There are all sorts of ways we can make prints, but they generally boil down to four ways to transfer the ink: intaglio, lithography, relief printing, and stencils.
We make intaglio prints from textured plates that we have wiped with ink–meaning that we’ve pushed the ink into the plate’s crevices and wiped its surface clean.
To print the plate, we place it on an etching press and align a piece of softened paper (paper that’s been soaked in water and blotted) on top. We place backing papers and a set of wool blankets on top of the paper and crank the pile through the press. The press pushes the blankets and the softened paper down into the printing plate, transferring the ink and the texture of the plate to the paper, making a mirror image of the plate.
Aquatints, collagraphs, drypoints, engravings, etchings, mezzotints, and even relief blocks can be printed in intaglio. Beeline, above, is printed from three etched steel plates and one engraved wood block.
Here’s a video of Alfons Bytautas of Edinburgh Printmakers, Scotland demonstrating different types of intaglio platemaking methods as well as how a print is made: Etching at Edinburgh Printmakers
We make lithographs from stones, grained metal plates, and polyester plates.
Lithography is a chemical process that happens on the surface of the stone or plate (the matrix). We use water-repellant materials like greasy crayons to create the image and then treat the rest of the matrix with cellulose gums and acids to make the non-image areas attract water.
To ink a lithograph, we moisten the surface of the stone or plate with a sponge and then roll over it with a greasy ink. The ink sticks to the image, but is repelled from the rest of the matrix.
To make a print, we place the stone or plate on a lithographic press and align a piece of paper to it. We then place backing paper and a plastic sheet called a tympan on top, spread some grease on the tympan to make it slide, and crank the pile through the press. The pressure transfers the ink to the paper, making a physically flat mirror image of the matrix.
Madrid, above, is a five plate lithograph made from photographic and hand-drawn metal plates.
Here’s a video of Phil Sanders of Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York, New York discussing the lithographic process: Pressure + Ink: Lithography Process
Relief printing is printing the surface of an object, so pretty much anything can be a relief plate. We can print objects, flat cut-out shapes, as well as printing plates that we’ve carved, collaged, etched, etc.
To ink a relief plate, we can roll ink over the surface, paint ink on the surface, or push the plate into the ink.
Relief prints don’t tend to need as much pressure as intaglio and lithographic prints to transfer the ink. We can print them by hand, on etching presses, lithographic press, and letterpresses. And we can print them face up or down. When the printing paper is under the block, the print tends to have less texture to it. When the paper is on top of the block, much of the plate’s texture can transfer to the paper, along with the ink.
Women’s Work, above, was printed by hand on pink gingham from one woodburned and carved wood block, two silk screens, and a nicely scarred worktable.
Here’s a video on relief printing by Phil Sanders of Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York, New York: Pressure + Ink: Relief Process
A stencil is something that blocks ink from reaching the thing we’re printing on–paper, fabric, a wall…
Stencils can stand alone, such as a design cut into a sheet of plastic, or be affixed to a mesh, like a silk screen or Japanese stencil, to allow for greater detail in the image.
We can print stand-alone stencils in a few of different ways:
Silk screen stencils can be more intricate than stand-alone stencils because the mesh of the screen holds the image together. Stencils can be cut out of paper and then stuck to a screen, hand-drawn or painted directly on a screen, or exposed on a screen using a photosensitive emulsion.
To print a silk screen, we usually start by fastening it to a printing table. Sometimes we use hinges and sometimes the screen fits into brackets on the table. We lift the screen and align our printing paper (or fabric, etc.) face-up underneath it. We also coat the screen with ink using a squeegee while the screen is up. This is called flooding the screen. We then lower the screen onto the paper and squeegee ink through the mesh with a little force. The ink squeezes through any part of the mesh that’s left uncovered, transferring a flat image onto the paper that faces the same way as the screen.
Daily Dose, above, is an eleven color silk screen print on vellum.
Here’s a video of Jimmy Nguyen making a silk screen at Supergraphic Studio in Durham, North Carolina: Screen Printing Basics
In addition, all of the above techniques for transferring ink can be used to make the following kinds of prints:
Monotypes and monoprints are unique prints. We can make them using just one or a combination of the techniques mentioned above.
We make monotypes by drawing or painting on a surface (usually something non-porous like a blank printing plate or a piece of mylar) and then transferring the artwork to another surface with pressure.
