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.


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.


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.


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.


The surface of a clean metal plate is sprinkled with acid-resistant resin granules which adhere to the plate when heated, melted and cooled. The result is a dot-like pattern that is resistant to acid. An acid resistant spray (ie. acrylic paint) can also be sprayed onto the plate as an alternative method. When the plate is submerged in an acid bath, the acid ‘bites’ between the granules and only those bitten areas will hold the ink for printing. When the rosin is removed, the plate will print in wider tonal areas, much finer than etching alone will allow.


The surface of a metal plate is roughened to produce a solid, textured surface that will print an even, deep tone. The plate is usually roughened with the use of a serrated tool called a mezzotint rocker, (the side to side movement of the tool is referred to as ‘rocking’ ). This ‘rocking’ produces tiny indentations which, upon inking, produces a dark velvety impression when the print is pulled. Burnishers are used to smooth out or polish some of the ‘rocked’, roughened areas. These smoothed areas will hold less ink and will print as light or white tones.

Relief Prints

Relief prints can be produced from metal, wood or lino blocks. This process involves the use of shaped blades, cutting tools and/or chisels to cut away part of the surface of the flat block to produce the image. The printing ink is rolled onto the surface of the cutaway block and the flat, raised areas are printed either by hand, (paper is laid onto the inked block and rubbed from the back using a baren or wooden spoon. Relief blocks may also be printed through the use of block and type presses or intaglio or platen presses). Incised or cut lines will be white in the final print. More than one block is used for a multicoloured image. The two most common processes are the woodcut and the wood engraving. Other materials such as linoleum or plastic are also used as the matrix for the print.


(derived from the French word coller meaning ‘to stick’)
A collograph can be made of various materials. This is a mixed media process in which the artist may adhere cloth, sand, glue, etc. to the surface of a board. This surface is treated with a protective coating, then inked and an impression is made with the aid of a press.


The monotype is the most direct and painterly of printmaking processes. In the creation of a monotype, the image is painted directly onto an acrylic or metal plate using a fairly slow drying paint or ink. The image is then transferred to dampened paper by hand or by press and, as the name suggests, one single, unique impression is created. The process, recognized as the most painterly method among original printmaking techniques, is also known for its spontaneity, combining painting, drawing and printmaking processes.

Edition Markings and Printmaking Terms

Matrix: the material on which the image is developed, i.e. the plate, stone, block or screen.

Pulled: a printmaker’s term for ‘printed’.

AP: Artist Proof: a percentage (usually 10-20%) of the numbered edition that the Artist marks as ‘Artist Proof’.

BAT: Bon a Tirer: from the French for ‘ready to print’, (often labeled RTP. (Right To Print) in the United States). When the stage of development and colour of the print is acceptable to the artist, a ‘BAT’ is pulled. The rest of the edition should closely resemble the

IMP: Impressit: a Latin term for ‘has printed it’ meaning that the artist printed the edition. The term is most commonly used in Europe and appears after the signature.

State Proof: a proof of a print in a state before completion

V.E.: Varied edition: an edition in which the artist purposely makes changes in colour or changes in paper from print to print.