What are Prints?

(Post 2 of 5)

“Prints, Prints, and more Prints” is currently running at the WCI Arts Center until October 13th.

Intaglio (pronounced in-TAL-ee-oh) printmaking is the opposite of relief. Artists carve grooves into copper or zinc plates to collect the ink, whereas in relief the ink sits on the unaltered surface and not in the grooves that are cut away. The matrix is inked liberally and then the unaltered surfaces are wiped clear. Dampened paper is commonly used as the substrate because the moist surface allows for it to be pressed into the grooves on the matrix more easily. The substrate is then placed against the plate into a printing press and pressure is applied causing the print to be created. Artists use various techniques to create the incisions on the surface of the plate, such as engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint or mezzotint. It is very common to use more than one technique in the same piece of work depending on the look the artisan is trying to achieve.

Engraving has been around the longest, originating in central and southern Europe during the 15th century. A V-grooved tool called a burin is used to cut designs into the metal surface. It is very difficult to master this technique and when etching was discovered as an alternative, engraving quickly lost favor.

Etching is a much easier skill to master than engraving. The metal plate is first covered with a resist, a wax or an acrylic ground. Using an etching needle, artists then scratch through the applied ground to expose the matrix. An etchant, typically nitric acid or ferric chloride, is then poured over the plate to “bite” into the metal. The acid leaves sunken lines in the plate which will be the vehicles for the ink once the remaining ground is removed.

Drypoint is a variation of engraving in which a sharp point is used to emboss the matrix. The line created by the sharp point leaves a soft, blurry line quality on the finished print rather than the defined line achieved in the typical engraving process. This technique is used for small print editions as the multiple pressings of the plate on the paper destroys the burr and line character from the scratched image. It is also used in conjunction with other techniques either at the beginning, to provide a light sketch before a complete engraving, or at the end of the process to give darker contrasts.

Acid is also used when creating an aquatint print. The resist, however, is a melted powdered rosin, which is cooked onto the plate. After curing the rosin can be scratched or burnished off to re-expose the metal. This technique is primarily used to create numerous tonal values through varying levels of acid exposure.

Mezzotint is unique in that the artist works from dark to light. The surface plate is roughened using a rocker, a small wheel covered with sharp points, to cut the burrs into the plate. The design is then created by smoothing out the roughened areas with a burnisher. This type of printmaking is also known for its deep, intense tonal contrast.

Today intaglio techniques are an ideal application for the printing of postage stamps and paper currency. It is very difficult to counterfeit intaglio printing as the thickness of ink is unique to this process.

Next time we’ll tackle planography.

What are Prints?

First post in a series of five articles on printmaking.

“Print, Prints and More Prints” is currently running at the WCI Art Center until October 13th.

Many people enjoy prints but what exactly is the process to create a print? Why are they so special?

Traditionally there are four main categories of Printmaking; Relief, Intaglio, Planographic, and Stencil (or Serigraphy). An additional type of printmaking, added in the last few decades, is called Giclée (pronounced zhee-clay). In the next couple weeks I will attempt to describe these techniques and imprint some new knowledge on the reader.

The oldest category of print making is relief, the process of taking a protruding surface of the block, or matrix, and applying an ink or coloring. The recessed areas remain unchanged. A substrate, most commonly paper, is then pressed onto the matrix creating the image. Woodcut, or woodblock, linocut, and metalcut are examples of the relief technique.

Originating as early as 5th century China, woodcut is the oldest relief technique used to transfer text, images or patterns onto paper or fabric. European and Japanese woodcuts appeared much later in the 15th Century. The print artist draws the desired image on a plank or block of wood and cuts out the areas that will not receive ink. The surface of the block is then inked and the paper is placed over the block. The block can be used with a printing press, hands, spoon, or a roller to transfer the image to the paper. If the finished piece is in color, there may be several different blocks created for the different colors, or a method reduction printing can be used.

Reduction printing describes the use of one block to create multiple layers of color. More and more of the block is cut away after each color is applied. Typically the artist will create more than one impression because once the next layer is cut into the block no more prints can then be made.

Linocut is similar to woodcut but the matrix relief surface is a sheet of linoleum rather than wood. Using linoleum for a printing technique dates back to the early 1900’s in Germany where it was used in printing wallpaper. This manmade material has no direction to its grain and is easier to cut into than wood, but it will also degrade faster from the pressure of printing. Linoleum can also be used in a reduction technique and was done by art masters Picasso and Matisse who helped bring the use of linocut into more popular favor.

In the next post we’ll delve into Intaglio Printmaking!

by Kate Michael-Mattsey