Art Print Production Methods

Art Print Production Methods
Woodcuts, Engravings, Silkscreen, and Lithographs

The dictionary gives us, as one of the definitions of the word Print: ‘a copy made by printing’… In its simplest form, that serves its purpose… perhaps a better definition, for this appreciation-‘the reproduction of a work of art?’ It must be made clear that not all printings are works of art. What then is it that makes one superior than another? It maybe scarcity value or uniqueness, perhaps, method of reproduction, crafted by a well known artist, carver, or engraver… or its age, or subject.

Most valuable prints were crafted before WWII by exceptional artists and craftsmen and used for illustration purposes. That is not to say that more modern works are inferior but from a technical viewpoint they lack expertise, which came from a lifelong devotion to a particular skill.

It is a fairly modern process to produce prints as ‘fine art’. Previously they were subsidiary to the written word illustrating the story. In natural history books they were scientific pictures breaking down the subject into separate detail – as figures to study in books on flora and fauna.

The printing surface from: wooden blocks, levelled stones, metal plates and screens had to be capable of producing many reproductions. Each different printing surface and process, gives a different result and number. The choice left to aesthetic merit, cost and length of run – number of copies needed.

Even though some of the processes and results were made many hundreds of years ago they still represent remarkable work. Some of these ancient prints show an expertise impossible to emulate today. Books on Prints show illustrations made by famous artists known mostly for their paintings and drawings… Their work on prints made them even more unique and collectable.

Before the end of the nineteenth century the image was drawn, etched, and engraved in reverse because the print was taken ‘direct’ from the printing surface. Transferring the image to make it ‘right reading’ required an intermediary process - using a separate printing surface of onionskin or damp-proof transfer paper.

Relief printing/Woodcuts – the raised imageEdit

Early to middle 1400s: to produce 100 copies.

Woodcuts are probably the oldest method of printing – the application of ink to the saved image areas which are raised – the non-image areas being removed by carving out by knife, chisel, or special tool. The inked impression created by pressure to transfer the ink to the paper. This printing method has been traced back to the Chinese in AD.750, and the earliest book 868, the Diamond Sutra. As paper manufacture was developed many centuries before this – back to the second century, we can safely assume that transferring a printed image onto cloth or paper occurred roughly the same time.

Notes on Prints, by William M. Ivins, Jr., published in 1930, by, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gives: ‘as an appreciation of prints requires acquaintance not only with their pictorial composition but with their actual linear texture.’ This text cannot go that far but can give an appreciation and act as a guide to further study.

According to Paul Goldman, Prints, Drawings and Watercolours, published by British Museum in association with J. Paul Getty Museum: ‘printing from woodblocks was known in Europe as early as the twelfth century, but originally only for stamping designs on textiles’.

There are early woodcuts of the German School made in the late XV century - show printed pictures of playing cards and sacred pictures. The outline drawing was printed in black and the colour content hand painted later. Many of these line blocks were made-up into the forme at the same time the moveable type was set. This was not always the case. The majority of books at this time had their illustration inserted – as separate sheets - dropped in.

It is given that Johannas Gensfleish – known as Gutenberg, 1397 – 1468, invented moveable type in about 1454. It was with this invention that he printed his famous bible… Woodcuts were produced not only to produce black and white line drawings but to give a guide to later colourization - before insertion into the book. William Caxton went to France between 1469 and 1471 to study this method of producing copies. Whilst there, he made a translation of a Latin text, into English, which he proceeded to print in Bruges, for sale in England. He died in 1491, having printed a hundred books. These were printed in Ecclesiastical typeface called ‘black letter’. At this time there were only two types on font and arrangements of type, Ecclesiastical and Classical Roman – ‘white letter’. Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht illustrated the first type-printed book containing pictorial illustrations in 1486.

England, in the early 1500s, was still far behind current working practices on the continent, particularly in central Europe. The previous century was a period of plague ending with greater powers for those that survived. Thereafter taxes and wars made the population more concerned about survival that developing new ides of education and learning.

