Printmaking is a vital and constantly evolving art form. It simultaneously embraces traditional skills, technological innovations, and the digital revolution. For many contemporary artists, printmaking forms a fundamental part of their practice. It offers the artist a means of material exploration that promotes a sense of play and risk taking, and its versatility encourages the development of imagery in new and exciting ways.
What is printmaking?
Printmaking is a process of creating art or imagery by transferring the image from a matrix onto a separate surface known as a substrate. The ‘matrix’ is the image or visual information that you want to print, which might be on a woodblock, an etching plate or silkscreen, or it might be a digital image.
This is largely true, although the processes involved can be exploited to take advantage of transformation and unpredictability through techniques such as monoprinting. Indeed, for some printmakers it is the randomness that certain print processes provide that makes it an exciting medium in which to explore and develop ideas.
In William Ivin’s classic work on the subject (Prints & Visual Communication, 1953) printmaking is defined as the ‘exactly repeatable pictorial statement’
Printmaking works by City Lit students in 202/23
Key concepts of Printmaking
The process of printing the image is called ‘transfer’. This is fundamental principle of printmaking. The visual statement is transferred from the matrix to the substrate.
Transfer might occur by means of pressure, as in the ink in the grooves of an etching plate transferring onto a sheet of paper as they go through an etching press together, or it might be via contact, such as when you press the flat surface of a cut and inked potato onto a piece of cloth.
In most processes involving transfer via direct contact, the image will be inverted (ie: a mirror-image of the original), although some presses can ‘offset’ the image, meaning that it comes out reading the same way as the matrix.
In William Ivin’s classic work on the subject (Prints & Visual Communication, 1953) printmaking is defined as the ‘exactly repeatable pictorial statement’. As you repeatedly ink up the same matrix and transfer the image via the press onto separate sheets of paper, you end up with multiple identical images. Hence, the exactly repeatable visual statement.
The idea of the multiple has been historically important. A convention of printmaking is that the artist can produce a number of copies of the same image and declare them as an ‘edition’. This is why you will usually see a number that looks like fraction, somewhere on a signed fine art print.
If you see ‘3/10’, for example, it means that this is the third of 10 prints pulled off the plate, before it was destroyed, resulting in an edition size of 10. Destroying the original matrix, or defacing it so that the image is obscured, means that no more copies can be produced from it. Thus, it is a ‘limited’ edition, and its rarity (and value) is assured.
Printmaking Techniques: The History of Printmaking
Woodcut and Intaglio
Wood cut, and intaglio printing (from the Italian ‘to engrave’), which developed in part out of the engraving of designs into jewellery and suits of armour, have histories going back several hundred years, and have been used by notable artists such as Durer, Rembrandt and Hokusai.
Inking and printing wood blocks or metal plates is generally a slow and laborious process, meaning that it takes a long time to produce a substantial number of prints. Nonetheless, these processes enabled the illustration of books, which were becoming commonplace following the invention of movable type in the west.
Many artists used the print edition as a means of disseminating their work and generating income. This can also be seen as a democratising process, allowing images to be mass-produced, to be seen far and wide, and made affordable to a far greater number of people.
As technological progress accelerated, printmaking processes likewise became more rapid. Lithography was invented at the end of the 18th Century by Alois Senefelder, and it is based on the principle of immiscibility of oil and water (which means that they don’t mix).
Originally on stone, and later on thin metal plates, the lithographic matrix could be produced by direct drawing, or by transfer via a press (offering the advantage of not having to draw the image or text in reverse, so that it comes out the right way on the print).
Lithography could generate prints at a much faster rate than earlier processes because the stone or plate simply had to be rolled with ink, sponged with water and then allowed to dry off before the print could be pulled.
Later, photolithography, where the image could be transferred onto photosensitive litho plates, became the standard process for commercial printing: books, newspapers, posters, packaging… and large commercial printing machines could produce thousands of prints each hour. In this sense, printmaking is inextricable in historical terms from the spread of knowledge, of propaganda, and of visual and written communications in the widest sense.
Examples of artists renowned for their lithography include Goya, Lautrec and Picasso.
Screen printing was originally developed in China, around a thousand years ago, but did not become commonplace in the west until it underwent development in the 20th century, in the USA. This is a process by which ink is pressed through a silkscreen to deposit colour in thin layers on the substrate, with the image matrix often provided by paper stencils or by photographic exposure of imagery onto a coating on the screen, prior to printing. This type of process is exemplified in the work of Andy Warhol, or Robert Rauschenberg. Or printed T-shirts.
Early digital publishing grew out of the print industry, and, since becoming the standard communication method, digital media has revolutionised printmaking, opening up extensive possibilities for fine artists in terms of imaging, processing and combining techniques.
Many printmakers integrate digital and traditional processes, while others are exclusively digital, outputting their images on fine art papers produced specifically for inkjet printing. The mass availability and affordability of computers and peripherals has had a further significant democratising effect, with many artists selling editions of their work online.
Printmaking has been an established art form in its own right for hundreds of years. In different parts of the world, printmaking has remained at the cutting edge of technology, from intaglio and relief processes, through lithography and screen printing, right up to date with direct to plate and digital print processes. Many artists produce finished print work in the form of limited editions, while others use traditional print processes to broaden their creative horizons, revealing new possibilities for their work in other forms, or to rapidly explore potentially unlimited variations through digital processes.
With the range of processes now available, and the opportunities presented for intervention and adaptation, printmaking opens up a near-limitless set of possibilities, not only for fine artists, but also for textile artists, book artists, designers… Anyone can feel confident to engage with printmaking, because it relies on step-by-step processes. This means that at any stage one has the opportunity to make changes that will affect the outcome. These can be highly controlled and intentional, or you can throw in a random element that will surprise you and take the work in new and unexpected directions. It’s an art form that encourages and rewards a spirit of playfulness and creative freedom.