The four traditional categories of original fine art prints are relief, intaglio, stencil (silkscreen/serigraph), and planographic (lithography). Some modern and contemporary artists use more than one of these techniques to create a single image. Others include photographic or photomechanical elements, such as Xerox or computer-generated images, in the process. No matter how it is created, an original print is a unique piece of art.
Woodcuts and linoleum cuts are the most common types of relief prints. First, the artist carves an image into a wood or linoleum block. Then, using a roller or a brayer, the artist inks the raised areas on the block. Paper is placed on the block and ink is transferred onto the paper.
Ink transfer usually takes place using a press. But when creating woodcuts or linocuts using Asian techniques, which are printed on very thin paper, the artist rubs the back of the paper with a hand tool called a barren to transfer the ink.
Another type of relief print, called a collograph, is created by collaging different elements onto a block in order to create a raised surface. That surface is then inked and printed. Collographs generally have a more varied texture than other types of relief prints.
The most common intaglio printmaking techniques are engraving, etching, aquatint, drypoint, and mezzotint. Intaglio printmaking is the inverse of relief printmaking: the recessed areas of the plate are inked and the raised areas are wiped clean.
Intaglio plates are usually made from zinc or copper. For engraving and drypoint prints, artists create an image by drawing on the metal with a sharp tool. To create an etching, the metal plate is covered with an acid-resistant material called a ground. The artist draws a design into the ground and then places the plate in a bath of acid. The acid incises the plate along the lines that the artist has drawn. The longer the plate is left in the acid, the darker the image.
Aquatints allow artists to create subtle variations in the print?s tone. First, the artist dusts the metal plate with rosin, an acid-resistant, sand-like material. The artist paints varnish on the areas of the plate where he or she does not want an image, and then submerges the plate in acid. Like an etching, the longer the plate is left in the acid, the darker the image.
The artist then paints varnish on areas that have been bitten to the desired depth and returns the plate to the acid bath. Areas that have been varnished are not bitten any deeper, while bites are incised more deeply elsewhere on the element ? resulting in a wide range of tones.
Mezzotints are made using a tool called a rocker to roughen the plate?s surface. The artist then scrapes and burnishes the plate to create an image out of the dark background. Mezzotints generally present dramatic variations in tone.
Stencil printmaking refers primarily to silkscreen printing, also called serigraphy. The process takes its name from the screen ? traditionally silk ? through which ink is forced onto paper or other material to create a print. (Screens may also be made from nylon, polyester, or some other synthetic material.) Silkscreen printmaking lends itself to multicolor work and is done without a press.
In traditional silkscreening, the artist cuts a stencil by hand. Contemporary practice usually involves creating the image photomechanically. The artist draws the image for each different color on a transparent surface, then transfers it to a photosensitive screen stretched over a wood frame. The artist places a paper beneath the screen and, using a squeegee, squeezes ink through the screen?s mesh and onto the paper below.
Planographic printmaking is lithography. As its name suggests, the technique takes place on a level surface.
In relief and intaglio printmaking, an image is created by the application of ink to a printing element?s raised or recessed areas. A lithographic printing element, however, is entirely level. The image and non-image areas are separated chemically.
Lithography, which is based on the principle that oil and water don't mix, works by alternating water- and oil-based materials. Traditional lithographic drawing materials are oil-based. Varying amounts of grease in the medium allows the artist to create a range of tones.
The artist draws on a lithograph stone or metal plate. Then the stone or plate is processed, using acids and gum arabic, to stabilize the amount of grease in the drawing and to allow the non-image areas to hold an even layer of water. Oil-based ink is used to create the print. The ink attaches to areas drawn with oil-based material; water elsewhere on the plate, on the non-image areas, repels it.
Any printmaking technique may be used to print a single- or multicolor image. Generally, to create a multicolored print, each color must be drawn or produced on a separate printing element. Colors are printed one at a time, one atop the other, to build an image.
But some tools allow the artist to print more than one color at a time, like the so-called "rainbow" printing roll. Techniques like color viscosity, used in intaglio printmaking, can also allow multiple colors to be printed from one plate.
Most printmaking processes allow artists to produce more than one identical copy of an image. An edition?s size is determined by the printing element?s durability ? how many good impressions can it produce? ? and the number of prints an artist or publisher expects to sell. Because of economic considerations, not all plates are printed until they are worn down.
Most of the processes described here require the artist to print directly on paper from the printing element (which creates a reverse or mirror image). Repeated pressure required to transfer ink to paper wears down the printing element, which is the reason that editions are naturally limited. Some techniques, such as drypoint, may produce as few as five quality impressions, whereas a very stable lithograph may print as many as 300.
Offset printing, developed for commercial purposes, can be used to create a relatively large number of prints before the printing element is worn down. During the printing process, the image is offset onto a blanket and then printed onto paper (which creates a correct-reading image). Less pressure is exerted on the printing plate by the offset method, so plates last longer. Offset printing is particularly popular for creating lithographic prints and is especially useful for images that incorporate text.
Unlike other techniques, no master plate is created during the monoprint or monotype process. Only a single, unique impression is pulled from the printing element, so monoprints may not be editioned.
Photographic, collage and transfer techniques and computer technology have transformed the medium. As in painting, sculpture, and other art forms, artists have borrowed techniques often used for commercial purposes. These and other technological innovations have enabled artists to push the boundaries of printmaking. What unites these efforts is the artist?s intention, whether using traditional or more avant-garde techniques, to create new work that does not exist in another form.