Limited edition, monoprint, screen print, etching, lithography…. The volume of categories and technical terms associated with the artistic method of printmaking can be overwhelming to even the most experienced of art enthusiasts. Plus, it doesn’t help that the term ‘print’ or ‘printing’ can be associated with so much more than a beautiful creative output. Tate.org defines the word Print as: “an impression made by any method involving transfer from one surface to another” a broad description, which explains why the term is associated with both the artistic and the everyday.
In this blog, we will first consider what printmaking is, and then look at some of the key terms and phrases associated with this beautiful creative process.
WHAT IS PRINTMAKING?
A piece of printed artwork, features unique hand-crafted imagery or creative graphics, which is transferred (printed) onto a high-quality and carefully selected substrate (such as richly textured paper), using singular or multiple colours, all of these elements working together to communicate an artist’s aesthetic or emotional message.
The production process for a printed artwork is generally manual (rather than mechanical), which means the printmaker is free to make countless creative adjustments to the various printmaking processes described below. And while the very nature of printmaking means that multiple prints can be made from the original source (known technically as a matrix or plate); printed artworks are generally produced in limited editions to make each series unique to a small volume of pieces.
KEY PRINTMAKING PROCESSES
Printmaking categories and technical terms, which at first can seem quite baffling, are easy to understand when you look at the explanations side-by-side as they are hugely varied! Below you will find a series of simple descriptions to explain each of the main printmaking processes in turn:
Lithography consists of a drawing or painting with greasy crayons and inks on limestone that has been ground down to a flat, smooth block. After several subsequent manipulations the stone is moistened with water, wetting the sections not covered by the crayon and leaving the areas of the greasy drawing dry as grease repels water. Oil-based ink is then applied with a roller and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print made by pressing paper against the inked drawing is an autographic replica, in reverse, of the original drawing on stone.
MONOPRINTS AND MONOTYPES
These two terms are often incorrectly assumed to be the same, but there are important differences. A Monoprint has a single underlying image (such as an etched plate or screen) that is made unique through a process of hand colouring or surface alteration to the printed image. A series of monoprints may be similar, but they are never identical.
Monotypes are unique images and do not have a repeatable matrix (etched plate or screen). Instead, a thin even film of ink is rolled onto a plate which the artist then manipulates by drawing into it, or by rubbing sections off. The print image is taken directly from the plate.
This is the oldest printing technique and refers to the cutting away of part of the surface of a block of material so that the image area to be printed stands out in relief. Woodcuts or woodblock prints are made by cutting into the surface of a smooth piece of hardwood with a knife, and V and U gouges are used to create more delicate lines. When printed, the area that has been cut away remains white and the raised surface prints. A separate block is required for each colour in a multi-colour print. Printmakers rarely use more than three or four colours for aesthetic reasons. The linocut, a twentieth century adaptation, uses linoleum in place of wood and while it easier to work with, it will not take delicate very delicate or subtle cutting.
SCREENPRINTING / SERIGRAPHY / SILKSCREEN PRINTING
A twentieth century multicolour printmaking technique developed in America. The stencil process involves placing designs on silk or nylon mesh screen that is attached to a wooden or metal frame, with the screen fabric at the bottom. Various film-forming materials, as well as hand-cut film stencils and photo-sensitive emulsions, are used as resists. Colour is poured into the frame which is placed in contact with the surface to be printed on. The colour is scraped over the stencil with a squeegee and deposited on the paper through the meshes of the uncoated areas of fabric.
Sugar Lift allows the artist to make a brush drawing directly on to the etching plate. After painting with a mix of sugar and ink, the whole plate is then covered with an acid resist. When dry, it is immersed in hot water, dissolving the sugar and exposing the brush drawing, which can now be etched. This is often used with aquatint to produce tone.
INTAGLIO PROCESS PRINTS
Intaglio prints can be created through a number of processes, the common element is that the printed area is recessed. The recessed areas are filled with a greasy printer’s ink and then the surface is carefully wiped clean so that the ink remains only in the incised design.
Types include: Etching, Drypoint, Aquatint, Mezzotint, and Collagraphs - read on for more information on each.
A metal plate is coated with an acid-resisting wax or ‘ground’ that the artist draws into with a variety of tools, removing the ground from the areas that are to be printed black. The plate is immersed in an acid bath, which ‘bites out’ or etches the exposed area. The etched plate is inked and the surface is wiped clean, leaving ink only in the etched depressions. Finally, the plate is run through a press with dampened paper – the pressure forces the paper into the etched area of the plate, transferring the ink onto paper. Rembrandt van Rijn first popularised this technique.
Artists working in drypoint draw the image directly onto the plate using a steel stripped ‘pencil’ that produces an added richness due to the burr (or shaving of metal that is turned up at the furrow). As the burrs are delicate and crush easily under the weight and pressure of the press, usually less than 50 impressions can be made.
Aquatint is an etching technique which allows large areas of varying tones to be printed by means of a textured plate. The area to be etched is dusted with a powdered resin and then heated to melt it onto the surface. The plate is then placed in an acid bath to etch away the tiny areas not protected by the granulated resin.
This is perhaps the most labour intensive intaglio process and involves a plate being ‘rocked’ with a curved, notched blade until the surface is entirely and evenly pitted, creating a rough surface that prints black. Scraping the burr off or polishing the plate smooth creates half-tones and light. Colour mezzotints require a separate plate for each colour which will be printed consecutively.
Derived from the word ‘collage,’ Collagraphs are created by building up an image on a plate surface (cardboard, metal, or plastic) with glue and other materials thereby creating recessed areas where the ink is retained.
As you can see from the descriptions; printmaking processes can be highly technical and require skills which the artist has developed over many hours of dedicated practice. So, when browsing through the wide selection of limited edition prints on our online shop or at one of our fairs, we are sure you’ll now appreciate not only their beauty and creativity but also understand the craftmanship behind each perfect piece.
Lisa Takahashi, Drafting, 2018, linocut, limited edition of 30, £1,300, Wychwood Art.
Featured art from first to last:
Elizabeth Magill, March, 2016, lithograph, limited edition of 75, £960, Manifold Editions.
Sophie Layton, SE1, 2015, monoprint, edition of 100, £180, Smithson Gallery.
Matt Neuman, Chatterbox #30, 2017, woodcut, original, framed, signed £1,750, Matthew Youens Gallery.
Anne Storno, Space Hiking, 2017, silkscreen, original, signed, £210, Contemporarti.
Tim Southall, A Walk in the Snow, 2016, sugarlift, limited edition of 75, signed, £185, Wychwood Art.
Rebecca Denton, Starsurfers, 2017, etching, limited edition of 40, signed, £140, Southbank Printmakers.
Kate Boxer, Tinker, 2017, drypoint, limited edition of 29, signed, £770, White Art Space.
Kit Boyd, Reading Dark Mountain, 2017, aquatint, limited edition of 75, signed, £195, Arc Fine Arts.
Katsunori Hamanishi, Window No. 2, 2017, mezzotint, limited edition of 70, signed, £890, Hanga Ten Contemporary Japanese Prints.
Vicky Oldfield, Good things, 2016, collograph, limited edition of 30, £295, Will's Art Warehouse.