Print Terms and Techniques

There are three key groups of printing techniques: Relief, Intaglio and Planographic.

Relief Techniques

A relief image is printed from the portion of a block of rigid material that remains above areas which are cut out, or from materials added to a flat surface. Printing is done either by rubbing the back side of a piece of paper placed on the inked surface of the block, or by running both paper and block through a press.

In this process, dating back to medieval times, the artist draws a design directly on a flat block of wood (usually cut on the side grain). Using a gouge or sharp knife, the cutter (sometimes but not necessarily the artist) then cuts away everything but the lines and areas of the image. The design, which is to be inked and printed thus, stands in relief. Woodcut flourished in the sixteenth century when it was commonly employed for book illustration and embellishment.

Chiaroscuro Woodcut
A chiaroscuro woodcut is a colour woodcut with a different block for each colour, suggesting the effect of a tonal drawing.

Wood Engraving
A relief print made from a plank of wood cut on the end grain and hard enough to permit greater fineness and complexity of execution than found in a woodcut. In a wood engraving, it is often the drawing on the block, rather than the surrounding areas of wood, which is cut away and scooped out. When the block is inked and printed, its surface, rather than that of the engraved design, touches the paper and transfers ink to the sheet, producing white lines on a black background. Wood engraving was widely used in the nineteenth century for book and magazine illustrations.

Relief Etching
A name sometimes given to a print from a metal plate produced by etching away all but the design. The artist executes a design on the plate with an acid resisting varnish. The plate is then put in an acid bath until enough of the exposed parts are eaten away to bring out the design in relief. The plate is then printed like a woodcut.

Intaglio Techniques

The image, in intaglio printing, is produced by grooves and any other altered areas below the surface of a metal plate. Copper and zinc are the usual materials for the plates. Ink introduced into the grooves and cleaned from the original surface of the plate will print when plate and dampened paper are run through a press under extreme pressure. Normally the plate is smaller than the paper and its impression, called the platemark, remains on the paper. When a limited edition of impressions has been printed, the plate is usually cancelled by being defaced with cross-hatching to ensure it cannot be reprinted.

A sharply pointed instrument called a burin or graver is pushed into the plate to execute the design. Acting like a plough moving into the earth, the burin forces metal shavings to either side of the furrowed lines. Usually these shavings, called burr, are scraped from the plate before printing. An engraved line can be distinguished by the fact that it tends to swell towards its middle and taper to a fine point at both ends. It has a sharp clean appearance.

Copper was the usual material of the plate until the early nineteenth century, producing several hundred impressions of an image with varying degrees of clarity. After 1821, with the introduction of steel plates, many more high quality impressions were possible due to the durability of the material. Steel engravings became common in both illustrations and larger artistic reproductions of paintings.

The image is scratched out of the copper surface with a very finely pointed instrument, which creates a heavily burred line. The line is shallower than the engraved line but its burr is more distinct. The burr is not scraped away. It catches ink and, when printed, creates lines of velvety richness. Because the burr wears down quickly, only a very limited number of good impressions can be pulled.

The plate is first covered with an acid-resistant substance, usually wax. The artist then takes a finely pointed needle and draws the design through the wax, but does not cut into the metal surface. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath. The acid eats (or bites) into the plate only in those areas not protected by the wax. The length of time the plate remains in the acid bath determines the depth of the etched lines. These lines tend to be even in width throughout their length. Unlike engraved lines, they do not taper but are rather square at the ends. Since the artist can draw freely in the resinous ground, the etched line had a more spontaneous quality than the engraved line, which is harder and more precise in appearance.

Soft-Ground Etching
In this eighteenth century varient of etching, the plate is covered with a mixture of wax and suet. Over this the artist stretches a piece of thin paper, then draws the composition on it with a pencil. Wherever the pencil touches the paper, it presses it down into the soft ground so that the ground sticks to the paper. When the paper is peeled from the plate, it takes with it the ground, which adhered to it. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath as above. The resulting image is very close to the original drawing.

Stipple Engraving
This technique uses a small hammer head covered with tiny points to punch holes in the wax layer (or in some cases directly on the plate). Like soft-ground etching, stipple engraving is very close to the original drawing, and is used to mimic chalk or pastel.

Aquatint is a technique that was developed in England in the 1770's. The medium of aquatint is related to etching in that it is an acid based process, but concerned with areas of tone rather than line. The plate is covered with bitumen dust or resin; the effects desired determine the coarseness of the grain. The plate is then heated so that the bitumen particles adhere to the copper, protecting the plate when it is immersed in the acid bath. The acid bites the copper that is exposed between the bitumen deposits, creating a tonal effect reminiscent of a watercolour wash. The longer the biting the darker the tonal areas will print. Areas not to be etched can be protected (stopped out ) with a stopping out varnish.

The surface of a copper plate is roughened all over with a fine toothed tool with a half round cutting edge known as a rocker. If a print were made from the plate at this stage, it would appear uniformly black. The image is created by smoothing or burnishing areas to create lighter tones. The smooth areas do not hold ink and therefore print white. The mezzotint process is based upon creating gradations of tones in the image from dark to light. Mezzotint was developed in the mid-seventeenth century.