The dissolution of the monasteries in the middle of the 1500s brought about a redistribution of wealth land. Not long afterwards new discoveries were made overseas… the navy was enlarged not only to protect shipping but to ward against the growing threat of Catholism. The spirit of adventure to seek out new horizons stimulated greater trade and commerce. The expansion brought about a desire for more comfortable living standards and hygiene, new schools and universities open their gates to provide the teaching of humanities and science. Greater knowledge was sought which in turn promoted the writing and manufacture of books. These early books were printed on vellum and we can see today the devotion the craftsmen used to produce such works of art. Many had line drawings and gaps left to insert scripts for purchasers to employ their own artist to paint in the colour and illuminate the capitals. Their hand skills and methods of page planning set a standard and gave us many of the printing and typographical terms used today.

Later, as better production methods and techniques employed more copies became available. Multi colour printing was achieved by carving special blocks – one for each colour. These were printed one top of each other in register – a process known as chiaroscuro – a popular process in Italy and Germany in the sixteenth century. More hand presses were built to cope with the demand. The printing presses changed little over the first three hundred years. The press was made out of wood and pressure applied to the paper covering the forme by pulling on a bar acting on a screw. The first all metal press was designed by Lord Stanhope in 1800. His invention operated a number of levers which applied greater pressure on the platen enabling a larger sheet size to be used.


This process was introduced on the Continent at the beginning of the twentieth century and became very popular in the 1920s in particular by Claude Flight 1881 – 1955, in his writings published as: The Art and Craft of Lino Cutting and Printing, London, 1934.

There are a variety of textures that can be adopted. Light inking and light pressure will give a granular effect. The surface of the lino can be cut, scraped, and scratched. Course sand paper will give another granular effect. The use of rabbit glue and whitening used to cover the surface then combed through - will give minute ridges and a brushed effect.


Similar process to Woodcuts developed in the eighteenth century. A very hard wood is used which is cut across the grain. The tool used is called a burin the handle held against the palm, the blade pushed into the wood making a clean incision. The wood-engraver is able to produce far more detailed work leaving the printing surface raised by cutting closely cut lines below the printing surface leaving the black, inked - raised portion, to print. Thomas Bewick, 1753 – 1828, History of Birds 1797, was the first great exponent as a book illustrator.

Copperplate EngravingsEdit

The sunken intaglio image: devised middle to late 1400s. - to print two hundred copies.

The next improvement in the printing processes, which gave a finer line and therefore greater detail, was engraving. Engraving battle armour was an embellishment – declared the standing of the wearer. This engraving was a skill began many years before printing was discovered but pointed he way to an engraving process using particular tools and devices. However, the earliest copy made by taking an impression from an engraved metal plate was, believed to be, shortly after Gutenberg’s invention. Pre-1450, metal plates were cut, stamped, and punched, to produce a sunken non-image area, allowing the surface to become the raised image and to print. This method was known as Metal point. Colour could be added to the print by hand, after printing the black, which was known as the key. However, it was not only labour intensive but crude and lacking in detail.

The engraving process began in Italy then moved to France via Germany. After the 1700s, printmakers gave preference to the technique of etching. Copperplate engraving never again achieved such a high standard of artistry and skill displayed by that marvellous era. Albrecht Durer, 1471 – 1528, is attributed to be the finest exponent of German engraving. His early work represents Gothic work, later Renaissance. This partly explains why his work holds such a fascination to experts for his artistry included other methods of printmaking.

Steel engraving began in England in 1820. Being a harder metal longer runs could be expected for book illustrations, stamps, and banknotes. It was rarely used for small print runs therefore not adopted for art prints.

Using a steel point, a ‘graver’ in a similar manner to drawing with a pencil, a line is scratched into the surface of the polished metal plate. This action tended to produce a feathered edge to the printed line, which during the course of the print run wore away. This burr often scraped away from the engraved line sharpened the image, in some cases the method was used to reduce the thickness of the line – to make a finer line. The incised lines are then filled with ink which when printed by pressure pulls out of the recesses. The only problem with both engravings and etchings was how to incorporate the typematter, which could be only produced by the letterpress raised image. The prints could only be inserted after the wording printed increasing costs.

Copper plates, being a softer metal, allow a freer drawing technique. The engraver does not have to use such force to make an impression in the softer metal. This shows in the display of fine detail. Copper has another added benefit in that the metal is not corrosive. It is possible for book illustrators to use more than one printing technique to reach a particular result. When this happens even experts find it difficult to recognise how the print has been achieved.

