art guide
Last Updated: July 2012

Printmaking: An Introduction
Kavita Shah explains the genre and briefly describes its variety of processes

What is print making?

Never ask such a question to a printmaker like me unless you have the time and patience to listen to an in-depth explanation. In this age of fast cars and two minutes noodles, it is difficult to comprehend why printmakers take two days just to grind their stones; or spend a couple of hours only to polish and prepare their plates. What is so special about a print which has many multiples or copies? Why do print makers hold the paper so carefully and look at prints so intensely?

Five hundred years after the first press arrived in India, many such primary questions still linger in the minds of viewers. What is the difference between printmaking and printing? What do the inscriptions below certain prints indicate? If this is a print, where is the original? Unfortunately, due to a general lack of awareness and appreciation, print makers are slowly moving to other, more popular mediums. I think it is high time we build a bridge between print makers and the art consuming public, and make an effort from both sides to understand and appreciate this versatile medium.

To answer the first question, let me begin with the definition of a print: A print is essentially the transfer of an impression from a matrix onto a printable surface, most often paper. Several variations exist for transferring these impressions or images and, with time and advancement of technology; newer techniques and materials have become available to the print maker to help him/her improve the quality of their prints.

In this article I am going to discuss traditional print making processes, which can be divided into four major categories as well as, the technicalities of each process - from preparing and cutting the matrix or plate to inking it, registering the block or paper, and finally drying the impression.

The basic difference between printing and printmaking can be described as one of mechanical versus manual. In offset printing, most of the processes are carried out mechanically, making large editions of each print possible. However, in traditional printmaking methods like lithography, etching and woodcut, the processes are almost always manual, and editions are of comparatively smaller numbers.

Another difference lies in the fact that printing, as in offset, often involves the duplication of paintings or other art works, which are transferred with photographic precision and reproduced. In traditional printmaking processes, however, unique images are created directly on the plate or matrix, though at times they may be composed using other methods of transfer or even photographic images. Artists chose the process in accordance to the imagery they want to create, and may choose to enhance it by varying the basic steps and techniques. The printmaker for authentication, along with the edition number and medium information, signs each impression taken from the plate or matrix. Often, the block is canceled or destroyed after the declared edition number is printed, so that no further prints are possible from the same block.

Printmaking processes can be divided into the following four main categories:

Relief: Ink is rolled onto the surface of the matrix and paper is rubbed or passed through the press for transfer of image; as practiced in woodcut, linocut and mono prints.

Intaglio: Ink goes beneath the surface of the matrix as the image is cut in to the surface; damp paper is put on it and passed through etching press with pressure; as practiced in etching, aquatint, mezzotint and dry point.

Planographic: The matrix retains its entire surface, but some parts are treated to retain the image, while others dont. The image is then transferred onto the paper in a litho press; as practiced in lithography.

Stencil:Blocking of some areas and printing from the remaining space on the paper; as practiced in screen printing.

Relief processes includes woodcut; One of the oldest of all the printmaking techniques, dating as far back as the 5th century. It is also the most simple and least expensive of all the processes, as it does not require a mechanical press or to many implements. To create a woodcut, a drawing is made with black ink or marker on a primed wooden plank. The areas of the image that are meant to be without colour are gouged out of the plank, so that when the ink is rolled onto it with a burin or roller, it is only transferred on the surfaces that will form part of the image and not the deeper cuts that will not. After applying the ink to the plank, a sheet of paper is placed on its surface and rubbed on the reverse side. These prints are thus also known as rubbings. There are some specialized tools such as U and V shaped chisels that may be used in the creation of relief prints to achieve different shaped cuts, also one can use linoleum or another flat surface that can be cut into as a matrix.