XII/Twelve, to the left, is a monotype that started as a water soluble crayon drawing of fall leaves on Plexiglas. I printed multiple layers of thin ink washes on top of the transferred drawing and finished the piece with some drawing on top.
Here’s a video on monotype printing with Susan Rostow: Monotype Printing with Akua Inks
We make monoprints when we include a printing plate or screen in a work of art. Monoprints can be prints that we draw on, thus making them unique. They can be created mostly through monotyping or mostly with printing plates.
L’Électrisation du Nuage, to the left, is a monoprint that began as a fragment of a silver-gilded relief print glued to a wood panel. I silk screened lichens in a variety of reds over the relief print and collaged digital prints of lichens on top. I then woodburned the digital print designs into the panel and finished with a little drawing and painting.
Every kind of print plate or screen can be made photographically.
Almost all of the photographic methods we use start with what we call a transparency–an opaque image on a translucent sheet, like a negative. Unlike a negative, our transparency images must be the same size as the print. Transparencies can be hand-drawn, printed digitally, or created photographically. We can also just place objects directly on a photosensitive plate.
To the left is the transparency I used to make the key block for High Peeks. It’s a digital print on frosted mylar.
To transfer the image to a plate, we place a transparency face down on a photosensitive plate or screen and expose the two to ultraviolet light.
The simplest way to do this would be to put a piece of glass on top of the transparency and plate and stick the pile in the sun. Most of us, however, use an exposure unit, which vacuums out the air between the transparency and the plate (thus making the image sharper) and shines a bright, consistent light over the plate.
After we expose the plate, we develop it. Positive photo plates end up with an inking area that looks just like the transparency image, like the Solarplate to the right, which is the key block for High Peeks. Negative photo plates end up with an inking area that is the opposite of what is on the transparency.
Some photographic processes don’t need a transparency.
Laser engravers and CNC routers work from digital image files like computer printers. We can use the former to make relief and intaglio plates and the latter to make relief plates.
To the left is one of the laser-engraved blocks I used to make Rondo.
Below are videos showing how we use photographic techniques in a range of print media:
Polyester lithographic plates can be printed on laser printers from digital image files.
To the right are polyester plates I used to create Aubade.
- Intaglio—Demo by Dan Welden Solarplate with master printmaker Dan Welden
- Lithography–Demo by Alastair Clark of Edinburgh Printmakers in Edinburgh, Scotland: Plate Lithography at Edinburgh Printmakers
- Relief—Demo by Jim Escalante and students of University of Wisconsin-Madison: PhotoPolymer for use in Letterpress Printing
- Silk screen–Demo by Jimmy Nguyen of Supergraphic Studio in Durham, North Carolina: Screen Printing Basics
There are also some techniques that I commonly add to prints, but aren’t print types themselves:
À la poupée (to the doll in French) is inking a printing plate, usually intaglio, in more than one color at a time. The poupée is the little ball of tarlatan we use to wipe each color into the plate.
Wedding Party, to the left, is an aquatint in four colors printed from one etched zinc plate.
Here’s a video of a printer wiping a plate à la poupée: Inking and wiping of Julie Mehretu’s “Unclosed” at Crown Point Press
Chine collé is collaging and printing at the same time. The collage papers are usually thin and add color and/or texture to a print.
We cover the collage paper in glue, place it on an inked plate glue side up, then place the printing paper on top, and run the pile through the press.
I / Twelve, to the left, has a piece of kinwashi (a thin asian paper with fibers scattered over it) glued over the top portion of the print. I/Twelve is a monotype created with watercolor crayons, oil-based inks, chine collé, and some drawing on top.
Here’s a video of Mark Lunning of Open Press in Denver printing with chine collé: Ken Elliott: Printing a two color etching with chine collé
Gilding is the application of very thin sheets of metal to a surface. I use gold, silver, aluminum, brass, and copper leaf (the sheets of gilding) in my work. The leaf is so thin that it will float away if there are any air currents in the studio while I’m gilding.
The kind of gilding I do is called oil gilding, which means that I use a special adhesive to stick the leaf to my paper.
Leaf is really fragile. If I touch it, the texture and oil of my fingertips will mar it. If I breathe too hard, it will skitter away. If I brush it too hard while sticking it down, I’ll rip it. So, after I apply the adhesive to the paper I’m gilding, I don cotton gloves and go into what I call “zen mode”—a slow, methodical dance–while I gild.
