Printmaking, as we know it today, is an artistic method appreciated for its unique technical qualities and its immense visual vocabulary. Originally, however, this versatile medium was used merely as a form of communication.
Artists initially used printmaking to mass-produce multiples of an original, which could then be circulated to a large number of people. As early as the 8th century, Japanese artists used the technique of woodcut to make several editions of Buddhist manuscripts; in 14th century Europe, prints became popular as a means to share Christian images with the common people; and the famous 42-line Bible also known as the Mazarin Bible, printed in the 'movable type' system by Gutenberg in the 15th century, lead the way to a whole new era of mass literacy.
Fine art printmaking is a process usually initiated in the creation of an image on a single original surface known in technical terms, as the matrix. Common types of matrices include: blocks of wood for woodcut; linoleum for linocuts, metal plates (usually copper or zinc), used for engraving or etching; stone, for lithography; and fabric, used for screen printing. The process of printing chosen by the artist determines the composition of the matrix. Once the matrix has been established, the artist manipulates it using a variety of different materials and methods, all significant to the chosen process. These variations result in a range of markings, textures, colour effects and forms. In limited edition prints, the matrix is destroyed after the desired number of prints is taken.
To print the completed design, the surface of the matrix is inked and pressed onto paper (sometimes fabric) to create an original print. Pressure can be applied manually by placing both palms firmly on the reverse side of the matrix and pressing down on it for a few seconds. When more pressure is required and in certain processes where pressure cannot be applied manually, a machine or 'press' is used.
In most cases the process of transferring or printing the image can be repeated numerous times. Works printed from a single plate form an 'edition'. A 'limited edition' is formed when a set of editions are signed and numbered individually by the artist and the matrix is destroyed so no more editions may be made. Prints published in the form of a book are called 'artist's books'.
Sometimes the artist uses another printing technique or other artistic methods to further elaborate on an individual print, making it unique and inimitable. Hence, a single print could be a product of one or many techniques.
Although printmaking encompasses a number of techniques and processes, it can be broken down into four major categories: Relief, Intaglio, Planographs and Stencils.