Some of the processes of intaglio printmaking are etching, aquatint, mezzotint and dry point. These intaglio processes, which are believed to have originated in Germany, are relatively easy as no special skills or tools are required for the cutting. Lines are scratched with a needle or another sharp instrument onto a metal plate covered with ground (generally composed of bees wax, resin and black pigment) that resists acid. The plate is then dipped in an acid bath, and where the lines have exposed the plate, the metal is acted upon by the acid creating grooves in the plate that can hold ink. Deeper cuts hold more ink, and create darker shades when printed on a press. An etching press is made of two cylinders moving in opposite directions with a flat iron bed in between, where the inked plate and paper are passed through together. The paper is usually dampened to soften it, so that it goes into the grooves cut on the plate and lifts the ink in them. The paper used for print making is generally acid free and contains a high percentage of rag or fiber to make it stronger.

To achieve varied tones in intaglio prints, the processes of aquatint or mezzotint are employed. In mezzotints, the entire plate is roughened evenly with a burrin or rocker, and then, with the help of a burnisher or scraper, areas of lighter tone are created. Mezzotints have a beautiful velvety texture and subtle tones. In aquatints, the ground comprises of resin dust which is applied evenly on the plate and then glued to it by heating the plate. The plate is then bathed in acid, which cuts it in between the small particles of resin dust, creating finer tones. Unlike mezzotints, in this process the tones are created from lighter to darker by increasing the time of submergence in acid.

Finally, in the intaglio process of dry point, grooves are cut directly into the plate with a sharp tool, which leaves a burr on the edge of the groove and therefore creates a different quality of line in the impression. However, in this process lines cannot be cut very deep and the burrs are evened out after few prints, making larger edition numbers impossible.

Planography techniques include lithography, monotype, and digital printmaking. In 1798, Alois Senefelder invented the process of lithography, based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water. A porous surface, normally limestone, is used as the matrix in the process, and the image is drawn on it with a greasy medium. The grease is burned into the surface with a mild acid, and the non-greased portions are cleaned and sealed with Gum Arabic. The stone is wet, with water staying only on the surface not covered in the grease-based residue of the drawing, and an oil based ink is applied with a roller covering the entire surface. Since water repels the oil in the ink, the ink adheres only to the greasy parts, perfectly inking the image. A sheet of dry paper is placed on the surface, and the image is transferred to the paper by the pressure of the printing press. Lithography is known for its ability to capture fine gradations in shading and very minute detail. A variant is photo-lithography, in which the image is captured by photographic processes on metal plates, but printing is carried out in the same way.

The fourth major category of printing is stencil, which can be divided into two processes: screen printing and pochior. Whereas screen printing is very popular and has wide commercial applications today, pochoir is less well-known and practiced, and presently, there are only two printmaking Ateliers in Paris that employ this process.

In screen printing, the artist draws or paints an image on a piece of paper, plastic or polymer film. The image is then cut out, creating a stencil that is used as the printing area. A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood or aluminum frame, and the stencil is fixed to the screen. Modern technology has enabled the use of direct and indirect photo-emulsions which are sensitive to ultraviolet light to transfer the artists drawing to a screen for printing. This means that the artists renderings on transparent film can be exactly reproduced on a nylon screen coated this emulsion. The light sensitive emulsion fills in the entire screen, the transparent film upon which the artist has drawn is laid upon the screen and both are placed in the exposure unit. Where the light passes through the transparent film, the emulsion is exposed and hardens. Where the artist's markings on the film block the passage of light, the emulsion is not exposed and can be released from the screen on washing, creating a stencil on the screen that reproduces the artists markings to the finest detail.

The screen is then placed on top of almost any substrate, including paper, glass and fabric, and ink is placed across its top edge. A fiberglass or rubber blade is used to spread the ink across the screen, over the stencil, and through the open mesh onto the substrate below. The screen is lifted once the image has been transferred. Like woodcuts and lithographs, colours may be added layer by layer through separate stencils and screens. The screens can be re-used after cleaning.

With the advancement of technology, digital, computer and video art also offer multiples of a single image, and therefore may be considered sub-categories of printmaking. However, the acceptance of such newer process and the expansion of the traditional four-fold division of printmaking have generated major debates in the global community of printmakers.

Kavita Shah
May 2008