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Fine Art Printing Techniques FAQ

Stephen Vaughan demonstrating fine art printing techniques

What is a Fine Art Print?

The definition of fine art print is quite broad. If you search online you will commonly see results for digital printing services. A fine art print in the traditional printmaking sense is a work of art produced by one of the following processes:

  • Intaglio: engraving, etching, dry point, aquatint, mezzotint, carborundum and collograph
  • Relief: wood block, lino printing
  • Planographic: Lithography
  • Stencilling: screen printing/serigraph

The basic principle is to take an impression from a matrix(printing plate, silk screen, wood block or lithography stone). This matrix affords the possibility of creating an exact replica of an image multiple times in a limited edition. The term publishing is used for the creation of print editions by print studios and fine art dealers.

What is an Intaglio Print?

Intaglio: From Italian, incise or engrave into a surface. This technique probably originated from a time when engravers of armour took an impression of their designs. This was done as proof of their work. To this day the termproof is used in printmaking for the intermediary prints taken as an artist/printmaker works through the process of creating the plates for a print. Engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint, mezzotint, carborundum and collography are all intaglio processes. Ink is applied to the surface of the printing plate. It is then wiped into the textured surface that represents the image. Wiping removes excess ink leaving the smooth surface of the printing plate clean for the white or non-pigmented parts of the image. An impression from this inked-up plate is then transferred to damp paper by running them together under the pressure of a printing press.
What is an Engraving?

Engraving is a method of cutting the printing matrix with a chisel like tool that cuts a V shaped grove in the surface of the printing matrix. This is a highly skilled discipline because of the resistance posed by the materials used in terms of its hardness and the dexterity required to control the path of the cutting tool. Modern power tools like a Dremel do mitigate these difficulties. On its own engraving into a material is a work of art in its own right.

On metal, printing from a plate is termed as intaglio because of the way the ink is applied into the incised cuts and wiped back off the higher smooth areas.

It is important to make a distinction when engraving is applied to wood when it is used for printing. Here it is classified as relief printing because ink is applied to the top surface of the matrix.

What is a drypoint?

Similar to engraving the drypoint tool cuts into the metal of the printing plate (intaglio). The difference is two fold. The tool is needle shaped and sometimes the point will be formed with a diamond. The level of skill in dry pointing a plate is a lot less than that of an engraver. What is noticeable is also the quality of the resultant image. Because the angle of attack of the dry point tool tends to be perpendicular to the surface, the lines tend to have a scored and scratchy appearance.

What is an Etching?

An etching (short hand for a print made by the etching process) is made by applying a resistant coating known as a ground to the surface of a metal plate. This leaves areas of the metal that constitute the image exposed. When placed in a liquid mordant, these exposed areas react with the chemical and a texture is incised or bitten into the metal (intaglio). Mordants are commonly acidic but they can also be alkaline. Traditionally copper is used for very refined work but due to its cost alternatives such as zinc and aluminium are also used.

What is Aquatint?

Aquatint is closely related to etching, which is generally associated with bitting lines into metal. Because metals such as copper and zinc are finely grained, when large open areas are etched open bitting occurs. The printed results from this open biting can be interesting with a step like embossing effect. But this doesn’t provide the texture to hold the ink for blacks and half-tones (greys) that many artists desire. To overcome this an aquatint is applied to act as a filter. This allows the mordant to pepper the open areas with a rougher texture.

Traditionally the aquatint is formed with a fine powdered rosin. It is applied in a box that wafts the rosin into a cloud. The rosin dust settles into a fine dust layer on the surface of the plate. This rosin ground is fused to the plate by gently heating the plate form underneath. Resistant ground created in this manner leaves microscopic open areas in between where the fused rosin grains sit on the plate, enough to etch to a textured surface (intaglio). Many coarser grained metals such as steel or aluminium don’t require this process and will achieve the aquatint effect naturally by exposing metal directly to the mordant.

What is Mezzotint?

This process traditionally uses a toothed tool called a rocker. This is rocked across the surface of the metal printing plate to roughen its surface (intaglio). The image is then executed by burnishing back areas of the plate to a smooth or smoother state. This approach creates seamless gradations of tone and is often used as an alternative to aquatint.
There are two mezzotint techniques, the dark to light method whereby the whole plate is textured with the image burnished in or, the light to dark method where only the dark area are selectively rocked. Mezzotint is technically a drypoint technique, albeit a more sophisticated method of scoring the printing plate surface. See Carborundum print where silicone carbide is used to create mezzotint printing plates.

What is Carborundum?

Silicon carbide occurs naturally in the form of the rare mineral maisonette. Generally silicon carbide is synthetically produced as the commercial product Carborundum by Saint-Gobain. Carborundum is an abrasive and a semiconductor

What is a Carborundum Print?

