What Is Printmaking?

Printmaking is an art form involving the production of images, generally on paper (but also on fabric, clay, plastic or other surfaces) by various techniques of multiplication, under the direct supervision of or by the hand of the artist.

These ‘prints’ are considered original works of art, even though they can exist in multiples.

A multiple collection of prints is called an ‘edition’.

Editions may exist in Limited Editions (meaning there is a set number of prints produced of the one image, never to be reproduced), or Open Editions (meaning the artist may produce their print in any quantity they choose).

Prints can also exist as a unique-state 
(one-off) print, called monotype or monoprint.

And Editions may consist of prints that present as ‘variations’ within the edition, called an Edition Variable.

To many people, the word ‘print’ suggests mechanically mass-produced commercial products, such as books, posters, newspapers and textiles. Here, the word ‘print’ refers to the original creation by an artist who, instead of a paintbrush or pencil, has chosen printmaking tools to express themselves.

What is the difference between a reproduction and an original print?

Reproductions are photographic or commercially printed copies of an existing artwork. These too can exist as artist-signed Limited Editions and carry value in their reproduction. But they are not to be confused with original hand-printed work.

The fine art printmaking print is a multiple original, considered original because the artist created an image on wood, stone, metal, lino or screen from which the final print is produced within the possibilities and limitations of that technique.

Each technique has its own distinctive style and qualities, imposed by the tools, materials, and printing methods.

There are many different types of printmaking methods, and it is not uncommon for printmaking artists to use multiple techniques when creating their art.

Below is a list of some common 
printmaking techniques:

  • Lino cut

  • Monotype and Monoprint

  • Etching

  • Drypoint

  • Collagraph

  • Screenprint

  • Photopolymer

  • Aquatint

  • Print transfer

The Art of Printmaking

In all printmaking, the artist first prepares a block (also called a plate) so that some areas will hold ink when it is applied and others won’t. Block preparations must be such that the block holds ink in the same places each time it is inked. The artist then puts ink on the block or plate by various means, and presses it to a flat material in order to make a print or impression. What distinguishes one kind of printmaking from another is the means used to keep ink on some parts of the block and off others.


In RELIEF printing, ink is kept in place because certain areas of the block are carved away, leaving other areas raised or standing in relief. The printmaker rolls ink onto the block by means of a roller, called a brayer, that distributes the ink onto the raised or relief parts of the block. The carved away parts don’t touch the brayer, so they don’t get inked.
Finally, the artist presses a flat material to the block, such as paper, and the ink is offset onto it, producing a reversed image of the design that was carved onto the block. Pressing can be done by burnishing (or pressing) with various implements including wooden spoons and specially made burnishing tools called barens, or by means of a printing press. The artist then repeats the inking process for as many prints as he or she wants to make.

This cross-section drawing demonstrates the principle of relief printmaking. The raised areas of the block receive the ink (shown here in light grey) and print, while the areas cut away by the artist do not.



In INTAGLIO printing, lines or tones are engraved or etched into the surface of a plate or block. The plate is inked and then wiped, leaving the grooves filled with ink and the surface clean. Soft dampened paper is laid over the plate, and both paper and plate are put through the rollers of an etching press. The pressure of the rollers forces the paper into the grooves, so that it takes up the ink, leaving an indented impression of the whole plate on the paper (a plate mark).
Cross section of an incised plate. The grooves cut into the surface of the plate are filled with ink (shown in light grey).

An intriguing hybrid among printmaking techniques is MONOTYPE. It is a combination of painting and printmaking. One image (mono) is painted or drawn with oil paint, water-based paint, or printer’s ink directly on a plate and then transferred to paper. Metal plates, plastic sheets, glass, wood or any surface, even gelatine, that will transfer an image onto paper, can be used. The impression can be transferred by hand rubbing or printed on a press.
Monotype - a one-of-a-kind print made by painting on a smooth metal, glass, gelatine or stone plate and then printing on paper. The pressure of printing creates a texture not possible when painting directly on paper.
Monoprint - one of a series in which each print has some differences of colour, design, texture, etc. applied to an underlying common image. 


