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Printing Basics

Prints, unlike paintings or drawings, generally exist in multiple quantities. They are created by drawing a composition not directly on paper but on another surface, called a matrix, and then, by various techniques, printing that image on paper. Those techniques may involve the use of one or another type of printing press and ink, or the image may be transferred by pressing the paper by hand onto the inked surface of the matrix and rubbing. There are three principal printmaking techniques: relief printing (woodcut, wood engraving, linocut), intaglio printing (etching, drypoint, etc.), and planographic (lithography, screenprinting, etc.).

Multiple "impressions" are made by printing a series of pieces of paper from the matrix in the same way. The total number of impressions an artist decides to make for any one image is called an edition. In modern times each impression in an edition is usually signed and numbered by the artist, but this is a relatively recent practice.


Artist's Proof 
Formerly, when an artist was commissioned to execute a print, he was provided with lodging and living expenses, a printing studio and workmen, supplies and paper. The artist was given a portion of the edition (to sell) as payment for his work. Today, though artists often get paid for their editions, the tradition of the "artist's proof" has persisted and a certain number of impressions are put aside for the artist to do with as he or she will. Artist's proofs are annotated as such or as A/P, A.P., Épreuve d'Artiste or E.A.
Bon à Tirer Proof 
Literally, the "ok-to-pull proof." If the artist is not printing his own edition, the bon à tirer (sometimes abbreviated as b.a.t.) is the final trial proof, the one that the artist has approved, telling the printer that this is the way he wants the edition to look. There is only one of these proofs for an edition.
Cancelling Plates 
In modern terms, after a limited edition of a print is completed, the plate or stone or block may be erased or defaced with lines or holes to discourage further printing. This ensures the integrity of the size of the original edition by either preventing any further printings or by making any later printings recognizably different from the original ones. In earlier times, matrices were often printed until they wore out or until there was no further demand for the print, although lithographic stones, being very expensive, were usually erased by regrinding to make way for another image. The physical cancellation of plates began, like pencil signatures, sometime around the 1880's, but it has not been universally practiced.
Hors Commerce Proof 
Impressions annotated H.C. are supposedly "not for sale." These "proofs" started to appear on the market as extensions of editions printed in the late 1960's. They may differ from the edition by, for example, being printed on a different paper or with a variant inking; they may also not differ at all. Publishers sometimes use such impressions as exhibition copies, thereby preserving the numbered impressions from rough usage.
From the Latin word mater, meaning mother, the matrix is the form or surface on which the image to be printed is prepared, for example, a woodblock, a metal plate, a lithographic stone or a mesh screen.
As their names imply, monotypes and monoprints (the words are often used interchangeably but shouldn't be) are prints that have an edition of one, though sometimes a second, weaker impression can be taken from the matrix. A monotype is made by drawing a design in printing ink on any smooth surface, then covering that matrix with a sheet of paper and passing it through a press. The resulting image will be an exact reverse of the original drawing, but relatively flatter because of the pressure of the press. A monoprint is made by taking an already etched and inked plate and adding to the composition by manipulating additional ink on the surface of the plate. This produces an impression different in appearance from a conventionally printed impression from the same plate. Since it is virtually impossible to manipulate the additional ink twice the same way, every monoprint impression will be different from every other one. Alternatively, an artist may build a monoprint from several plates or screens, and optionally add ink or other media directly to the resulting image. Degas made monotypes; Whistler made monoprints.
The numbering of individual impressions of prints can be found as early as the late nineteenth century. However, it did not become standard practice until the mid 1960's. Today, all limited edition prints should be numbered, with the first number being the impression number and the second number representing the total edition, thus 12/50, impression number 12 from an edition of 50. The numbering sequence does not necessarily reflect the order of printing; prints are not numbered as they come off the press but some time later, after the ink has dried. And one must keep in mind that the edition number does not include proofs (see Proofs), but only the total in the numbered edition.
Printer's Proof 
A complimentary proof given to the printer. There can be from one to several of these proofs, depending upon the number of printers involved and the generosity of the artist.
Posthumous Edition 
This is one printed from a matrix after the death of the artist. It has usually been authorized by the artist's heirs or is the product of a publisher who previously purchased the matrix from the artist. It should be limited in some way (though not necessarily hand-numbered) or it becomes simply a limitless restrike. Posthumous editions of prints that were pencil signed in their original edition frequently bear stamped signatures authorized by the artist's heirs or the publisher.
A publisher is one who underwrites the printing and marketing of an artist's prints. An artist may be his own publisher. A publisher brings together artist and printer (assuming the artist does not do his own printing). The printer may also himself be a publisher. This is not a new idea. There were print publishers already in the sixteenth century and the great majority of original prints made in the nineteenth century were commissioned and brought to market by publishers.
Theoretically, these are any printings made after the first edition. A more useful definition, though, would define restrikes as later impressions not authorized by the artist or his heirs, as opposed to authorized subsequent editions. The inevitable problem with restrikes is that they are printed in almost unlimited quantities, thus diluting the value of every individual impression. While some restrikes are of good appearance, the excessive printing of the matrix tends to wear it out and many restrikes are only ghostly images of what the print is supposed to be. In the case of images that may be intrinsically valuable (i.e. Rembrandt etchings), the worn-out copper plate is frequently reworked several centuries later so that while the restrike may be said to have come from the original plate, there is hardly anything left of the original work on the plate, even the plate signature often being re-etched by someone else.
Second Edition 
A second edition is a later printing, usually authorized by the artist or by his heirs, historically from the original matrix, after an edition of declared number has already been printed. It should be annotated as a second, or subsequent, edition. Sometimes second editions are made, many years after the first, because the artist originally printed only four or five impressions, hardly amounting to an edition at all. Other times, they are simply a method of extending the commercial possibilities of the matrix to a greatly expanded market. A photographically produced replica of the original print, whether printed in a limited edition or not, is not a second edition; it is a reproduction.
The very earliest prints were not signed at all, although by the later part of the fifteenth century many artists indicated their authorship of a print by incorporating a signature or monogram into the matrix design, what is called "signed in the plate" or a "plate signature." While some prints were pencil signed as early as the late eighteenth century, the practice of signing one's work in pencil or ink did not really become common practice until the 1880's. At this time, it was done for the benefit of collectors; artists and publishers noticed that when presented with a choice, collectors preferred to buy pencil-signed impressions rather than unsigned ones. The practice spread rapidly and today it is usual for original prints to be signed. An unsigned impression of the same print is generally not as commercially valuable. When a print is described simply as "signed" it should mean that is signed in pencil, ink or crayon; a plate signature should not be described as "signed." A stamped signature should be described as such.
Subscription Edition 
Some artists offer "subscriptions" to their work produced over a period of time. Some of these artists choose to number those prints intended for subscribers separately from the main numbered edition, although the prints of both editions are pulled from the same (1st) printing run. In this case, this separately numbered group is often designated "S.E." or the like. Sometimes a Subscription Edition of a print can be a variant of the main edition, using different paper or inks.
Trial Proof 
An impression pulled before the edition in order to see what the print looks like at that stage of development, after which the artist may go back to the matrix and change it. There can be any number of trial proofs, depending upon how that particular artist works, but it is usually a small number and each one usually differs from the others. In French, a trial proof is called an épreuve d'essai, in German a Probedruck.
Variant Printing 
An evolution of Hors Commerce Proofs, variants can be a method for an artist to experiment with paper and ink combinations prior to settling on the final selection. More recently, variants are being produced by artists in limited editions for sale or distribution along with the main edition. Variants differ from the main edition by, for example, being printed on a different paper or with a variant inking.
Studio Proof (or Show Proof) 
Commonly annotated as S/P.