Dry point, 1480Edit

This art form for printmaking was discovered at the same time as copperplate engraving, using all the same materials except the engraving tool which was replaced by a needle. The difference between the graver and the needle was that the former pared metal from the plate whilst the latter indented the metal – pressing and forcing the metal to form a burr. This burr caused ink to be held either side of the engraved line which tends to multiply the image giving a softer tone appearance to the print. Unfortunately, the burr wears away which make each copy lighter and unique. The action of scraping away the burr by the engraver lightens and sharpens the line. There are a number of special tools the printmaker uses to speed up the work– that give him a graded tonal range.

Line EtchingsEdit

This is also an intaglio printing process which produces an image on the paper by drawing out the ink from recessed cells or lines. The highly cleansed metal plate – to remove any trace of grease, is coated with ‘ground’ made up of wax and bitumen that is rubbed, rolled, or dabbed onto the warmed metal plate to form a perfectly even coat. The metal printing plate can be made of copper, brass, steel, zinc, or in later years electroplated. The choice id dictated by the quality of the print required and the length of the print run. This coated plate was blackened using the smuts from lighted tapers then cooled by the back of the plate being placed under a stream of cold water.

A tracing previously made from the original turned over and retraced onto the face of the plate without penetrating the ground. This Keyline drawing is the guide for the engraver to draw with his needle, and various other tools, the lines and crosshatchings necessary to reproduce the picture. When completed the whole completed plate is placed in a bath of a suitable mordant, depending on which metal plate used, so the corrosive acid eats into the scratched - clean metal lines. The depth of the etched cell is determined by the length of time spent in the acid bath and the acid’s strength.

Mezzotints 1640sEdit

To speed up the process of trying to make a tonal effect Mezzotinting was created in 1642. It is a method similar to engraving but using a rotating roughening tool. The grain, or tone, was made with a rocker tool or circular grainer, looked like a series of small circular saws held on a spindle. This tool wheeled across, or rocked across the plate, attempted to give an even uniform grain like a stippling medium. The roughened surface was blackened with printer’s ink. By scraping away the tops of the roughened surface a tonal range produced. The effect when printed looked like crayon work – a randomed, grained effect, called working in the crayon manner, and invented in 1757. M W Turner, 1775 – 1851, ‘the most applauded exponent of the mezzotinter’s art’, although David Lucas 1802 – 1881, gave the art form its last and most brilliant flare’, according to William Ivins.

Aquatints, 1760Edit

Aquatints, or grain etching, use an acid mordant to create a cell or recessed line. This method of print making was most popular in France where it was invented – as a way of imitating watercolours. The main object behind all these processes is to make a continuous tone effect which is similar to a photographic print, but in a drawn style suitable for the originator to achieve his imagined design. Linking aquatints and line etching was a favourite printmaking method to achieve an artistic drawing.

Aquatinting does not make a mechanical dot formation by a screen for the shading is random and featureless, with soft edges to the linked specks. As in all printmaking a number of printings in register, using different plates, one for each colour, produces a coloured reproduction – where the ink is sucked out of the lines and cells. The process of laying on a ground and etching continues until the required effect is achieved. There are any number of methods using different metal plates, gounds, tools and acids. The selection is made by the engraver depending on the result required. There were two methods of creating a ground. One consisted of a wax resin powder attached to the plate by heat. The other uses an aqueous sugar solution as the stopping agent – applied to the non-image areas. A varnish coat then laid to the whole plate. When immersed in water the sugar lifts leaving the varnish to protect the plate. Aquatints were popular before and during the Victorian era a great many such prints were made of hunting scenes and sporting events – all for book plates.