In printmaking Carborundum refers to two different processes. As an abrasive Carborundum can be used as an alternative to the rocker to create the textured surface on a plate for a mezzotint print. More commonly Carborundum is applied directly to the surface of the printing matrix with adhesives. It is a collagraph method and like collagraphy is intaglio with a difference. It is not an incised or reductive approach to introducing a textured surface to the matrix, more an additive one. In many cases it has an aspect of relief where the areas where it is applied embosses the paper inversely, the opposite way an etched line sits on the printed paper. Because carborundum is gritty it creates a highly textured surface to which a high quantity of ink can be applied. This yields highly textured and dense areas of pigmentation. Larger prints can require a lot of muscle to apply and wipe off the excess ink!
There are two ways to apply the carborundum. It can be mixed with an adhesive, usually PVA, into a paste and painted on to the printing plate to produce a painterly effect. The other way is flocking where the adhesive is first applied to the plate and then the carborundum is sprinkled over it. This second technique is suitable where the artist wants to create large fields or areas of dense black or colour.

What is Collography?

Derived from the Greek work kolla (glue) and relating to collage, this is a printmaking technique where textured materials can be collaged to the substrate. The materials used in the collography process must have a low profile to facilitate passage through the printing press. Embossed wallpaper, bubble wrap, leaves, textiles, cut card are a good choice. These surfaces are inked in intaglio manner though in some instances top rolling of high surfaces is possible to add an element of relief printing to the process. Collography goes by the name collagraphy and the resultant print can be referred to as a collograph.

What is Sugar Lift?

The principal is to create a solution that is water soluble and has some pigmentation to visually guide the artist when painting the image with the solution on the printing plate. The original version was made up with a mixture of sugar and gum arabic and Indian ink. Once the painted on image has dried a very thin ground is applied over the printing plate, including the image. The plate is then immersed in a tray of hot water where the sugar lift will dissolve and lift away from the plate taking the ground with it and exposing the metal plate where the image was painted. The plate is then placed in a bath of mordant for etching.

Sometimes referred to as sugar lift aquatint, because an aquatint would be required when using this technique on copper. Sugar lift is one of those magical, alchemical printing process that is a great option for artists who want to execute their image quickly and leave the printing to the printer. The secret lies in the sugar lift recipe and there are many variants, including one that includes condensed milk.

What is Lithography?

Litho, the Greek for stone, tells us that this printmaking discipline originally used stone, more specifically a very fine limestone. The initial impression is megalithic, given the weight of the stone blocks traditionally used. More importantly is the process of lithography itself.

The fact that oil and water are immiscible, they will never form a homogenous solution and therefore don’t mix well, is key to understanding the alchemical process of lithography. The lithography process is classified as planographic as the matrix transfers the image, pigmented and non-pigmented areas, from a single plane. The lithography process lends itself to images that are drawn and is a suitable choice for artist who are skilled in draughtsmanship. The artist can visit the printing studio and quickly execute drawings on the prepared stones leaving the printmaker to process the lithographs and print the edition. Picasso famously got great benefit from this symbiotic relationship between artist and printmaker; the output was prolific!

How are Lithographs Made?

To create the image the artist uses any oily or greasy medium (oil based washes, wax based crayons) to paint and draw onto the stone. The stone is then etched with mixture of nitric acid and gum arabic. This effects the exposed parts of the stone that haven’t been drawn on. It creates hydrophilic areas that will attract water and repel ink, corresponding to the non-pigmented areas of the composition. The areas of the stone protected by the image are are resistant to the etching solution.

Prior to printing, the pigmented image is cleaned from the stone with turpentine. A vestige of the drawing, grease and oil remains as a hydrophobic foundation. These area will repel water. The water is them introduced to the stone, usually by a light sponging. The water will be repelled from the drawn area and will reticulate over the non drawn parts of the stone. Ink is then rolled over the stone and will only adhere to areas that have been perviously greasy. The image will magically reappear as the ink layer builds up. At this point the image is transferred to paper with a lithography printing press which uses a moveable bed that transports the lithography stone and paper under the pressure of a scraper bar.

Why is Lithography Printing not as common as Etching?

The lithography process demands great skill. Grinding and levelling the stone is one aspect of this. Selecting the correct materials for fine half tones and, how these are applied is another discipline requiring refined judgement. Processing the stone, then wetting the it and applying the ink with a heavy roller demands a lot of dexterity. The printer needs to be carful not break the fine water layer lying on the non-pigmented areas of the stone. The last point is important, because if the inking is heavy handed the whole stone will fill with ink, preventing the printing of additional images of the edition.
Students of lithography will be lucky if they get the opportunity to print with lithography stones. These are scarce and there are no more to be quarried. Each time the stone needs to be re-used for another image the previous image must be ground off making the stone thinner.

