Printmaking Technique


Introduction to Printmaking

A print is a picture which uses a wooden, metallic or stone printing surface (also called a plate). This "multiple" is itself a work of art, with the number of copies agreed upon by the artist and the publisher. Printmaking is an art form of creation and diffusion.

In printmaking, it is necessary to learn to master certain techniques in order to make a successful print. Therefore, printmaking is not a familiar art medium as much as painting, Chinese ink painting, installation art or sculpturing, to the mass public. Nevertheless, printmaking still requires the artists to struggle with the medium in order to realize their vision.

In the creation of a plate, the artist has to bear in mind that the final impressing is the reversal of the initial one. Therefore, he has to make a reverse impression of his initial image of an original (that is like a seal maker who has to carve the words or pictures on a seal). When the original reversed image is inked up and a piece of printing material (such as a piece of paper or canvas) is pressed on it, what results is a positive image (not a reversed one).

In 1960, an international art conference which was held in Austria, gave a modern definition of a print. A completed print had to be produced under the following conditions. 1. An artist has used stone, wood, metal, silk screen and other materials during the process of making a transferred image of his own imagination. 2. An artist should make the print himself or the print can be produced under the artist supervision. 3. An artist has the responsibility to clearly sign and number his/ her print.
Printmaking is a medium for "multiples". If the original image can be prevented from any damage, we can reproduce unlimited numbers of the same print, as many as desired. There are not two prints that look exactly the same. This is because there are differences during the process of printing which will affect the final impression, such as the pressure of the press, thickness of the ink, and the precision of the registration. The reproduction process should try to carry the identical impression of the original image in the whole edition.

The edition of contemporary prints usually includes: the Artist's Proof (A.P. or A/P) or Epreuve d'Atiste (E.A. or E/A) in French and the numbered prints. The Artist's Proof is a small group of prints set aside from the edition for the artist and others involved in the project to possess and use. The numbered prints printed by or under the supervision of the artist are signed and authorized for distribution. The artist and the publisher decide together the number of the editions. For example: if the total number of the prints to be printed is fifty, the finished prints will be numbered as 1/50, 2/50, 3/50......49/50, 50/50 respectively. When the edition is finished, the original plates are destroyed. Thus, no more identical prints of the same plate can be reproduced again.

Printmaking Techniques

Traditionally, printmaking can be divided into four major categories: Relief, Intaglio, Lithography, and Serigraphy. There is another special kind of printing technique which is called Collotype printing as well. Because of the new development of computer technology related to printing process, we also have Digital Pigment Print, the latest kind of printmaking technique.


I. Relief

Since a lot of printmakers chose wood as the original material for making a printing plate, people sometimes call relief "woodcut". Artists have the choice of using linoleum, plastic, plaster, and stone as the raw material for the original plate. In the process of making a relief print, the artist uses different kinds of carving tools, such as, carving knives of different sizes, nails, metal wires to make marks on the surface of the plate. When the carving is finished, the cross section of the wood will be uneven. The artist will then put ink on the raised area. These marks with ink on will then be transferred to the printing materials to illustrate the image. On the other hand, those areas that do not have any ink on it will present the empty space of the picture plane.

In relief printing, artist can use found objects with significant texture to make unique marks on a print. For example, we can use a piece of dried leaf we found in the woods. The artist can use a brayer to apply ink on the surface of the leaf. He then put the piece of leaf with the inked sided down on a printing material like a piece of paper and put pressure on the back of it. Thus, the impression of the texture of a leaf with its veins will transfer onto the paper.

II. Intaglio

Intaglio is a term derived from the fifteenth century Italian goldsmith industry, meaning an incised design. It is a method of printing beneath the plate's surface. Indentations are made by scratching, incising or eroding the surface of a flat sheet of metal. This surface is then inked with a dabber, where colors are forced into the grooves and pits, while the rest of the non-indented plate is wiped clean. Paper is then pushed into the indented area by using a printing press, resulting in a print.


Incised lines or recessions on the plate can be produced by the following methods: Dry point, Engraving, and Mezzotint. In these cases, the artist uses physical force to gouge on the surface of the plate in order to leave marks. The artist can also use acid solution bath to etch the plate chemically in Etching, Aquatint and Photo Etching.

Heliogravure enables the reproduction of a picture obtained by photography. Graphic matter is transferred on a plate by using a special photosensitive gelatin during exposure. Heliogravure allows an accurate reproduction of shades and color gradation, and it produces a deep, mat black. With Heliogravure, you get an aspect that is close to photography.

Photoengraving is yet another process of reproduction of a picture by transferring it onto a copper plate. Computer software plays an important role in working on the original picture, and also at the film-processing stage. The main feature of photoengraving is that it uses a random screen allowing reproduction of every shadow of grey.