Linocut is one of the most widely known and used forms of relief printing. A sheet of lino or vinyl is used for a block or plate and it is the raised surface containing the positive image that is printed. The background area or negative space is carved away, creating the white, or nonprinting, areas. As with other relief prints (woodcut and engraving) ink is applied with a roller to the raised surface, paper placed on it, and the image transferred by rubbing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon or baren or by running the block and paper through a press.
The resulting prints can be hand-coloured or multiple blocks can be carved, each to be inked in a single colour and accurately registered (lined up) and printed one on top of the other to create multi-coloured prints.


This is known as the “suicide method”, because there is no going back.  A single block is used and is progressively carved away. Once the first colour has been inked over the entire block and the required number of registered prints has been taken, the sections of the block which correspond to that initial colour are cut away. Then the next colour is printed over the first and again the relevant areas are removed. Inking, printing and cutting continue in this pattern until all the colours have been printed. After the final printing the much-reduced block can be thrown away.


Linoleum can be etched with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and printed as either a relief print or an intaglio print. Various resists, such as etching ground, asphaltum, heated paraffin wax, or varnish, can be painted on the block and later scratched into or incised. The caustic soda is brushed or swabbed onto the lino and replenished as it loses strength. Deep biting takes some time.


In etching, the lines are scratched through an acid-resist ground, then bitten into the surface of the plate by acid. During the process, surface areas that need to be protected from the corrosive action of the acid are covered with a thin film of resist. This is a wax-like substance that can be hard or soft depending on the type of image required and the technique. It is known as the “ground”. The edges and the back of the plate are protected from the acid with varnish.
An etching needle is used to draw the image into the ground, exposing the metal in those areas. The plate is then placed in a diluted acid bath and the exposed metal is etched. The plate can be removed at any time, and the action of the acid on certain lines can be stopped by painting over them with stopping-out varnish.
Once the lines have been etched sufficiently deeply, the plate is taken out of the acid, the ground and varnish removed, and the plate is inked up. An impression is then taken by passing the plate, together with overlaid dampened paper, through the etching press.


Is the most direct of the intaglio processes. The technique consists of scratching into the surface of a metal plate using a strong, sharp point. This causes a ridge of metal – called the burr – to be thrown up on one or both sides of the line. This burr catches and holds the ink when it is wiped yielding a rich, soft line and contributes a velvety quality to the impression.
Drawing on the plate with the point is directly comparable to drawing on paper, though sufficient pressure must be used to mark the metal effectively.


Collagraph prints are taken from plates made as a collage of different textured materials. The base plate can be almost any sheet substrate – cardboard, mountboard, hardboard, MDF or thin plywood, metal or plastic. A unique textured collage image is created on the plate by applying or gluing down many possible materials – glues, acrylic paints and (textured) mediums, sandpaper, cardboard,  card, textiles, papers, tissue, bubble wrap, string, fibres, leaves, plants, wax, plaster, (found) flat objects… . Surfaces can also be scratched and carved into to create more marks. The finished plate is varnished with shellac, looks like a shallow relief collage, and is interesting in its own right. The plate can be inked up in many ways - for a relief print with a roller; for an intaglio print by covering with ink and wiping back until the ink only stays in the cracks and around edges; or a combination of both.  The collagraph technique is very varied and adventurous. There are endless creative possibilities for plate construction and printing variations.


La Poupee
A French method of inking a single etching plate with many colours. The name derives from the use of a small cloth dabber tied at one end (resembling a doll’s head) to blend many colours on a single plate. 
Solar Plate Etching / 
Originally a commercial printmaking process it has been taken up by artist printmakers. It involves a light-sensitive, polymer coating on a plastic or metal backing and can make either a relief or an intaglio plate. The plate is exposed to quartz halide or UV light through the artwork on transparent film and washed out with warm water. The result is a photographic relief printing plate.


A method of adhering thin pieces of coloured paper to the larger printing paper at the time that the inked image is printed. You glue the paper and print the image with one roll through the press.


This technique is used to achieve tonal areas in an intaglio plate. Tones are bitten into the plate after the surface has been partially covered with many particles of rosin (adhered to the plate by heating). The acid bites the open areas around these particles, creating uniform pitting in the plate. The longer the bite, the deeper the pits and the darker the printed tone. Aquatint is most often combined with line etching and 
other methods.
Digital archival print
Using the computer as a medium and inkjet printer as the tool, employing archival or pigment inks and printing onto a archival digital papers or prepared archival surfaces. 