Planographic Techniques

In planographic prints the image to be printed is created upon the surface of a stone or plate, which is altered chemically rather than dimensionally. The stone or plate is inked, covered with paper, and printed on a flatbed press. Plates made in this manner may also be printed on an offset press.

Lithography, Which was discovered in 1798, involves the printing of an image from a flat surface. The technique relies on the principle that oil and water repel each other. Traditionally employing a limestone slab which has been roughened or smoothed according to the effects desired, the lithographer draws directly on the surface with a greasy crayon or with a brush and a liquid ink called tusche. Drawings for the lithographs can also be made on specially treated zinc or aluminum plates (hence zincography and algraphy).

After the drawing is completed, the stone is washed with a solution of nitric acid and gum arabic. This process called "etching" the stone, produces a chemical separation between printing (image) and non-printing (non-image) areas. The grease from the crayon or tusche is liberated into the pores of the stone and the non-printing areas become desensitized, so that they do not attract grease.

When the stone is to be printed, it is first washed with water. The non-printing areas attract and retain the water. Printing ink is then applied to the stone with a roller. The greasy areas, which represent the printing image, attract and hold the ink. Because of the mutually repellent nature of grease and water, the ink does not adhere to those areas covered with a film of water. After inking, the stone, placed upward on the bed of the press, is covered with a sheet of dampened paper and run through the press. The printed image reverses the composition as drawn on the stone.

Since they are printed from a flat surface, the line in a lithograph are neither raised, as in intaglio processes, nor pressed into the paper, as in relief processes. Consequently lithographs do not normally have plate marks.

Chromolithographs developed towards the middle of the nineteenth century, are lithographs printed in colour. In this technique each colour was printed from a different stone, as a single stone could satisfactorily print only a single colour. As many as twenty stones could be prepared in order to produce a single plate.

Stencil Techniques

The image is created from an open space in a cut or shaped form, which allows the ink or paint to pass through when applied with a brush (for pochoir), or squeegee or airbrush (for silkscreen). Prints of this nature are characterized by broad, flat areas of colour.

Stencils cut in paper or very thin sheets of metal, invented in China, were used to colour popular prints in quantity in Europe from the Fifteenth century on. From the old stencil process was developed the silkscreen printing method. In France around the 1920's, the pochoir process was popularized by expert craftsman, J Saude, as a reproductive medium for illustrating books.

Silkscreen (Serigraphy)
The artist stretches a piece of fine silk over a wooden frame and then glues a design in the form of a stencil to the fabric. Paint (or silkscreen ink) is then forced through the screen onto a sheet of paper below by means of a squeegee. The uncovered areas of fabric will, of course, allow the paint to pass through, while the areas covered by the cut stencil will not.

Text Below the Image

If there are two names below a print, the convention is that the name on the left is that of the original artist from whose drawing the print was prepared, whilst that on the right is the craftsman who has created the printed image. Other words often accompany these names in order to specify the type of print, however they were commonly misused and cannot be relied upon as absolute.

Some of the more common terms referring to the original artist or draughtsman:

Del., delt., delin., delineavit: drew or designed.
In., inc., invt., inventit, inventor: invented, inventor, or designed.
Pinx., pinxt., pinxit: painted.
Desig., designavit: designed.

Some terms referring to the engraver or etcher, the craftsman who created the printed image:

f., fec., fect., fecit., fac., faciebat: made by or did.
Aquatinta fecit: engraved in aquatint by.
Lith., litho., lithog: lithographed by.
Sc., sculp., sculpsit., sculpt: carved or engraved.
Exc., exct., excudit: struck out or made.


The date identifies when the printing surface (e.g. the plate) was produced. In most cases this is also when the print was printed. Prints taken long after the printing surface was created are known as late impressions or re-strikes.


The number od states refers to the number of times the artist altered the printing surface. An image that had been modified several times exists in several corresponding versions or states.


Until the late nineteenth century prints were neither routinely signed nor numbered, nor in most cases were edition sizes ever recorded. The convention now is for each print to be numbered in series, shown with the total number of the edition (e.g. 64/100). In many cases there are additional impressions reserved for the artist and collaborators, identified by various abbreviations.


Mention of colour is only made when a print is printed in two or more colours, or a single colour other than black. Before chromolithography few prints were actually printed in colour. For the most part colour was added by hand, either before the print was issued or much later. Where a colour print has additional colouring it is decribed as having been finished by hand. Colour added at a later date is called later hand colouring.


Paper is often identified by its manufacturer's name, which appears as a watermark, a design in the paper easily seen by holding the sheet against the light. The type of paper can also be determined. The main categories are:

Laid: One of the oldest types of paper, characterised by faint horizontal and vertical lines.

Wove: Invented in the mid eighteenth century, wove has an even density, without the lines shown in laid.

Japan: A fibrous paper, often characterised by a faint surface lustre.

Chine: A thin, very fine paper. Because of its inherent fragility, chine is often laid on studier paper for support. This combination is known as chine applique.

Deckle edge: The edge of certain papers has a thinner, uneven finish. Far from being a defect, this is a sign that the sheet has not been trimmed.