The dance involves sliding a sheet of leaf onto my gloved palm and floating it over to where I want it. I then gently tap the leaf in place with a clean brush. As the adhesive dries, I go over the leaf I’ve placed again to make sure it’s completely adhered, and then burnish it once the adhesive has dried.
I like that gilding my papers makes them incredibly strong, that the metals reflect the colors around them, and that they react to their environment. Con Fuoco, above, is a monoprint made by gilding a sheet of mulberry in copper, printing a relief plate over the top in a clear ink, and then leaving the print in the acid room at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The exposed copper leaf reacted to the acid gasses in the room, turning the metal the darker copper color you see above. I then stopped the reaction by coating the entire print with gloss medium.
Here’s a video from www.gildedplanet.com on oil gilding: How to gold leaf, silver leaf and metal leaf with 3 hour oil size
We make a rubbing by placing something hard and textured (in my case, a carved relief block) under a piece of thin paper and then rubbing drawing material like a crayon or a pencil over the paper. The drawing material picks up the high points of the object, making an image on the paper that faces the same way as the image or pattern on the object.
The darker copper color you see on Aubade, to the left, is a crayon rubbing over a large relief block. In addition to the rubbing, there are spots of relief printing on the front side of Aubade and a large relief print on its back made by printing the burnt wood from a set of laser-engraved plates.
Here’s a video from TJ Johnson on making a graphite rubbing of a leaf: Texture Rubbing Tip
Grattage (from the French verb gratter, meaning to scratch) is a technique that involves scratching away layers to reveal what’s underneath.
In my case, I start by coating a sheet of gilded mulberry paper with a mixture of various waxes, ink, paint, and pigments. The gilding makes the paper nearly indestructible and makes it easier to scrape away the wax.
Next, I place a relief block under the paper and then carefully scrape away the wax with a razor blade. Any raised areas on the plate (including wood grain) get scraped away, leaving the parts of the plate that I’ve carved out.
The resulting image sits on the surface of the paper and displays the texture of the wax coating (I like leaving brush marks in my wax). It also faces the same way as the plate, unlike most print processes, and is considered a multiple, but not a print.
The wax grattage on Fantasie is all of the black areas you see in the image above. Fantasie is a monoprint on aluminum-gilded mulberry made with wax grattage, rubbing, relief printing, drawing, and painting.
Here’s a brief explanation of grattage and a little of its history: Modernist Encaustic: The Art & Science of Encaustic
Woodburning, also known as pyrography, is a method of drawing, cutting, and gouging using a heated metallic tool.
The tip of the tool is interchangeable and comes in a variety of shapes, which make a range of different marks.
I use woodburning in my work both as a way to create texture on the surface of my pieces, as in L’Électrisation du Nuage to the right, and to carve or gouge my relief plates, as in the key block for Queen’s Lace to the left.
Here’s a video from TreelineUSA about woodburning pens and the marks they make: Razertip Wood Burning Basics from TreelineUSA.com
An edition is a group of identical or nearly identical prints pulled from the same plates printed in the same sequence.
One set of printing plates may be used to print more than one kind of edition, which should be noted in the documentation that comes with a print. Likewise, the type and number of proofs made from the plates should be noted on the print documentation. Why is this important? It affects the price of the print. Less prints = a higher price.
Types of editions:
As I mentioned above, there might be a second group of prints made from the same plates, usually numbered with roman numerals. Sometimes this denotes a restrike (the edition sold out and they made more). Sometimes this marks a split edition (see below).
A varied edition is a group of prints made from all of the same printing plates in the same order with slight variations. Variations may be in color…or maybe the artist tweaked a plate a little while printing…or there are bits of chine collé thrown in, etc.
Beeline is a varied edition. Even in these thumbnails, you can see the range in inking.
Sometimes the artist likes two different palettes for the print and editions both. Other times, the artist likes two different papers so much that she editions both. Me, I push it a bit and tend to do both, plus add a print layer.
Lichens is a split edition.
This is from the regular edition, which I made for a portfolio exchange.
This is from the other edition, which I played with a little more. I varied the range of tones in the inks and also used a variety of papers–some handmade, some already printed.
My Parlour Games series share a set of silk screen stencils and a limited palette:
Les Fleurs de Givre
La Pluie Fantôme