japonais, Toulouse Lautrec

Keith, Chuck Close

Flight into Egypt, Dürer

Great Wave Off Kanagawa, Hokusai

Girls At the Bridge, Munch