Techniques

What is an Original Print?

The creation of an original fine art print is often extremely complex. Unlike an artist who works directly onto paper or canvas, a printmaker traditionally works first on a surface or ‘matrix’, (usually a plate or block of metal, stone, acrylic sheet, cardboard, wood, linoleum or a fine screen mesh), from which single or multiple images can be hand printed onto archival paper using non-automated methods. There are a number of technically distinct media which come under the umbrella of printmaking, ie. etching, woodcut, linocut, monotype, silkscreen. The unique qualities of each matrix and media influence the nature of the images created by the artist and lends its own distinct visual characteristics.

In this way, printmaking describes the process of creating artists’ original fine art prints, as opposed to signed limited-edition reproduction prints, (reproductions of existing artwork made using commercial automated printing processes.) Fine art prints are multiple originals, not reproductions. The printing plate or matrix is made by the artist without the intention of reproducing a previously existing work of art.

Prints are frequently made in editions, (ie. a number of identical impressions), and these editions are of a fixed number so that the buyer knows how many have been produced. These are signed and numbered by the artist and sometimes titled and dated. All prints in the edition are considered originals. For example, if the artist decides to edition an image ten times, the technical process must be repeated ten times. Therefore, although an edition may comprise ten prints of the same image, each print is unique in itself. It is a unique, original impression. The artist will have put as much time and technical expertise into the tenth print as she/he did into the first. The numbering of the edition is made up of the individual impression numbers written over the total edition size number, for example, 3/10 means the print or impression with that marking is the third impression in an edition of ten. After the impression is editioned, the image on the matrix should be defaced or destroyed. The edition is never printed again.

Printmaking Methods

Etching / Intaglio

Intaglio includes etching, engraving, drypoint, aquatint and other processes in which the image is cut below the surface of the plate. In intaglio printing, a matrix, usually a metal sheet or plate, (copper or zinc), is used and the lines or areas that create the image are incised into the plate by sharp tools or by an acid ‘bite’. Once the plate has been fully prepared and inked, it is “pulled” through the press under tremendous pressure, forcing dampened paper into the grooves and textures of the plate to pick up the ink and thus create the image. Three intaglio methods, Drypoint, Engraving and Etching, are primarily line processes, closely related to drawing techniques. Intaglio methods used to achieve tonal variations are Aquatint and Mezzotint.

Drypoint

By drawing directly onto the plate with a hardened steel needle or diamond-pointed tool, the artist produces a “furrow” or rough line that leaves metal burrs on either side of the groove. These burrs hold ink and print in a characteristically fuzzy manner. This method generally cannot withstand editions over 20, as the pressure used in printing flattens the burrs, and reduces its ability to hold ink.

Etching

This method requires the use of acid in the making of the plate. The metal plate is covered with an acid resistant ground through which the artist draws an image onto the plate, cutting through the ground, thus exposing the metal surface beneath. The metal plate is then immersed in an acid bath. The acid etches or ‘bites’ the unprotected metal, creating the line which will hold the ink. The longer that the plate sits in the acid, the deeper, and therefore the darker the lines will print. This enables the printmaker control over the printed line’s tonal range, from very faint grey to dense black. When the plate is ready for printing, a soft etching ink is spread over the surface of the plate. The ink is pushed into the etched lines/grooves of a metal plate, the surface is wiped to reveal the higher areas and the print is made utilizing the pressure of a press which forces dampened paper into the grooves/etched lines of the plate, picking up the ink that has remained in the grooves.

Engraving

With engraving, the marks are incised onto the plate with a variety of metal working tools called burins. No acid is used in this method.
The plate is then inked and printed. Engravings can be found as the black and white picture plates in many older books and publications.

Aquatint

The surface of a clean metal plate is sprinkled with acid-resistant resin granules which adhere to the plate