Surface, or Chemical Printing

Lithography: Greek lithos stone + graphein to write… a printing process discovered by chance. Alois Senefelder, 1771 – 1834, in Prague, Bohemia, wished to copy some music. He had all the necessary equipment and tools ready to create an engraved copy, including an ink mixing slab - made out of a cut, and smoothed, Kelheim limestone – four inches thick. Wishing to jot down a list, wrote on the slab - in ink. Later, wishing to wash off the ink, discovered that even though his cloth was damp the writing refused to be removed. The more he tried, getting some of the ink on the damp cloth in the process, found that this ink transferred back – re-inked the script… The damped stone, having absorbed the water from the cloth, did the reverse - rejected the ink. This gave him the idea: if an image could be inked without touching the non-image areas, by placing a piece of paper in contact with the inked image… a copy could be made by transference…

From the late 1700s, commercial lithographic printing produced coloured reproductions cheaper and easier than letterpress. The reproductions were also closer to the original. To achieve a first class reproduction ten or more colours were printed on top of each other in register. The lithographic stones gradually began to be replaced by grained zinc plates just after WWI. Shortly afterward a rotary press was invented which allowed the metal plate to be wrapped around the cylinder. Both the stone and the plate produced a copy ‘direct’ – from the printing surface to the paper. The image was then in reverse which meant that the artist had to draw the image backwards to achieve a right reading copy. The invention of the rotary press allowed ‘offset’ lithography to be achieved - using a second machine cylinder to hold a rubber blanket. When the rubber blanket accepts the inked impression from the printing plate it transfers the ink to the paper… this process allows the artists plate or stone to be drawn ‘right reading’. Both the grained stone and metal plate retains water – the stone absorbs water and the grained plate traps the water in the grain. The grain allows a greasy black crayon, or ink, to be used to copy the original, making the reproduction closer to the artist original artwork. Out of all the reproduction processes drawn lithography reproduces pencil sketches, crayon, charcoal perfectly – in a free sketched manner, liberated… by treating the printing surface like paper or canvas. Using stone instead of a metal plate gives the artist greater control, the surface grain can be smoother. Mistakes and special effects can be scraped, jumped, and engraved, and the surface reground.

Screen printingEdit

Using a stencil

This reproduction method was originated in the Far East, mainly in Japan, to decorate silk before the Christian era. This process adopted for a similar use at the turn of the twentieth century by western manufacturers. In the 1920s screen printing began to be used for advertising. Eventually its flexibility and versatility made it the third biggest printing medium. Its prints on all surfaces from bottles to street signs.

The process requires a frame to hold the stencil. It must be flat and sufficiently strong and ridged so that it holds its shape. A polyamide or silk gauze stretched across the frame and stapled to the bottom or outer side whilst keeping it taut. The transparent gauze stretched over the frame is varnished but only on the frame edge to prevent the gauze fraying. A traced keyline drawing taken from the original is laid under the screen to form an accurate guide to the stencil maker. There are a number of methods used to produce a stencil: The gauze is drawn on with a wax crayon and then the whole screen covered with a water soluble size that attaches itself to the screen but not the greasy image – which rejects it. The crayon drawing is then removed with turpentine which exposes the screen. In the second method the gauze is covered with cellulose which gives a hard edge to the work…, or a stencil is cut out from a thermoplastic sheet, that is welded onto the screen with a hot iron The third method, a photo stencil techniques is used using a light sensitive layer covering the gauze, that becomes hardened to light.

To make a screen print, a small amount of ink is poured into the tipped up frame. By lowering the frame horizontally onto the substrate… a squeegee draws the ink over the screen, forces the ink through the gauze onto the printed surface - transferring a flat layer of ink. The thickness of the ink layer leaves the image area slightly raised. Screen printing relies upon being able to print on any surface whether flat or round giving a perfectly flat opaque finish.

Recognition of Screen PrintingEdit

This is the perfect medium for the aspiring printmaker for it is relatively cheap to set up the process. They are obvious to the collector showing broad areas of flat colour which is slightly raised on the surface giving no fine detail. It takes a lot of skill to get the best out of the process and its unique form… making sure multiple printing is registered perfectly.


Aloys Senefelder: A Complete Course of Lithography, published, 1818. William M Ivins, Jr. Notes on Prints: published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1930. Graham Hudson’s The Victorian Printer: published by Shire Publications Limited, 1996. Paul Goldman’s Looking at Prints, Drawings, and Watercolours, published by the British Museum in association with the J Paul Getty Museum, LA. Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: published by the British Museum Publications, 1980.Looks Great But How Do You Print It, and Other People’s Jobs, two articles from the British Printer. The Craft of Woodcuts by John R Biggs, published by Blandford Press Ltd., 1963, reprinted by Jarrold and Sons Ltd, 1968.


  • Terence Kearey
Last modified on 30 September 2010, at 13:45