Fine Art Techniques: Printmaking Basics

Printmaking Basics

While most types of artwork are known for being single pieces that can never be replicated in exact detail, printmaking is a type of art that utilizes the ability to create multiple copies of a piece of art. The emphasis is on the design, not the variety of surfaces that it is applied to. Typically, printmaking uses a some kind of ink or paint to make the design on a surface whether it be paper, cloth, or another medium. Printmaking can be divided into four basic categories: relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil. Relief printmaking is one of the simplest types of printmaking, in which material is carved or taken away from around the protruding design that is to be printed so that only the design appears. Intaglio printmaking is the reverse of relief printmaking, in that the design is carved in a way to hold the ink, and then printed that way. Planographic is unlike the last two in which the design is printed from a flat surface. Stenciling involves cutting the design out of a thin material and then printing the design by rubbing or spraying paint around the areas that are cut out.


Woodcuts are some of the oldest types of relief printmaking. The design is carved from wood and then printed from the raised surface. Woodcuts also refer to the prints made from a woodcut design.


Engraving is an old method of intaglio printmaking that involves carving the metal to create the design. Artists had to spend years learning how to reproduce high quality designs without making mistakes. This was an especially difficult method for artists to master, and soon gave way to etching.


Etching is also an old type of intaglio printmaking. In this process, a strong acid or mordant is used to dissolve away parts of the metal surface that were unprotected. This created the design, and became a much simpler method for artists to utilize.


Lithography was a one of the first planographic methods used. A flat stone or metal plate is used, and some kind of ink resistant material is used to create the non-image portion of the design. Then it is inked and pressed to a surface to create the image.


Screenprinting or serigraphy is a type of stenciling that involves designing an image and then applying the paint or ink through a screen which is typically called a silk screen. The stenciled image blocks the ink on the other side to create the image.


Monotypes are a unique type of printmaking, in that while reprinting is possible, there is usually only one acceptable printing, that being the first one. Paint or ink is applied to a smooth surface such as cooper or glass, and then through a printing press, the image is pressed to a sheet of paper. Most of the paint or ink is removed during the first pressing, so prints after the first are considered “ghost prints”.


Monotypes and monoprints are very similar and often used interchangeably, but there is a specific difference between the two. While monotypes use a smooth surface, monoprints can use a woodcut, lithography plates, or even etched plates. The way they are painted or inked makes the print unique, which is why monoprints also usually only produce one acceptable image.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is a type of printmaking that takes a digital image and prints it onto a surface (paper, cloth, etc.). This type of printmaking is commonly seen in laser or ink jet printers. This method has become extremely efficient in modern times, as the digital file acts as the printing plate, therefore saving time and money. Although the quality may be lacking sometimes due to a corruption in the file or the ability of the printer, adjustments are constantly being made to improve digital printing.

Foil Imaging

Foil imaging is a more recently developed type of printmaking. Using the same process as commercial foil stamping, foil imaging creates unique prints using colored foil. Foil imaging can be used alongside more standard forms of printmaking like relief, intaglio, lithography, and stenciling.

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