An Introduction to Fine Art Printmaking

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What is Fine Art Printmaking?

Linocut print
Linocut print - 'The Bathhouse Women', 1790s. Artist: Torii Kiyonaga. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The tradition of printmaking in fine art is centuries old, though not all printmaking techniques are that old. A print is an original artwork created using whatever medium(s) and technique(s) the artist has selected. A print is not a reproduction of an existing artwork or painting.

A painting, drawing, or sketch may be used as the starting point for the print, but the end result is something different. For example, an etching made of a painting, something commonly done before the invention of photography and color printing processes. Take a look at these etchings by Lucian Freud and Brice Marden and you'll quickly see how each is a unique piece of art. In traditional art printing, the printing plate is created by an artist by hand, inked and printed by hand (whether using a printing press or burnishing by hand, it's still a manual process, not computerized).

Why Bother with Printmaking, Why Not Just Paint? ​

It's a bit like the difference between bread and toast. While they're very similar, created from the same materials, each has its own characteristics and appeal. Printmaking techniques may use paper and inks, but the results are unique and the process from start to finish quite different to painting.

What About Giclée Prints? ​

Giclée prints are in a different category from fine art prints because they are reproductions of paintings, multiple versions of an existing painting for an artist to sell at a lower price. Though some of the conventions of printmaking are used by some artists for their giclée prints, such as the limiting the edition (how many prints are made) and signing the print at the bottom in pencil, they are reproductions created using an ink-jet printer from a scan or photo of a painting, not original artworks themselves.

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How to Sign an Art Print

How to sign a fine art print
The signatures on two etchings by the South African artist Pieter van der Westhuizen. The top is an artist's edition proof, the bottom is number 48 from an edition of 100. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Fine art printmaking has an established convention for how and where to sign, and what to use for your signature. It's done in pencil (not pen) close to the bottom edge of the print. The edition number is on the left, your signature on the right (plus the year, if you're adding one). If you're giving the print a title, this goes in the center, often in inverted commas. If the print bleeds off the edges of the paper, this is put on the back, or in the print somewhere.

A print is signed by the artist to indicate that it is approved, that it wasn't a trial print to check the plate, but the "real thing". A sharp pencil is used because this indents the fibers of the paper, making it difficult to erase or change.

Print editions are shown as a fraction, the bottom number being the total number of prints made and the top number being the individual number of that specific print. Once the size of an edition has been decided, more are not printed, as it would undermine the value of the others. You don't have to print the entire edition at one time, you can do a few and the rest later, provided you don't exceed the total you set. (If you do decide to create a second edition from a block, the convention is to add the Roman number II to the title or edition number. But it's frowned upon as it lessens the value of your first edition.)

The prints in an edition should be identical. The same paper, same colors (and tones), same order of printing multiple colors, same wiping of the ink, and so on. If you change a color, for instance, that will be a separate edition.

It's also conventional for the artist to make artist's proofs of the edition which they keep. Usually, it's no more than 10 percent of whatever the edition is (so two if the print edition were 20). These aren't numbered, but marked "proof", "artist's proof", or "AP".

Trial prints (TP) or working prints (WP) made to see how a block will print, to correct and refine it, are worth keeping as they show the development of a print. Annotate the print with notes of your thoughts and decisions, and it makes for an interesting record. (If you get famous enough, gallery curators will be very excited to find these!)

It's convention to cancel (deface) the printing block once all the prints have been done so no more can be made. This can be done by cutting a prominent line or cross on the printing block ​or drilling a hole in it. The artist then makes a couple of prints to create a record of the block having been destroyed, marked CP (cancellation proof).

Two other terms you may come across are BAT and HC. A print signed BAT (Bon à Tirer) is one which the printmaker has approved and is to be used by a master printer as the standard for printing an edition. The printer usually keeps it. HC or Hors de Commerce is a special edition of an existing print done for a special occasion, a commemorative edition.

