The earliest form of printmaking—woodcut—appeared in China in the 9th century and in Europe in the 13th century. Printmaking processes allow artists to make multiple identical copies of a work. Artists create an image on one surface, known as the “matrix,” and then transfer it to another medium, typically paper. In most printmaking processes, the resultant print is a reversed image of the design on the matrix. The printed impressions can be done by hand or machine.
Printmaking techniques can be divided into four main categories: relief printing, intaglio, planographic, and stencil process. Each requires different materials and tools, and each has different visual qualities. For a virtual demonstration of four printmaking processes, see the Museum of Modern Art’s interactive “What is a Print?”Because prints exist in multiple copies and are relatively inexpensive, they are an accessible and popular medium.
How do you look at a print?
- What medium did the artist draw with? What did s/he draw on?
- What visual effects do these materials have?
- How did the artist use the medium? What technique did s/he use?
- What visual effects does the technique contribute?
- Why do you think the artist used these materials and technique?
- How would you describe the lines? Are they thick or thin? Bold or delicate? Deliberate or sketchy? Continuous or broken?
- How do lines, tone, and/or shading define form?
- Did the artist use color? How does color, or lack thereof, contribute to the composition?
- Why do you think the artist made the print? What makes you think this?
- Who do you think s/he made the print for? Why do you think this?
- Do you think the artist made the print to be exhibited in an art museum? If not, how does the art museum context affect how you experience, react to, and/or interpret the print, if at all? Why do you think this?
- Do you think the artist intended for the print to be preserved for a long time, or was it supposed to be ephemeral and disposable? Why do you think this, or how do you know? How does this affect how you experience, react to, and/or interpret the work, if at all?
- Is the print a copy of a work created in another medium? If so, in what medium was the other work done? How did the artist translate that medium and composition into a print? Does knowing that the print was made after a work in another medium alter how you experience, react to, and/or interpret the print? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
- How many of these prints did the artist make?
- Does a work of art have to be a singular, original work that exists only once in order to be a work of art? Why do you think this?
- If there are hundreds of identical prints existing elsewhere, is the print still a work of art? Why do you think this?
Common printmaking techniques
Relief prints include linocuts, woodcuts, and wood engravings. Woodcut was the earliest printmaking technique, appearing in China in the 9th century and in Europe in the 13th century. However, woodcut was not regarded as a serious art form in Europe until the late 15th or early 16th century. Prior to that time, printmaking served practical purposes—printing banknotes and playing cards, decorating textiles, and reproducing images of saints, for example. To create a relief print, artists cut away areas of the matrix (linoleum or wood) that they want to remain blank. Ink is then applied to the surface of the matrix that was not cut away and the inked image is transferred onto paper, resulting in highly graphic effects and stark contrasts.
Intaglio processes include drypoint, mezzotint, and etching. Opposite of relief prints, intaglio prints show what artists have incised or etched into the matrix’s surface (normally a copper or zinc plate) because the ink that seeps into the drawn grooves is transferred to the paper under pressure. Intaglio prints can be more finely detailed and have subtler contrasts than relief prints.
Planographic prints are made from a flat surface and they are, therefore, one of the most direct printmaking mediums. Lithography is a type of planographic process. To make a lithograph, artists draw a composition directly on the lithography stone using a crayon or greasy ink. A chemical is applied to the stone’s surface, so that the printer’s ink will adhere only to the drawn image. The image is then transferred to a damp piece of paper.
Stencil processes, like screenprinting, are created by cutting away an image in a sheet of plastic film or paper. For a screenprint, the stencil is then affixed to a fine mesh screen. Ink is squeegeed through the screen and onto the paper underneath. The part of the stencil that was cut away is what will be printed onto the paper. Different screens and stencils are used for printing every different color. Screenprints are often recognizable by their flat, bold, clear blocks of color.
Works in the Nasher’s Collection
Dyson, Anthony. Printmakers’ Secrets. London: A & C Black Publishers, 2009.
Goldman, Paul. Master Prints Close-Up. London: British Museum, 2012.
Griffiths, Antony. Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Haunton, Katharina Mayer, and Laura Suffield. “Prints.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T069624pg1.
Museum of Modern Art. “What is a Print?” http://www.moma.org/interactives/projects/2001/whatisaprint/flash.html. (includes a glossary, virtual demonstrations of four printing techniques, and a bibliography)
Suzuki, Sarah J. S. What is a Print?: Selections from the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
 Woodcut was not considered a serious art form until the late 15th or early 16th century. “Woodcut,” in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms, Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t4/e1798 (accessed July 31, 2012).
 Museum of Modern Art, “What is a Print?: Woodcut,” http://www.moma.org/interactives/projects/2001/whatisaprint/print.html.