III. Lithography

The word "lithography," means, "stone writing" in Greek. It was accidentally discovered and then perfected by a young German actor- playwright, Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) in the 1790s. In order to save money to publish his not so successful plays at the time, Senefelder started to investigate into more economical way of duplicating his works. In a famous episode, Senefelder was making his experiments with a stone to practice his writing on stone when his laundry woman appeared. Not having paper or ink at hand, he wrote out the laundry list on the stone with his prepared ground. Later, after he had recopied the list, it occurred to him to test the stones with nitric acid and water. To his delight, he found that the acid had etched the stone and left the writing roughly defined in relief close to the thickness of a playing card. It was just the beginning......

After more tests in 1789, Senefelder's investigation led to the development of "lithography." And it soon became popular among artists around the world. To name a few: William Blake (1771-1834) in Britain, Charles White (1918-1981) in the United States, Max Ligner (1888-1901), George Coroso (1912-) and so on.

Lithography was one of the favorite mediums of French artists, such as, Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Frenand Leger (1881-1955), and Pablo Picasso (1864-1901)......

Lithography is a flat-surface printing process, depending upon the antipathy of grease and water. When a printing stone is prepared, the printmaker wets the stone surface with a wet sponge, then inks the stone surface by rolling an inked roller back and forth on top of the stone. Thus, the area that contains the imagery is an ink attracting surface. When the inked roller makes a pass on top of the stone surface, ink will be left on the image. In contrast, the area without any image will not attract any ink at all because it only attracts water.

For polychromatic printing, one plate per color is required. Each plate is itself prepared with a tracing of the picture. The chromatist's job consists in analyzing the picture in order to split it up in as many tracings as there are colors. Each tracing is used to expose one plate. Printing the different colors is done plate after plate, from paler to darker and from background to foreground.

Given their weight, volume and cost, stone plates have most often been replaced by thinner and lighter metallic plates made of zinc or aluminum. The term "lithography" is nevertheless still in use.


IV. Serigraphy

An image that has been cut out of a material is used to protect a surface, such that when pigment is applied, the uncovered areas of the screen allow the paint to pass through onto a sheet of paper placed below, while the areas covered by the compositional shape will not. In some cases, the pigment itself is also contained within jelly-like moulds or transfers, which through their shape and density create the image. There are three primary forms of stencil processing: Stencil Printing, Mimeograph, and Silk Screen Printing.

Serigraph (Silk Screen Printing) has recently become the most popular and widely used technique in printmaking. This process begins with the preparation of the stencil- an image has been cut out of a material such as paper or fabric. The stencil, which holds back the ink from printing, is then placed on top of a silkscreen. A tool called a squeegee is then used to squeeze ink through areas of the silkscreen that are not blocked by the stencil. This allows ink to pass through the screen and onto a sheet of paper below. Since each stencil usually allows the printing of a single color, different plates or colors are layered one on top of the other, and hence the final image is produced by using many different stencils. Although easily scratched, the surface of a screen print is very densely colored and tends to be brighter than most prints. With silkscreen printing, the transfer does not reverse the image, making it an easy medium for printmaking.

Collotype Printing

This photomechanical process is used to reproduce a screenless photoprint on the same kind of paper that is used for engraving. A halftone negative film is set on a glass plate on which a layer of sensitized bichromate has been previously poured, so that the graphic matter is engraved on the plate by exposure to light. Print quality is identical to the original picture. Collotype printing is a high quality process that allows an extremely precise reproduction of halftones.


V. New Printmaking Techniques

Aside from traditional printmaking techniques, nowadays new ways of printmaking are being developed, with digital pigment prints being the most experimental.

Digital Pigment Print

A photograph of a work is scanned and analyzed by using picture-processing software on a computer. Color checking is achieved by comparing the result to the original work. Printing adjustments take a considerable amount of time and printing is done on a special pigment inkjet printer. Prints which are printed with the digital processing are as authentic as those prints produced by the other printmaking techniques.

Pigment ink piezography is a high quality creation and reproduction process that has many advantages: 1. it can be used on any medium use for artistic creation, such as paper or canvas, 2. pigment ink is of high durability, 3. software enables optimal adaptability.


In conclusion

As we have seen, an artist can choose between several printing processes. He can use them to copy an existing work or decide to create an original one, either by doing it himself or by supervising the whole printing process.

In the case of lithography, for instance, the artist can work at home on tracing paper or transfer paper, which he will send to the chromatist, along with the range of colors. Test proofs are progressively shown to the artist, in order to follow his instruction and correction.

For lithography and all other technique, a close collaboration between the artist, the printmaker, and the publisher is essential to produce the artist's ideal image with great success.