Since the invention of the printing press, artists have used it for a wide variety of reasons—to experiment with new forms, to exploit its unique strengths as an image-making tool, and to create more work than one person can execute by hand. Equally importantly, artists have made prints so that their artistic visions would be accessible to a broad audience. As the famed Neo-Expressionist painter Georg Baselitzsaid, “I’ve painted, but I’ve also done graphics since as long as I can remember so even people with little to spend could afford it.” As a result, prints have been embraced as one of art's most democratic mediums.
But... what is a print, exactly? From Albrecht Dürer to Andy Warhol, artists have worked with master printmakers to employ a vast array of different printmaking strategies, each yielding its own distinctive result—so navigating the many varieties of prints can be challenging for newcomers. In the interest of providing some insight into a truly influential and important medium, here is a glossary of printmaking terms.
Edition: You may have seen a few numbers on a print that read something like “21/25.” This means that the print was made in an edition of 25 (meaning that's how many prints were produced, minus the "artists proofs" that the artist him- or herself keeps), and you hold the 21st print that the artist signed.
Matrix: The plate or block used for producing a print. Once inked, the matrix is used to produce a desired image.
Press: The machine, typically hand-powered, that impresses the matrix onto the the paper or whatever matirial is being used to capture the image.
Monotype: The result of a process that produces only one print (a unique print).
Intaglio: The process whereby an image is carved into a matrix, with the incisions filled with ink to leave the impression.
Print: The result of a process that allows for multiples of the same image.
TYPES OF PRINTS
Drypoint: A type of intaglio print in which a sharp needle is used to scratch at a plate. Unlike an engraving, drypoint prints have softer lines because of the burr (excess material) produced when the stylus runs through the plate. Drypoint printing does not make many multiples because the burr wears away with each print, and drypoint prints are particularly prized for their hazy look.
Relief: An approach favored by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, relief prints are made by carving an image into a matrix, inking it, and then pressing it onto paper. What is left behind on the paper is the relief—with the white of the paper reflecting the hollow areas of the plate that were not inked. Reliefs are often done in black-and-white for striking visual effects, though they may also be done using colored inks.
Intaglio: A broad term used to describe any type of printing where the sunken areas of the matrix are inked. In other words, it’s the precise opposite of a relief.
Engraving: Popularized by the masters of the Northern Renaissance in the 16th century, engravings use a metal plate to produce an extraordinarily detailed image. Unlike reliefs, engravings involve putting ink into the valleys (hollow areas) of the plate and then applying pressure against the plate when they are put on paper. Engravings result in more intricate images than reliefs, though they often take more time to produce and require great skill.
Etching: The thought of using acid to create art might make you cringe, but in the case of etchings, it’s just a normal part of the process. Etchings begin with a metal plate that is first covered in a wax layer called a ground. The artist then scratches through the ground using a needle to create a drawing. The plate is then dipped in acid, which eats away at the exposed metal. The artist can ultimately achieve different shades of color when the etching is pressed depending on how long the plate is left in the acid.
Spit bite: An etching technique in which a combination of nitric acid and gum are spattered, splattered, or dripped onto a plate.
Aquatint: A type of engraving that, instead of using a needle to carve a wax ground, precisely spreads powdered rosin (a kind of tar) over the matrix to resist the acid and create various tonalities. Francisco Goya’s Caprichos are probably the most famous aquatints, though some contemporary artists, like Alex Katz, often employ the aquatint technique as well. Rosin, however, is toxic, requiring the printmaker to take special precautions when using it.
Lithograph: The result of a complex process involves using a combination of oil, fat, water, and acid to transfer—or "offset"—an image from a limestone sheet onto a metal plate and then eventually onto a piece of paper or other material. We won’t even attempt to delve into the technical niceties here, but it produces some beautiful results—from Honoré Daumier’s haunting political commentaries to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s famed posters for the Moulin Rouge.
Offset print: Any print that involves the transference of an image from a plate to rubber to a printing surface using oil and water. Today, this is the most common form of commercial printing—so common that the newspaper you read this morning is an offset print.
Screen print: Used for the production of many multiples, this type of print involves pressing of ink through a stencil that is placed directly on a screen. The Pop artists, obsessed with the effects of mass reproduction on pop culture, favored screen printing, most notably in the case of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, which he valued because they degraded their image slightly with each transfer.
Woodcut: A type of relief printing that uses a carved wood matrix. The technique is typical of 18th- and 19th-century Japanese artists (including the famous Hokusai and Hiroshige), but in the late 19th century woodcut prints crossed over to the Western world when the Impressionists became fascinated by the arts of Japan. Woodcuts may also be called woodblock prints.
Linocut: First used by the German Expressionists in the early 20th century, this type of relief printing involves chiseling a design into a linoleum surface that is then inked with a brayer and produces an image. Some of the most famous artists to work with linocuts include M.C. Escher and Henri Matisse.
Mezzotint: Technically a style of drypoint printing, this intaglio print involves cross-hatching the plate to create half-tones, allowing for a greater range of color and more detail.
Rotogravure: An intaglio print that uses a cylindrical plate that this is then inked and spun using a rotary. A paper is fed through the area between the plate and the rotary, and an image is produced. The gravure technique can also used to produce a film positive called a photogravure.
Digital print: Any print made partially or wholly using digital technology—the "digital" refers to the use of a digital printer in creating the end result. While digital printing is typically less labor intensive than using a manual press, it can often be more expensive than traditional printing methods.
Inkjet print: The highest-quality variety of digital print, inkjet prints are created by electronic printers capable of creating works that have are all but indistinguishable from hand-made art—making inkjet printing an popular technique for artists in the digital age. Wade Guyton, for example, uses inkjet digital printing to create painterly canvases as a commentary about the ways that technology has changed—and hasn't changed—the medium of painting.
Giclée: Essentially another term inkjet printing, giclée is a term coined in 1991 to describe high-quality digital prints in a way that doesn't sound too high-tech—"giclée" (pronounced "zhee-klay") comes from the the French word for "nozzle."
Laser print: A digital print that uses laser technology to quickly produce high-quality images in massive quantities.
TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES
Brayer: The hand-roller used to apply ink to a matrix.
Burin: The V-shaped tool used to incise designs into a metal plate for an engraving. (No, it has nothing to do with Daniel Buren, the institutional-critique artist who has made prints but ironically none that involve a burin in the process.)
Linoleum: Rubbery material sometimes used as plates for relief prints, as in linocuts.
Movable type: Any movable component used to reproduce a document. A little-known fact: Though Johannes Gutenberg is usually credited with having invented movable type in the 15th century for his printing press, the process had already been used in Asia for nearly five centuries at that point.
Pochoir: A stenciling technique used to create vibrant, colorful effects with multiple stencils in the same print.
Stencil: A thin sheet of material (typically metal) with an image carved out of it. Stencils are used to make screen prints, but are more typically simply held against a surface and traced to leave an outline of the stencil's image. With the popularity of street art on the rise, stencils are behind many of the crisper graffiti artworks that you see on city walls.
Viscosity printing: A technique that allows for an artist to print multiple colors on the same plate using the viscosity of the inks, rather than relying on the colors to separate. Viscosity printing results in limited editions due to the slowness of its process.
Alex Katz on His Printmaking Process