Modern lithography uses metal plates and in most cases the image is transferred photomechanically. Modern lithography tends to be commercial due to its high cost and complexity.

A more recent concept for artists is Paper Litho which uses high contrast black laser prints. This is also referred to as Gum Arabic Transfer as a mixture of gum arabic and water is used as the repellent layer when inking up.

What is Relief Printing?

Relief printing is defined as engraving out the non-image areas from the surface of the matrix. Ink is rolled onto the top layer of the matrix with a brayer or roller and in effect is the opposite of intaglio printing.
Both woodblock and lino printing are classified as relief. Simple monotone prints can be made this way. For colour, a reductive approach can be used. This is where lighter colours are printed first. Subsequent colours are introduced and printed down over previous printings, with more of the matrix engraved away each time, thus reducing the printing area of the matrix.

An alternative method is to cut engrave a matrix for each colour and print each after the other in register. This second approach facilitates the production of more complex images and compositions.

What is Woodblock Printing?

Woodblock printing originates from China and became predominant in East Asia. Used for text and images it was also commonly used to print on textiles. In Europe the the technique came into use under the name woodcut and the process of carving the woodcut is known as xylography. While engraving/cutting is the process of producing the printing matrix, the printing can be applied in three ways.
• Stamping: commonly used for printing textiles.
• Rubbing: In Far East printing the paper or fabric is placed face down on inked woodblock. The back of the paper is then rubbed with a pad known either as a burnisher or leather frotton. In Japan this is called a baren and is traditionally padded with dried bamboo bark.
• Printing with a Press: In the 15th Century the Gutenberg-type press was introduce and this revolutionised the printmaking process, initially with the wood cut.

The arrival of the printing press coincided with the idea of printing books. Block-books were made up of pages of text and images created by woodcuts.

What is Photo Etching?

A photo etching is created with a printing plate whose image has been applied photographically. This is done by exposing a full size photographic positive to a printing plate the has a photosensitive surface. There are two main ways to create these plates.

Photopolymer plates are made of a thin veneer of a photosensitive material, backed by a thin metal for support. When these are exposed and processed the etched surface texture is created in the material directly and is ready to print straight away. Many studios use these plates as they are considered as a safe etching option where there is no need to use harmful mordants for the etching process. The prints from these plates tend to be nearly planographic in appearance compared to the results of other etching processes. The process tends to suit artists who want to replicate closely an original work and, like lithography, it tends to be faithful to the subtle tones of a drawing.

The other photo etching technique uses a photo sensitive film that is laminated to a regular metal printing plate. The artwork (photographic positive) is exposed onto the film. The exposure hardens the photosensitive film. The non exposed areas get washed away in the processing, leaving the metal exposed for etching with a mordant afterwards. This second method is less accurate than that of the photopolymer plates as the image is open to further manipulation in the way the printmaker may block out parts of the image as they etch it.

What is Photomechanical Printing?

Photomechanical is the term for taking a photographic image and transferring it to the printing matrix by mechanical means. It is not a photographic process, there are no light sensitive materials involved and light plays no part in the process. Prints made by the photomechanical process are more durable than photographs and less susceptible to fading due to the amount of pigmentation that is transferred in the printing process.
Historically there have been many types of photomechanical methods employed:
Woodburytype (mid 19th Century to 1910)
• Collotype (mid 19th Century to present. Not to be confused with collagraphy)
• Gravure (1870s to pressent)
• Letterpress Halftone (1880s to present)
• Offset Lithography (1880s to present)

Offset lithography is a progression technologically from stone lithography and very advanced versions are still used in commercial printing.

What is Giclée Printing?

Giclée printing is a high end digital process done on a large format inkjet printer. The inks are of a higher quality than those of a regular inkjet printer and are light fast to avoid fading. Giclée is employed in commercial print studios for high end posters and reproductions. It is also used in fine art printing studios and by artists to create original works.

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is classified as stencilling. A fine mesh is stretched over a frame. A stencil is then placed on this mesh, either one made by hand or by photographic means. The screen is then placed face down on the paper and ink is pushed through the mesh by pulling it over the mesh surface with a squeegee. The ink does not pass through the mesh where it is blocked by the stencil. Screen prints have a flat appearance and are often indistinguishable from the planographic nature of lithography.
Traditionally the screen stencil was made with paper cut outs or by manually painting a blocking material like shellac onto the mesh. In the last sixty years it is more common for photo stencils to be used and screen printing is considered a more predominantly photographic process.

A photo emulsion is thinly applied to the mesh and allowed to dry in a darkroom. The screen is then exposed to an ultraviolet light source with a full size photographic positive. The blacks of the positive prevent the UV from hardening the emulsion. These unhardened areas of the emulsion wash out with water to create the open areas of the stencil. A power washer is usually used for this.

