The Canadian Art Database


A Guide To Original Printmaking Methods

An original print is an image that has been conceived by the artist as a print and executed solely as a print, usually in a numbered edition, and signed by the artist. Each print of the edition is an original, printed from a plate, stone, screen, block or other matrix created for that purpose.

A reproduction (although often called a print) has no relationship whatsoever to an original print; it is a copy of a work of art conceived by the artist in another medium (painting, watercolour, etc.). The reproduction has usually been made by photo-mechanical means. Numbering and signing a reproduction does not change its essence; it is still a reproduction. It is not an original print.

A natural antipathy of grease to water is the basis of original lithography. A drawing is made on a special type of limestone (or a specially grained zinc plate) with greasy ink or a grease-crayon. The image is then "etched" or sealed onto the stone surface with a diluted mixture of acid and gum arabic, which is not strong enough to eat into the stone. This desensitizes the stone, increasing its ability to attract water in the non-image areas.

When ink is applied, with the use of large rubber rollers, it sticks to the greasy image areas, and is repelled by a film of water over the non-image areas. Then, when a sheet of paper is applied over the inked surface, and "pulled" through a lithographic press, ink is transferred from the image areas onto the paper in a mirror image. The stone must then be re-inked for each subsequent print, or for the addition of additional colours. Great care must be taken when printing overlapping stones, as any fault in registration will result in a blurred final image.

The stone may be used again once the surface has been ground down to remove the image.

The technique of screenprinting (also known as silkscreen and serigraphy) evolved out of Chinese and Japanese stencil printing. A fine mesh or screen is tautly stretched over a wooden frame to hold the stencil design. A stencil may be created in several ways. In its simplest form, hand-cut forms are adhered to the screen. These forms stop the ink from passing through the tiny holes of the fabric onto the paper during the printing process. Another method is to hand-apply a "stop out" solution to the areas of the print that you want to remain ink-free. Many artists today employ a photographic process by first treating the screen with a photo-sensitive emulsion, onto which a positive is exposed. The positive image is then washed away, leaving a stencil for printing.

All of the above methods rely on the blocking out ability of their stencils in order to create a finished print. Ink is then pushed through the screen with the dragging motion of a rubber squeegee. A new screen is required for every subsequent colour or layer in the final image.

Of the many approaches to intaglio printing, there are three that are primarily line processes, and closely related to drawing techniques, engraving, etching and drypoint. Other methods used to achieve tonal variations are mezzotint and aquatint.

In intaglio printing, a plate, usually of metal (copper or zinc), is used. The lines or areas that create the image are incised into the plate by sharp tools or bitten into it by acid. Once the plate has been fully prepared and inked, it is "pulled" through the press under great pressure, forcing dampened paper into the grooves to pick up the ink and thus the image.

Engraving The marks are incised onto the plate with a variety of metal tools. No acid is used in this method. The plate is then inked and printed. Until recently, this method was used most often by commercial printing houses because of the plate's ability to withstand extremely large editions. Engravings can be found as the black and white picture plates in many old books and periodicals.

Etching This method requires the use of acid in the making of the plate. The plate is covered with a acid-resistant ground. The image is drawn onto the plate, cutting through the ground and exposing the metal. The plate is then immersed in acid , and the exposed areas are "bitten" into, creating the line that will hold the ink. The longer the plate sits in the acid, the deeper, and therefore the darker, the lines will print. This gives the printmaker control over the printed line's tonal range, from very faint grey to dense black.

Drypoint By drawing directly onto the plate with a steel needle, the printmaker 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 is a positive quality of a drypoint; however, this method generally cannot withstand editions over 20, as the pressure used in printing flattens the burrs, and reduces the ability to hold ink.

Aquatint The printmaker sprinkles a fine rosin powder over a clean metal plate. The powder is then heated until melted, then cooled. The result is a dot-like pattern that is resistant to acid. The plate is then immersed in acid, as in etching, to be bitten. When the rosin is removed, the plate will print in wider tonal areas, much finer than etching alone will allow.

Mezzotint This process is similar to aquatint in that the plate is first manipulated to produce a solid-textured surface that will print an even black. The plate is usually roughened by a metal roller with sharp teeth (a rocker).This roughened area holds the ink to produce a deep, velvety black. To produce a white or lighter area, the plate is burnished to a polished surface that holds less or no ink.

Relief This process is the reverse of intaglio, involving the cutting away, of part of the surface of a flat block to produce the image. This cut-away block is then inked, and the raised areas are printed. 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 are also used.

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