Print Transfer
A digital print released, usually by rubbing, onto various prepared surfaces. 


Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. The process uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate (green) and potassium ferricyanide.



Editioning Fine Art Prints

Printmaking prints are original Fine Art artworks, even though they may form ‘editions’ or be produce in ‘multiple’. Understanding the different ways to edition prints will help you understand and better appreciate the nature of this artform. Below is information explains some printmaking editioning definitions,


Very early prints were not signed. In the later part of the fifteenth century many artists signed their prints by incorporating a signature or monogram into the design as ’signed in the plate’ or ’plate signature.’
While some prints were pencil signed as early as the late eighteenth century, the practice of signing work in pencil or ink did not become common practice until the late 1880s, probably coinciding with the practice of numbering editions.
Signing a print as initially done for the benefit of collectors; artists and publishers, when presented with a choice, preferred to buy pencil-signed impressions rather than an unsigned print.
Today it is expected that original prints to be signed by the artist, and an unsigned impression of the same print is generally not as commercially valuable.

Numbering and Editioning

Numbering printed editions didn’t start until the late nineteenth century. However, it wasn’t a standard practice until the mid 1960s. Today, all limited edition prints should be numbered, with the first number being the impression number and the second number representing the whole edition. For example 3/10, where 3 is the 3rd impressions from and edition of 10 prints.
The numbering sequence does not necessarily reflect the order of printing; prints are not numbered as they come off the press but some time later, after the ink has dried.
The edition number does not include proofs, but only the total in the numbered edition.


Edition Variable – EV
With an EV print, the impression may be printed then hand coloured, or printed onto different papers, or combined with a Chine collé collaged through the press.  Essentially, each print within the ‘edition’ is different to the other.
When annotating an Edition Variable print,  the artist will use “EV 1/X” where X is the total number of impressions in the edition.


Open Edition – O
If you want to print an image, but it is not to be a Limited Edition, but rather an impression from a plate that you intend to print multiple times, you can annotate it as an Open Edition.
Annotating an Open Edition print,  I would use “O1”, where the number is the number printed to date foe the open edition, but with no need for the total edition number . ie “/X”.
And combine that with an Open Edition and you get OEV “OEV 1”.


Artist Proof – AP
Historically, when an artist was commissioned to execute a print, they were given with accommodation and living expenses, a printing studio and workmen, supplies and paper. The artist was given a portion of the edition (to sell) as payment for his work – these were the Artist Proofs.
By today’s standards they are named such to denote a certain number of impressions put aside for the artist to do with as they will.
When annotating an Artist proof,  use “AP 1/X” where X is the total number of Artist Proofs.
They can also be numbered Epreuve d’artiste or EA.
The number of Artist proofs should generally not exceed 10% of the total number of the edition.


Trial Proof – TP
A working proof pulled before the edition to see what the print looks like at a stage of development, which differs from the edition. There can be any number of trial proofs, but usually it is a small number and each one differs from the others.
When annotating a Trial proof,  “TP 1/X” where X is the total number of Trial Proofs.


Bon a Tirer Proof – BAT
Literally, the “okay-to-print” proof. If the artist is not printing his own edition, the bon a tirer is the final trial proof, the one that the artist has approved, telling the printer that this is the way he wants the edition to look. There is only one of these proofs for an edition and can be accompanied by printing notes (paper, ink or inking process) to be used as a reference for the printing of the whole edition.


Printers Proof – PP
A complimentary copy of the print given to the publisher. There can be from one to several of these proofs, depending on how many printers were involved in the production of the print.
When annotating a Printers proof,  use “PP 1/X” where X is the total number of Printers Proofs.


Hors de Commerce – HC
Prints annotated HC (Hors de Commerce) are “not for sale”.
These “proofs” started to appear as extensions of editions being printed in the late 1960s. They may differ from the edition by being printed on a different paper or with a variant inking; they may also not differ at all. Publishers may sometimes use such impressions as exhibition copies, thereby preserving the numbered impressions from rough usage.
Whe annotating an Hors de Commerce proof,  use “HC 1/X” where X is the total number of Hors de Commerce Proofs.