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.