What Papers are used for Printing?

Most paper for printmaking is made from fibres of cotton, commonly called cotton rag paper. They are of superior quality and more durable than wood pulp based papers. Many printing papers are made to withstand being wet at several stages of the printing process. Size, a type of glue is added to the manufacture of these papers so that they don’t disintegrate from being wet in combination to the pressures exerted by printing presses. The weight and texture of the paper is also important depending on the printing technique. For planographic, screen and relief a printmaker may chose a thin paper with a smooth surface while, for intaglio printing, printers will tend to use more heavy weight papers like German Etch (350 gsm). For Japanese block printing very fine papers such as kozo and Masa are used. These tend to more delicate but are suitable for the hand printing techniques used in traditional Japanese printing.

What is a Printing Press?

The 15th Century revolution in printmaking books is not only important in terms of the process itself but also the machinery that was invented at the same time. These are works of engineering and have gone through several iterations to match the printing processes as they were invented. The platen press was the first kid on the block, literally the woodcut block.

What is a Platen Press?

The first printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th Century and was made of wood. The mechanics of this press consisted of a frame that had a large block, the platen, that pressed down on a bed that held the woodcut with the paper face down on it. Pressure is exerted though a system of levers. These presses are classified as platen presses. In the 18th Century the cast iron platen press was introduced. The most famous of these was the ornate Columbian press made under franchise by different manufacturers in England and the U.S.A. throughout the 19th century.

What is an Etching Press?

For intaglio printing a different type of press is required as the pressure delivered by a platen will only take the ink from the top plane of the relief block. Intaglio needs a lot more pressure and this is achieved with a press using two rollers, one that sits under the press bed and another on top. The high pressure involved creates sufficient traction to draw the bed between the rollers, transporting the paper and printing plate through the rollers. The intense pressure is aided by felt blankets covering the paper and printing plate. This cushion helps press the paper into the etched, aquatint, carborundum textures, ensuring that a fully defined impression is created in the transferral of ink to paper. This pressure is also responsible for the emboss that you will see on many prints. Originally these etching presses were made of cast iron. Modern presses are fabricated with off the shelf square sections, sealed bearings, gear boxes and other pre-made parts but one manufacturer, Harry F Rochat in London still makes cast iron presses including working replica Columbian presses.

What is a Vacuum Press?

The vacuum press is a modern piece of equipment to aid the process of making large screen prints. This table has a surface with a grid of small holes trough which the suction of a vacuum grips the paper to prevent it moving as the squeegee is drawn over the screen. The table will also have a hinge unit that holds the screen in place so that it will always be in register to the paper underneath. It lifts to allow the placement of the paper. An arm above the screen is also part of the hinge assembly. It has a clamp to hold the squeegee.

How has the Printmaking Process moved with the times?

It is fair to say that fine art printmaking has followed technology trough the ages and it is the printing machinery that is a notable artefact in this history.

In more recent times the equipment is initially invented for use in an industrial and commercial context. The expensive nature of this equipment often means that it is beyond the reach of artists. At some stage this equipment becomes redundant, when surpassed by the latest technology. This equipment may then see a revival in the hands of the artist.

Repro cameras are one such example. Preceding digital methods, these were used to make the full size photographic positive used in offset lithography. The repro camera consists of a bellows lens facing downwards in a frame. It enlarges content on the bed underneath up onto a glass table were photosensitive litho film was placed for exposure. Because the repro camera follows the principles of depth of field you can place low profile objects on the bed and expose them to photographic positives.

How is Printing seen in a Digital Context?

With the advent of the personal computer and laser/inkjet printers a democratisation of technology that become affordable to many. The integration of digital printers, big, small. budget and high end, into the printmaking process has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the artist. Printmakers can output a final work from a large format printer (Giclée). Or, a transparency that gets transferred photomechanically to silk screen or plate for further work and manipulation, can form part of the process to produce the final work using traditional techniques.

Taking the digital path further, to the realms of the virtual and, in terms of distribution beyond the limited edition, we can see how online dissemination can deliver the visual through websites and streaming platforms.

It is telling that WordPress, one of the most popular online web publishing platforms, recently introduced a new block editor user interface for content editing. The project is named Gutenberg, after Johannes Gutenberg. Many of the concepts and the terminology used by the WordPress CMS (content management system) harks back to that of printmaking in the past. It uses modular blocks, text blocks and image blocks, akin to the idea of composing text and images on a woodcut block and later compositing in hot metal typesetting. The CMS also has an archive presenting the previous content in the form of news items, blog posts and other custom content in the form of directories, inventories, products and even the catalogues an of artist’s work.

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