Traditional Printmaking Methods

Relief, Intaglio, Planograph, Serigraph, Collograph  & Monotype




“Snow Days  Woodblock by Utagawa Yoshiiku

Relief Printing Methods


Woodcut techniques were used as early as the 5th century in China for decorating textiles, and by the 1400s the method was used widely throughout Europe for religious images and playing cards. Japanese coloured woodblock prints have remained a tradition for centuries. In Europe, Renaissance masters such as Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein took the woodcut to its artistic height.


Around the middle of the sixteenth century the woodcut began to fall out of favour as artists explored, then preferred, other more exacting graphic techniques. Thanks largely to early twentieth century expressionists— who found the technique perfectly suited to their needs—the woodcut once again prevailed.    


To create a woodcut print, the artist sketches an image on a soft wood plank, then chisels away—along the grain of the wood— those parts of the design which are not to be printed. The resulting surface of the design, or relief, is then inked, covered with a sheet of paper, and pressed, creating the woodcut print.


Wood Engraving, a variation of the woodcut was invented in the late eighteenth century, the difference being that the design is created on the end grain of the wood rather than the flat face. Using a harder wood, such as boxwood, a graver or burin is used to create much finer lines than is possible with woodcut. Due to the thin, strong blocks the wood engraving can be printed with high pressure and was once used worldwide as a method of illustrating books and periodicals. By the early twentieth century, as with woodcut, wood engraving re-emerged as a favoured medium of artistic expression. 


Linocut, invented in the twentieth century, is created in the same manner as a woodcut. Being soft and without grain, it is easier to cut in any direction, thus greater detail may be achieved. Many modern masters—notably Picasso—favoured this medium.



“Goats in Swedish Landscape  Woodcut by Aage Roose


                   Intaglio Printing Methods


The first etching on record was done by Switzerland’s Urs Graf in the early 1500s, but it is Rembrandt who remains widely considered the greatest etcher of all time. A complicated printing method requiring great skill, the etching technique has been pursued by a great many artists throughout the centuries, notably Matisse, Meryon, Whistler, Chagall and Rouault. 


To create an etching, a metal (often copper) plate is covered with an acid-resistant substance (etching ground or varnish—hard ground) and then a design is drawn with a needle or other sharp tool. The plate is then bathed in acid, which attacks only the exposed lines. The longer the plate is exposed to the acid, the coarser the lines. After removing the ground, the plate is inked and its surface wiped clean, then covered with damp paper and passed under a cylindrical press. The ink captured in the etched lines is then transferred to the paper, resulting in an etching.


When creating a soft ground etching, a special acid resistant substance is applied to the plate into which different materials or objects can be pressed. The amount of pressure applied results in how much soft ground is lifted from the plate. The more that is removed the more exposed the plate will be to the acid bath and vice versa. This technique allows unlimited possibilities for the creation of tonal range and texture.


To create an aquatint, the artist uses a porous ground or series of ground such as sand or resin, instead of covering the plate with hard ground. This allows for the creation of granular and tonal effects on the plate when exposed to the acid, and is often used in combination with etching for its richness of tone. Goya is considered the greatest master of this technique.


Drypoint is another method often used in conjunction with etching. In this method, lines are scratched or gouged onto the plate with a sharp tool, leaving a burr in the metal. When printed, the burr leaves distinctive velvety lines. Due to the gradual breaking down of the burr, relatively few impressions can be successfully printed using this method.  




“Serenade” Etching by Paul Herrmann


Planographic Printing


Accidentally discovered in 1798 by Germany’s Aloys Senfelder, lithography was embraced by artists who appreciated this most painterly of the printing processes. French masters  Delacroix, Degas and Manet are but a few of the great artists who excelled in this medium.


Based on the principal that oil and water are repellents, the method requires the drawing of a design onto a heavy limestone slab or litho plate with a grease pencil. The surface is moistened with water and then rolled over with an oil based ink. This ink is attracted to the grease-penciled design, whereas where the surface is damp and clean, the ink is repelled. The stone is then covered with a sheet of paper and run through a lithographic press, resulting in the image being transferred to the paper.


Chromolithography simply means lithography in colours. To achieve this, a series of carefully registered stones are used with an individual printing for each colour, sometimes numbering more than thirty. Toulouse-Lautrec, Edvard Munch and Gaugin are a few artists noted for their exceptional skill with this method.


The technique used in lithography permits an artist to produce an astounding number of prints, though the stone is traditionally re-polished in order to limit the edition size. Lithography should not be confused with offset lithography, a publishing method based on photographic processes. 




“Reception in Miami  Stone Lithograph by Jack Levine


 Serigraph or Silkscreen


Not considered a fine art form until the 1930s, the stencil based technique of silkscreen actually originated in China well before the fifteenth century. Silkscreen artists such as Lichetenstein, A J Casson and Andy Warhol helped elevate the silkscreen to its relatively recent popularity. 


 Silkscreen involves stretching porous fabric (such as silk) tightly over a frame and painting areas of the fabric with a substance such as glue, creating a type of stencil. Ink is then pressed with a squeegee through the unglued, remaining portions of fabric onto paper beneath the screen. Several screens can be used to achieve multi-coloured prints.     




“Equilibrium Serigraph by Jacov Wexler




The term collograph is derived from the Greek word collo, meaning glue, and graph meaning the occupation of drawing. Collography is a printmaking process in which materials are glued to a rigid surface such as cardboard or wood. The materials used are as varied as the imagination allows.


Different tonal effects and vibrant colours can be achieved through the depth of relief and the highly textured surface. When the glued collage has dried it is ready to be inked using the artist’s choice of method. Printing is accomplished with a press or by hand burnishing.




“Shadow Land  Collograph by Michael Hames 




Monotype is a one-off printmaking method in which a flat surface, such as glass, copper, or zinc is painted with oil colours or ink and then passed through an etching press. The technique allows for only one copy, or monotype. A wide variety of materials from cardboard to perspex are used in the creation of modern monotypes allowing artists to create veritable collages on the surface, then printing with interesting and often surprising results. 




“Moon in November” Monotype by Michael Hames