Print Techniques

Each of the various methods of printmaking yields a distinctive appearance, and an artist will choose a technique in order to achieve a specific, desired effect. Artists may, and do, combine different techniques. Since some modern techniques are quite complicated, many artists use professional printers to help create the final work.


In this technique, the artist sketches a composition on a wood block or other surface and then cuts away pieces from the surface, leaving only the composition raised. Ink is then applied to the surface with a roller and the image transferred to paper with a press or by hand burnishing or rubbing. Since the recessed, cut-away areas do not receive ink, they appear white on the printed image. Relief prints are characterized by bold dark-light contrasts and an impress into the paper of the inked lines. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut.


Woodcut is the earliest and most enduring, in that it is still practiced, of all print techniques. While woodcuts were first seen in ninth-century China, Western artists have made woodcut prints since the fourteenth century. They were originally conceived as religious icons and sold as souvenirs of a pilgrimage to some holy site. Woodcut soon became a popular medium for the mass distribution of religious and instructive imagery in Europe, not least through books since, with the invention of movable type, the woodblock matrix could be set in the same press with the text and both text and image printed together. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, woodcuts were developed in Japan to an exceptional level of artistic achievement, what is known as the ukiyo-e period or style.

Wood Engravings

Wood Engravings are made from the end-grain surface of very hard wood, usually boxwood, as opposed to woodcuts, which are made from side-grain planks of wood neither so hard nor so expensive. Rather than cutting away non-printing areas with a knife, wood engravings are made with fine engraving tools, which, however, engrave the non-printing areas. As in woodcuts, it is the surface that takes the ink and prints. Incredible precision and detail is possible in this technique.

Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

Chiaroscuro Woodcuts involve the use of several blocks, often one for each color to be used and sometimes one to outline the composition of the image. The print is made by printing a sheet of paper with each of the blocks in turn, using some method of registration to avoid misplacement or overlapping. Where a non-printing area has been cut out of all the blocks, the natural white of the paper shows through in the finished print, giving the reason for the name Chiaroscuro (Light-Dark). Usually no more than three or four blocks are used and the purpose of the technique is to imitate the appearance of a wash drawing, not to attempt to capture reality.

Color Woodcuts

Chiaroscuro Woodcuts in the West a product of the nineteenth century, use the same techniques as chiaroscuros, but often carried to an enormous complexity of multiple blocks and over-lapping, and they commonly employ more realistic colors. The greater the complexity, the greater the rate of failed or imperfect impressions, so impressions of many color woodcuts are both rare and expensive. In Japan the color woodcut had much earlier become the dominant print technique and the complexities and subtleties of the greatest masterpieces have probably never been equaled elsewhere.

White Line Woodcut

This is a technique developed in America that allows a color woodcut print to be produced from a single block. The outline of the design is cut away (so that it will not print) and the desired colors are painted on the block, always separated by the cut-away outline. When printed, the image shows a white line delimiting each area of color.


A Linocut is printed from a linoleum block, usually backed with wood for reinforcement. The linoleum is handled in exactly the same way as a wood block but, since it does not have a wood grain, the surface of the resulting print will have less texture. Color linocuts are produced by the same method as color woodcuts. The material takes all types of lines but is most suited to large designs with contrasting tints.




Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning "to incise." In intaglio printing, an image is incised with a pointed tool or "bitten" with acid into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. The plate is covered with ink, and then wiped so that only the incised grooves contain ink. The plate and a dampened sheet of paper are then run through a press together to create the print. Usually the paper sheet is larger than the plate so that the physical impress of the plate edges, or the platemark, shows on the paper. The ink on the print tends to be slightly raised above the surface of the paper. The intaglio family of printmaking techniques includes engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, aquatint, and spitbite aquatint.


Engraving is a process in which a plate is marked or incised with a tool called a burin. A burin works on a copper plate like a plow on a field. As it is moved across the plate, copper shavings, called burr, are forced to either side of the lines being created and these are usually cleaned from the plate before inking. An engraved line may be deep or fine, has a sharp and clean appearance and tapers to an end. The process is slow and painstaking and generally produces formal-looking results.


Etching has been a favored technique for artists for centuries, largely because the method of inscribing the image is so similar to drawing with a pencil or pen. An etching begins with a metal plate (originally iron but now usually copper) that has been coated with a waxy substance called a "ground." The artist creates the composition by drawing through the ground with a stylus to expose the metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which "bites" or chemically dissolves the metal in the exposed lines. For printing, the ground is removed, the plate is inked and then wiped clean. It is then covered with a sheet of dampened paper and run through a press, which not only transfers the ink but forces the paper into the lines, resulting in the raised character of the lines on the impression. Etched lines usually have blunt rather than tapering ends.


Drypoint prints are created by scratching a drawing into a metal plate with a needle or other sharp tool. The technique allows the greatest freedom of line, from the most delicate hairline to the heaviest gash. In drypoint the burr is not scraped away before printing but stays on the surface of the plate to print a velvety cloud of ink until it is worn away by repeated printings. Drypoint plates (particularly the burr on them) wear more quickly than etched or engraved plates and therefore allow for fewer satisfactory impressions and show far greater differences from first impression to last.


Mezzotint is a technique of engraving areas of tone rather than lines. In this method, the entire surface of the plate is roughened by a spiked tool called a rocker so that, if inked at that point, the entire plate would print in solid black. The artist then works "from black to white" by scraping or burnishing areas so that they will hold less or no ink, yielding modulated tones. Because of its capabilities for producing almost infinite gradations of tone and tonal areas, mezzotint has been the most successful technique for the black-and-white adaptation of oil-painted images to the print medium.


Aquatint is an etching process concerned with areas of tone rather than line. For this technique, the plate is covered with a ground or resin that is granular rather than solid (as in etching) and bitten, like etching, with acid. The acid bites between the granules. The design, wholly in tonal areas not line, is produced by protecting certain areas of the plate from the acid with an impervious varnish, by multiple bitings to produce different degrees of darkness, and by the use of several different resins with different grains.

