The term ‘original print’ refers to an individual artwork created by pressing a painted surface, such as an inked metal plate, woodblock or stencil, against paper. Contemporary print artists use a range of techniques, from traditional metal plate etching, woodcut and screenprinting, to modern digital imaging.
Relief printing is the oldest printing process, first used in China in around 800 AD. By cutting pieces away from a surface like wood or linoleum, the artist creates an image using the surface that remains, which is then inked and transferred to paper or textile by applying light pressure.
Linocut, woodcut, wood engraving are all relief printing process using different materials, and often different chisels and gouges.
Image © Women’s Studio Workshop
Developed in the 16th Century and used by artists such as Rembrandt, Goya and Durer, intaglio processes involve an image being cut or etched into a metal place, typically copper, but also zinc, aluminium and steel. Ink is pressed into the recesses of the etched metal plate, and the plate is then pressed onto dampened paper using a printing press. Intaglio prints can often (but not always) be identified by their single dark colour, and by the indentation mark the plate leaves around the image.
The intaglio processes lend themselves to anything from fine line work to deeply textured and embossed images. Artists will often use a combination of these techniques in one print.
Etching, Drypoint, Embossing are all intaglio processes.
Image © Women’s Studio Workshop
Popularised in the 1960s by Pop Artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, screenprinting is associated with bold, graphic images and a smooth finish. It is a form of stencil printing, achieved by forcing ink through a fine mesh material, traditionally silk, which is why it is sometimes referred to as ‘silkscreen printing’. Currently, the use of synthetic materials such as polyester is more common.
In screenprinting, fabric is stretched tightly onto a wooden frame and then covered with a light-sensitive emulsion. The image or shape, either as a cut-out or as a shape printed on a transparent sheet, is placed on top. The uncovered emulsion will harden due to light exposure, and then the liquid emulsion protected by the cut-out is washed off, creating a stencil. The frame is then laid flat against paper or fabric and ink is forced through the mesh using a ‘squeegee’ (a rubber blade).
A multicoloured image is built up using subsequent layers, and each area of colour must be printed separately using a different screen, meaning the more colours there are in a screenprint, the more complex the process.
Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1796. It became popular with French artists including Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s, before going on to be used widely by artists in the 20th century.
Lithography is based on the mutual repulsion of grease and water. It starts by drawing an image onto a grease sensitive surface (such as polished limestone, metal plates) using a greasy crayon or liquid tusch. Once the stone or plate has been dampened, ink is applied, but will only stick to the greasy image. The print is then made from transferring the ink to the paper.
Lithography can be identified for its painterly marks and a softer look, with the colour often transparent.
Image © Marc Wathieu
Since the 1990s, artists have experimented digital technology. Amongst other things, digital technologies have inspired new ways of making prints, but debates regarding the definition of an ‘original’ digital print are ongoing.
A digital print is currently considered an original print if the image was created with the sole purpose of being made as a print, in multiples. It cannot be a copy of another artwork, such as a painting, drawing or other original print, as this would define it as a reproduction.
In digital print, the artist begins by creating or manipulating images using drawing, painting or photographic computer software. Photographs, drawings and found objects can be scanned and used as the basis for the image. The final artwork is a digital file containing all the data necessary for the print. The digital image is printed out on fine-art grade paper using high-quality pigment inks to ensure it will not fade, and the advent of large format digital printers has enabled artists to experiment with scale.
Digital technologies can also interact with traditional printmaking processes, such as the preparation of plates for screenprinting or photo etching, by acting as laser and engraving tools.
Collagraphy originates from the 19th century and is a process that involves collaging and often gluing together a range of materials to form a ’printing plate’. During the early 20th century, artists like Picasso, Klee and Braque started to use found object in their artwork. That inspired printmakers to use an even broader range of material including textiles, metal and sand, and experiments with collagraphy grew as materials like acrylic and MDF became available.
Monotype is a one-of-a-kind print made by creating a plate through painting onto a smooth, non-absorbent surface such as glass or perspex, and then pressing paper against the painted image. There may be multiple plates if the artist is creating different layers of colour or detail, but there will only be one final artwork.
Often confused with monotype, monoprint refers to a series of prints that share the same printing plate, but are each unique due to different ways of inking the plate, and other variables.