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Printmaking knows two groups of techniques: relief printing and intaglio printing.

In relief printmaking, everything that is not meant to be printed is cut away. The raised surface is then inked/painted and then the print is produced by some kind of a pressing process.

The intaglio printmaking technique works the opposite way. A line is incised into the surface with various tools or with acid. Then the whole plate is coated with ink. After the plate was wiped clean, the ink remains only in the incised areas. The print is produced by pressing a dampened paper against the plate. The intaglio printmaking techniques are engraving, drypoint, etching, aquatint, stipple, mezzotint and are discussed in part two of this article.

Engraving is the oldest and most common of the intaglio techniques. Lines are cut into a metal plate using a tool called burin or graver. After the process of incising lines has been finished, the plate is inked. Then the surface of the plate is cleaned and only the ink in the incised lines is left. A dampened paper is put on the plate. With the paper being pressed firmly against the plate, it absorbs the ink left in the lines.

In the beginning copper plates were used. This technique required a professional engraver with skills that could be acquired only in a long apprenticeship. The disadvantage of the use of copper was the limited number of impressions. Like for a woodcut, hardly more than 2000 or 3000 impressions could be obtained from one plate. This changed drastically with the invention of steel plates by Thomas Lupton in 1822. Now the number of impressions was nearly unlimited.

For etchings the plate is first covered with an acid-resistant wax or resin ground. Then the image is incised into the wax or resin layer with an etching needle. Finally the plate is dipped into acid. The acid bites into the exposed lines where the wax or resin was removed. These acid-bitten areas hold the ink. It is one of the very old techniques dating back to the fourteenth century when it was used to apply decorations on armor. Rembrandt in the middle of the seventeenth century pushed the etching technique to new heights.


For the drypoint technique, the lines of the image are scratched directly into a plate with a sharp needle called the drypoint needle. Where treated with the needle, rough metal edges are thrown up, the so-called burr. This burr holds the ink very well. Different from engraving, this burr is not removed before the printing process. The drypoint technique typically produces prints with irregular, more fuzzy lines. For the plates, tin or copper is the preferred material for the drypoint technique. From a commercial point of view, drypoint has the disadvantage of a fast wear of the plates.

Pablo Picaso, Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman, 1933, drypoint, from the edition of 303, 11 5/8 x 14 1/2 inches (29.6 x 36.7 cm), San Diego Museum of Art, CA.

Mezzotint is another intaglio technique. It was invented by Ludwig van Siegen, a German soldier, around 1642. Later it was improved by Abraham Blooteling and became were popular in England and was sometimes called la maniere anglaise. For the mezzotint print, the surface is completely marked with a dense network of lines. For this process, a tool called a rocker is used. When a print is drawn at this stage, it would show a rich black only. Therefore in the next step, the plate is smoothed in the areas where the artist wants the color to print in a lighter tone or not at all.

Mezzotint requires high skills as the working process goes from dark to light. It is an ideal technique for creating shadowed areas and different tonal qualities. It therefore was particularly used for portraits.

Published by Alexander Browne(1659-1706), Sir Peter Lely, mezzotint


Aquatint is a special form of etching. It is created by etching sections rather than lines of a plate. First a porous ground of powdered or melted resin or asphalt or a similar ground is dusted onto the plate. Next the plate is heated from below and as a result the applied dusty coat adheres to the metal and is acid-resistant. The acid is spread over the plate and bites into the tiny holes left in the coating. Similar to mezzotint, aquatint is a technique to produce prints with the effect of printing rather whole areas than just lines. Typical for acquatint are the finely dotted areas.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (O Sonho da Razao Produz Monstros), 1796-1797, first edition, number 43 from the series "Los Caprichos", aquatint.


A stipple print is created from a metal plate upon which the design has been produced using different sized small dots grouped together in order to create areas of continuous tone. The technique of stipple goes back to the fifteenth century.

Woodcut is the oldest method of printmaking. A fine example are Japanese woodcut prints. For woodcuts the design is drawn on a wooden board. Then everything that shall remain unpainted, is cut away with the use of a knife or a tool called gouge. Next the board is covered with the ink/paint. The final print is produced by pressing the paper firmly against the block - using a roller or some kind of a press. To achieve prints in several colors, several boards were used - one for each color. The whole process of producing a woodcut, usually was achieved by three different persons: the artist who made the design, the wood cutter and the printer.

Wood engraving is a special form of a woodcut. The end grain of a very hard wood is used and the cuts into the wood are made along the grain. This technique allows finer lines and details than the normal woodcut. Besides, because of the harder wood, more impressions were possible from one block.

The gravers or burins used to work the block are similar to those used to engrave a copper or steel plate, but instead of producing lines that will print, they are used to produce non-printing lines. It is the uncut surface that takes the ink and prints.

One of the finest examples for woodcuts are from Albrecht Dürer.

The linocut is based on the same technique as the woodcut. Because of the softer material of the linoleum (or rubber might be used), a linocut is easier to produce than a woodcut. Picasso used this technique and developed it into his very own style: He produced multi-color prints by not using several linoleum plates, but by cutting away more and more from one plate. At the end, the process could not be reproduced because the original plate was gone.


Lithography was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder. He used the technique to print sheet music. One year later, Senefelder even had it patented in Munich. The name comes from the Greek word lithos which means stone. The technique is based on the fact, that water and grease do not like each other. The design is drawn on a special, flat stone (limestone) or on a metal plate with a greasy water-repellant substance (greased crayon or a greasy ink called tusche). Then the stone was dampened with water and inked. The ink is absorbed by the greasy parts only. To enhance this effect, the plate can be treated with a chemical fluid after drawing the image. Afterwards a print can be produced by putting the plate in a press. Like for the woodcut, several plates - one for each color - are used to produce a color lithograph print. A colored lithograph is called a chromolithograph.
In later years, the stone plate was more and more replaced by the use of zinc plates. Examples of early artists who used this technique, are Goya, Gericault and Delacroix. But until the late 19th and the 20th century it was more seen as a technique for producing commercial printing stuff like advertising posters. Lithography took an upswing with artists like Toulouse-Lautrec or Marc Chagall.

Toulouse-Lautrec Henri, Elles, Lithography

Silk screen is the same as Screenprinting. Another expressions is serigraphy or stencil printing. There are many variations to this technique. What they have in common, is the use of a screen and a stencil. The screen can be made of silk or nylon. The stencil is suspended to the bottom of the screen. For modern printing the stencil can be replaced by a method of photoprinting. The print is produced by applying ink/color across the screen. The whole image is produced by using several screens with specific stencils - one for each color. A famous example for a silk screen print is Andy Warhol's popular print series of Marilyn Monroe from 1967.