Spitbite Aquatint

Spitbite Aquatint involves painting strong acid directly onto the aquatint ground of a prepared plate. Depending upon the time the acid is left on the plate, light to dark tones can be achieved. To control the acid application, saliva, ethylene glycol or Kodak Photoflo solution can be used. Traditionally, a clean brush was coated with saliva, dipped into nitric acid and brushed onto the ground, hence the term "spitbite." An earlier but related technique, usually called lavis, involved painting the plate directly with acid, essentially drawing with acid rather than ink, and then washing it off when the desired effect had been achieved. Used usually -- and only by certain artists -- in conjunction with etching, there are few known prints of pure lavis work.




Planographic printing includes all those techniques in which the ink is neither pressed down into the paper nor raised above the surface of the paper, but instead lies in a flat plane on the surface. In planographic techniques the pressure of the press, if indeed there is a press at all, is generally much lighter than with relief or intaglio printing.


Invented in 1798, lithography is perhaps best known from the prints of the 1890's by artists like Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. The process is based on the mutual antipathy of oil and water. To make a Lithograph, the artist uses an oily or greasy medium such as a crayon or tusche (an oily liquid wash) to draw a composition on a flat, ground stone. The surface of the stone is then flooded with water, which is repelled by the greasy areas and stays only where the drawing isn't. Printer's ink (oily) is applied to the stone with a roller and it, in turn, sticks only to the greasy sections, as the water repels it elsewhere. The stone is then covered with a sheet of paper and run through the press to create the print. Though lithography literally means "stone drawing," in modern times the expensive and unwieldy limestone block has often been replaced by a grained metal plate, in which case the print is sometimes called a zincograph. The stone or plate, it should be noted, is not etched or engraved in any way but simply acts as a solid surface for the antipathetic actions of oil and water. A transfer lithograph, in French parlance, an autographie, is one in which the original design was drawn on a paper made especially for the process and then mechanically (not photographically) transferred to the stone or plate. A photo-lithograph is generally a reproduction and not an original print. Color lithographs are made through the use of several stones or plates to separate the colors and printing the same sheet of paper with each of them in turn. A lithotint, in traditional usage and as made by J. A. M. Whistler, is a lithograph in which the image is created on the stone with a brush and oil-based ink in the manner of a wash drawing. It is otherwise handled and printed exactly like a crayon lithograph.

Stencil Techniques


The Serigraph / Screenprint / Silkscreen process does not require a printing press. This technique was made famous in the 1960's, when artists such as Andy Warhol exploited its bold, commercial look to make Pop icons. To make a screenprint, an image that has been cut out of paper or fabric is attached to a piece of tautly stretched mesh. Paint is then forced through the mesh -- or screen -- onto a sheet of paper beneath it by means of a squeegee. The uncovered areas of the screen will, of course, allow the paint to pass through, while the areas covered by the compositional shapes will not. For works with more than one color, a separate screen is required for each color. This technique is often referred to as serigraphy, a term coined to distinguish between commercial and artistic screenprinting.


Pochoir is a direct method of hand coloring through a stencil. The stencil itself is usually knife cut from thin coated paper, paperboard, plastic or metal and the ink or paint is applied with a brush through the stencil to the paper beneath. Multi-colored pochoirs are produced with multiple stencils, and the technique has often been used to add colors to black and white lithographs.


Mass Production Techniques

Offset Printing
Lenticular Printing

Lenticular Printing is a method by which normally flat, static images can convey depth and motion. The "magic" of the image is an optical illusion created by a plastic sheet covered with many rows of tiny lenses. The other ingredient in lenticular printing is the image. An image must be specially prepared to match the lens. This image usually starts as mutiple images. These images are interlaced together; that is they are sliced up into strips and blended together into one image. The size of these strips is determined by the lenticular lens that will be used, and the resolution of the printing device. Each lens on the lenticular sheet magnifies a small portion of the image beneath it. As the viewing angle of the lens changes, a different portion of the image is magnified. That is why lenticular images appear to change as the viewing anlge changes. This effect can be a simple flip between two images or show several frames of motion. By turning the lenticular lenses vertically, each eye can be shown a different image resulting in a 3D effect.

Ink Jet Print
Giclée/Iris Prints

Iris prints are created by printing computer-generated images on a large-scale ink jet printer manufactured by IRIS. The ink is dispersed by a sophisticated print head in a fine mist of minute droplets in order to deliver a continuous tone image. Iris prints can be made using highly-saturated, archival, water-based inks on a wide range of materials, from traditional art papers to fabrics and wood veneers. Epson print images are also computer generated and realized. Epson printers use pigment-based archival inks rather than water-based inks. The Epson process is better suited to projects that involve a combination of printing techniques, especially those that involve the immersion of once-printed paper in water as a step in the printing process. In addition to the materials that can be printed on with Iris printers, the Epson printers can accommodate rigid materials such as copper plates or cardboard.

Laser Print

Printing Equipment

Copy Press