Printmaking has defined our visual world since the 1st century AD. First appearing in Han Dynasty China, the ability to efficiently reproduce images has influenced the visual landscape, giving us a wealth of printed media.
Everyone from artists to book publishers has participated in evolving the medium, which at its core sees various methods of moving ink from one surface to another. Today we’ll explore some of the most popular printmaking techniques and how they are achieved. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of art prints and their unique characteristics.
Woodcuts are one of the oldest and most influential printing styles. As George E. Woodberry writes in History of the Wood Engraving, woodcuts were one “of the great forces which were to transform mediaeval into modern life,” Woodcuts were first introduced in Han dynasty China. A subset of relief printmaking, woodcuts use negative space to form an image, eliminating any lines or shapes that you don’t want in the print.
To make a woodcut print, artists carve the image into the surface of a piece of wood with special knives, gauges and other tools. Next, the woodcut is coated with ink before a piece of paper is applied to the surface.
Finally, the inked block and paper are run through a press or weighted rollers to transfer the image onto the page. One characteristic of woodcuts prints is the wood grain texture left by the original block. Famous woodcut artists include Hokusai, a prolific Japanese artist known for his ukiyo-e or “floating world” prints that depict flowers, wrestlers, women, mountains, and other subjects rendered in flattened planes of colour.
Etched prints are primarily produced in black and white and are characterised by stark contrasts, fine detail and uses of colour to evoke emotion. Etched prints are made using a specialised needle or stylus, a metal plate, and wax. First, wax is used to cover the metal plate. Then the artist uses the stylus to scratch the image onto the plate.
The plate is then washed with acid, which absorbs into the exposed metal to create characteristic grooves. Once the acid and wax are removed, the plate can be coated with ink and run through the press, with the ink from the etched grooves transferring to the page to create the printed image. Famous woodcut artists include Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, best known for his works that question man’s psychology and humanity.
Linocuts share a similar method and graphic quality to woodcuts. A form of relief printmaking, linocut prints create images with fluid lines and flat planes of colour. Linocuts are made by cutting a negative image into a piece of linoleum. Invented by Frederick Walton in the mid-1800s, linoleum was mainly used for flooring and wallpaper.
Due to its smooth feel and lack of directional grain, artists began to see the benefits of creating prints from linoleum. Artists using traditional woodcutting tools found linoleum’s soft surface made carving much more accessible, even for beginners, and its slightly spongy surface left only a grainy texture behind.
German playwright Alois Senefelder accidentally invented lithograph printing in the 1800s. This colourful printing technique gained popularity in the nineteenth century from its prolific use in advertising. Lithographs are made by drawing an image on a lithographic limestone slab with oil-based crayon or ink.
Next, a mixture of gum arabic and acid is applied to the slab, fixing the drawing to the matrix and creating a layer that will absorb water and repel ink. After the solution has been wiped away, the slab is treated with water to ensure that ink only sticks to the lines of the drawing. Last, a paper substrate is added, and a flatbed press transfers the image. Multicolour lithographs are created when the paper is overlapped across stones with different colour inks to build a colour image.
Taking its roots in ancient China, screen printing is probably most recognised for its use in pop art by Andy Warhol. Screenprinting was initially used for adding colours and patterns to wallpaper and fabrics. Advertisers saw the commercial opportunities of screen printing and began using screen printed images for their campaigns.
Unlike other printing techniques, screen or silkscreen printing isn’t made directly from the surface of a block or plate. Instead, silkscreen images are produced with a mesh screen and stencils. The design is cut from a sheet of self-adhesive plastic film before adhering it to the bottom of a mesh screen topped with a piece of paper. Next, a squeegee pulls ink across the top of the screen to transfer the ink to the page. Screen printing allows for more detail to be added to the image when ink is bladed or smeared over the screen.
C-type printing developed in the 1930s as a colour photograph printing process. Popularised with products such as Kodak’s Kodacolor prints, ‘C-type’ was trademarked by Kodak for many years. Today, C-type printing is a term used for any colour photographic print produced using the chromogenic process.
C-type printing is made in a similar way to traditional photo development but uses specially coated silver-halide photographic paper. This special chromogenic paper has three unique layers, which create different primary colours when exposed to light. Today this process has been updated for digital printing, using lasers or LEDs to project and print the image onto the chromogenic paper.
One of the most popular types of modern print is giclée. First introduced in the 1990s by printmaker Jack Duganne, giclée prints offer high-resolution, accessible, art-quality prints. Giclée is a halftone printing process in which microscopic dots of ink are printed on specially treated paper to build colour and the final printed image.
By definition, giclée refers to a high-resolution image produced with pigment-based inks and archival paper on a professional wide-format inkjet printer. Known for their bright spectral colours and +100 year longevity, giclée is the go-to print type for contemporary artists.