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Printmaking Techniques: Monoprints and Monotypes

Illustrator Ben Killen Rosenberg uses monotypes. On his website he says his prints are "created by painting images on the surface of a plate and then transferring the image to paper using an etching press." Some prints he handcolors with watercolor. Photo © Ben Killen Rosenberg / Getty Images

The "mono" part of monoprint or monotype should give you a clue that these are printing techniques that produce one-off prints. The words tend to be used interchangeably, but The Printmaking Bible distinguishes between the terms thus:

A monotype is "a singular print created through an acknowledged process that can be learnt and replicated to gain similar effects with different images" and a monoprint is "a singular work that can be produced without the need to undergo a series of steps." 1

A monotype is created using a printing plate without any lines/texture on it; a unique image is made in the ink each time. A monoprint uses a printing plate with permanent elements to it, for instance, engraving lines. Although how you ink the plate produces different results, these permanent elements will appear in every print.

Call it whichever you will, the printing technique can basically be done in three ways, all of which involves either putting printing ink or paint on a non-porous surface (such as a piece of glass) and then applying pressure to transfer it to a sheet of paper. The first monoprint technique (trace monoprinting) is to roll out the ink or paint on the surface, gently place a sheet of paper on it, then press onto the sheet of paper to selectively transfer the ink to the paper and create the image by where and how you've applied pressure.

The second monoprint technique is very similar, except you create a design in the ink before you place the paper, then use a brayer (or spoon) on the back of the paper to transfer the ink. Use something absorbent such as a cotton swab (bud) to lift paint, or scratch into it with something hard such as brush handle (sgraffito).

The third monoprint technique is to create the image as you place the ink or paint on the surface, then use a brayer, back of a spoon, or printing press to transfer the image to the paper. For step-by-step demos of this technique, see How to Make a Monotype Print (very detailed demo was done using a water-based monotype paint, which is then encouraged to "lift" from the surface by having the paper damp, not dry) or How to Make a Monoprint in 7 Steps.

What Do You Need for Monoprints? ​

You've lots of options and should experiment to find what works best for you. Various types (and colors) of paper and whether it's totally dry or damp will give you different results, for starters. You can use printing inks (oil-based inks dry slower than water-based ones, giving you more working time), oil paint, slow-drying acrylic, or watercolor/tempera with damp paper.

I use a thickish piece of plastic "glass" from a picture frame for rolling out my ink. You want something that's easy to clean, smooth, and won't break if you apply pressure to it. You don't need a brayer (though it's fun to use), you can apply the ink/paint by brush for a monoprint, with any brushmarks in it giving texture to the print.​


1. The Printmaking Bible, Chronicle Books p368

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Printmaking Techniques: Collagraphs

Collagraph plates collograph plates
Left: A sealed collagraph plate. Right: The first print made from this plate, annotated in pencil. It was inked with a brush, using blue and black. The sisal string has produced a lovely texture, but the bubble wrap for the sky needed more careful inking. Photo © 2009 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Think "collage" when you think "collagraph" and you've got the key to this style of printmaking. A collagraph is a print made from a plate that's built up from anything you can stick down onto a base of cardboard or wood. (The word comes from the French, meaning to stick or glue.) The materials you use to create your collagraph plate create textures and shapes, while how you ink the plate adds tone to the print.

A collagraph can be printed as a relief (inking the top surfaces only) or intaglio (inking the recesses) or a combination. The method you use will influence what you use to create your collagraph as intaglio printing requires far more pressure. If something squashes under pressure, the result can be quite different to what you expected!

Once you've glued down the collage, seal it with varnish (or sealant, lacquer, shellac), unless you're only doing a few prints. Ideally, seal it on the front and the back, especially if it's on cardboard. This stops the cardboard from getting soggy when you're doing multiple prints.

If you're printing a collagraph without a press, be sure to place a scrap bit of clean paper and a layer of newsprint (or fabric/piece of foam) over the piece of paper you place on the plate to protect it. Then apply even pressure to make the print -- an easy way it is to place the "sandwich" on the floor, then use your body weight by standing on it.

When you're new to collagraphs, it's worth making notes on one print of what you'd used, to build up a record of what results you get from what. You may think you'll always remember, but it's unlikely.

The American artist Glen Alps is often credited with coining the term "collagraph" in the late 1950s, but it's not easy to pin down the development of this printmaking technique exactly. There's evidence French sculptor, Pierre Roche (1855-1922), and printmaker Rolf Nesch (1893-1975) experimented with layers on printing plates; that Edmond Casarella (1920-1996) produced prints with collaged cardboard in the late 1940s. By the 1950s collaged cardboard prints were part of the art world, especially in the USA.1

1. The Printmaking Bible, Chronicle Books p368