Types of Printmaking

Printing methods: a basic guide

The embodiment of the artist’s idea is bound up with whatever printing method has been chosen. That is to say that the form of the image is determined by the method of printing, as seen by the clear differences between for example a linocut and an etching.

There are three basic types of printing methods: relief, intaglio and planographic.

Relief Printing

Essentially a process of cutting away material to leave a proud surface, which is inked to produce the finished image. The pressure required to impress the image on paper is less than that for etchings and drypoints, so in addition to the use of purpose built presses, a good result can also be achieved by hand using a flat-surfaced Japanese burnishing tool called a baren, or even the back of a wooden spoon.

Linocuts, wood cuts and wood engravings are all forms of relief prints.


Made using high quality linoleum; the design is cut using v and u shaped gouges. Strong linear and graphic images are typical characteristics of this medium. This is probably the most widely used printing method, as the material is not difficult to cut, and you don’t need the high pressure presses used for etchings and drypoints. While relatively accessible to the novice, artists such as Edward Bawden, Robert Tavener and Michael Kirkman have demonstrated that the medium can be used to create truly outstanding works of art.


Made with wood cut along the grain, using knives and gouges. Small details are seldom featured, as it is difficult to cut across the grain; the strength of the medium is the power of pure line and crisp edges.

Wood engraving

Made using the fine, end-grain blocks of hard boxwood. The artist cuts into the harder end-grain block of the wood, so it can be cut with more delicate and precise tools than the knives and gouges used for woodcuts, giving greater detail and more sinuous lines. The images are generally small, due to the nature of end-grain blocks.


Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare – to carve or inscribe. All intaglio prints are made by making marks into the surface of a plate, then forcing ink into these marks and wiping off the excess; dampened paper is then placed over the plate, which is then passed through a high pressure etching press. The pressure exerted forces the ink out of the plate, onto the paper; the uptake of ink is enhanced by dampening the paper.

Etching and drypoint are two intaglio methods.


Etchings are made by drawing with an etching needle – a finely pointed instrument – on a metal plate that has been coated with a layer of waxy ground. The plate is then immersed in acid, which goes into the drawing lines and incises them into the plate. After the plate is removed from the acid, the ground is removed and the plate is inked and printed on a high-pressure printing press that forces the dampened paper into the tiny grooves. In this way the paper picks up the ink and the images transferred to the paper. The metals used for the plate are usually copper, zinc or steel.


So called because no etching agent (acid) is involved in making the mark. Instead, a graving tool (sharp metal instrument) is used to scratch lines into the surface of the plate. The sharp point throws up a furrow, or burr, either side of the mark, which holds more ink than a regular etched line, and gives a soft velvety line, with slightly uneven tones either side. Most drypoints are issued in small editions of no more than 10 -15 as the drypoint burr does not last long, under pressure from the press. The plates are usually made of copper, zinc, steel and aluminium, although acetate or Perspex can also be used, with the advantages of being inexpensive and easier to use.

Planographic printing

The general term for printing manually from a flat surface, neither raised like a relief nor incised like an intaglio. It usually refers to lithography or screenprinting.


This method is based on the natural antipathy of grease and water. In a fine art context, an image is drawn with a greasy medium onto the surface of a smooth, level plate, traditionally limestone although aluminium is widely used today. The plate is treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic, etching the portions of the stone which were not protected by the grease-based image. When the stone is subsequently moistened, these etched areas retained water; an oil-based ink is then applied and is repelled by the water, sticking only to the original drawing. The ink is finally transferred to a blank paper sheet, producing a printed page.

One of the more technically complex printing methods, it is not uncommon for artists to collaborate with skilled print technicians and/or specialist print studios. Paula Rego for example, worked with the pioneering artist/printmaker Stanley Jones at the Curwen Studio to create the Jane Eyre series of lithographs, published in 2003.

Screenprinting (Also known as silkscreen and serigraphy)

A printing technique that uses a woven mesh to support an ink-blocking stencil to receive a desired image. A fill blade or squeegee is moved across the screen stencil, forcing or pumping ink through the mesh openings to create an image onto paper. The process is also used to make images on T-shirts, stickers, vinyl, wood, and other materials. Screen printed images are characterised by being sharp edged, and in bright strong colours; only screenprinting can put one colour over another, for complete coverage.

 And just in case you didn’t know …

Giclée is a term used to describe the process of creating digital reproductions of pictures. These can often be very well printed and on decent quality paper, but essentially are digital prints made by ink-jet printers. Just replace giclée with ink-jet, and there shouldn’t be any confusion with artist’s original prints. As a matter of interest, although giclée is just French for sprayed, it is a term seldom actually used in France, as it also has sexual slang connotations.