what is a print?

We make prints by transferring a substance (ink, paint, pencil…) from one surface to another. Think of a thumbprint. You push your thumb on an ink pad, then press it on a piece of paper. That’s a relief print!

There are four main ways in which we transfer ink: intaglio, lithography, relief printing, and stencils, which I describe in the print processes section on page two.
Most prints start with an image or text that we carve, draw, paint, or transfer onto a plate, stone, or screen (the print matrix).
To make a print, we…

  1. Ink the matrix
  2. Align the printing paper (or fabric, or fur, etc.) to the matrix
  3. Press the matrix and paper together by hand or with a press. This transfers the ink to the paper.

Each kind of printmaking can make more than one print. Some processes create just a few good prints before the matrix degrades. Some can be used to print hundreds of prints. So, the number of prints in an edition (group of prints) depends on which processes and presses the printer uses as well as how many prints the artist wants to make.
What we printmakers want you to know is that we make artistic decisions at every step of the printing process. That’s why we call our prints “original prints” or “handmade prints” in an effort to distinguish our work from “limited edition prints”, which are reproductions of artworks, usually made in other medias. How can you tell which is which? Ask for the print documentation. Or just start talking with the artist about the processes involved.
Here’s an introductory video about printmaking: What is a Print? by MOMA
Here’s a site that describes some basics about printmaking: International Fine Print Dealers Association Basics
And here’s a site that discusses original prints vs limited edition prints, as well as different print processes: Bill Wheeler’s Studio 1617 – What is an Original Print?

how is a print made?

It takes me about seven steps to make a print once I’ve settled on an image:
Wedding Party by Heather Page, monoprint aquatint on paper, 11.25 inches x 15 inches
Most of my prints are in color.
To create a multi-color print, I can put all of the colors on one plate like I did with Wedding Party above, but that takes a really long time to ink each print.
Printing goes much faster if the colors are separated, or broken down into basic colors.
Daily Dose by Heather Page. Silk screen on vellum, 24 inches x 18 inches One way to separate colors is to give every color its own plate, like I did with Daily Dose to the right.
The advantage to this method is that it’s easy to separate the colors and each color prints just like I planned. The disadvantage is the number of plates I have to prepare and print. Daily Dose is made up of eleven colors, which means that I printed on each piece of vellum eleven times.
Queen's Lace by Heather Page, wood relief on paper, 15 inches by 15 inchesThe method I usually use is optical mixing, which is the overlapping of transparent colors to make new colors.
In Queen’s Lace, above, I overlapped the prints from three plates to make seven colors. You can see the plates and prints below in Step 4.
CMYK printing uses just four colors–cyan, magenta, yellow, and black– to create every color imaginable. That’s how reproductions are made as well as a lot of original prints.

Key block for Women's Work and Queen's Lace by Heather Page, woodburned and carved cherry, 16 inches x 16 inchesOnce I’ve figured out how I want to separate my colors, I make a key block. This is usually the plate that gets printed last in the darkest color and has the most detail on it.
I work on this block first because the key block image also tends to hit all the important areas of the print, so it will act as a guide for figuring out where the other colors should go.
Above is the key block for Queen’s Lace
Key block proof for Queen's Lace, wood relief print on newsprint, 15 inches x 15 inchesWhen I’m done making the key block, I’ll print it to see what it looks like. This is called a working proof.
I’ll make some adjustments, print the plate again, and when I like what I have, I’ll print a proof onto my other plates using a registration method to make sure the images are all in the same place on each plate.
Above is the key block proof for Queen’s Lace.
Now I go back to the color separation sketch I made when I first started so that I can see where each color goes.
Using the key block print as a guide, I make a plate for each color like you see below. You can still see parts of the key block guide on the middle and bottom plates.

Now I get to explore color and print materials by making some proofs on the papers I’m thinking of using in the final edition. These prints are called Color Trial Proofs (CTP’s).
Sometimes I know exactly which colors I want to print and only need to tweak the color temperature a little bit (lemon yellow vs sun yellow).
Sometimes I try printing the colors I used in my sketch and they look awful, so I have to do more proofs.
And sometimes I get carried away with color exploration and the CTP’s become monoprints, because they aren’t heading toward an edition and they are all different, as you can see below.

Once I’ve settled on a proof that I like, I can begin editioning. An edition is a group of identical or nearly identical prints pulled from the same plates printed in the same sequence.
There are standard editions, varied editions, and split editions, all of which can be limited (numbered) or unlimited. Check out the editions section below for more information on the different types of editions.
Making Editions
I print editions in a couple of different ways:

  1. By color
    • I edition lithographs, relief prints, and silk screen prints by color, meaning that I print the first color on all of my sheets of printing paper for an edition, then move on to the second color, then the third, etc.
    • Here’s a video of Phylecia Sunderland editioning a print on her letterpress (skip to 1:00): The Letterpress Process | By Phylecia Letterpress Boutique
  2. By print
    • Intaglio editioning is different. In order to print an intaglio print, I have to soften my printing paper so that it will stretch into the crevices of the printing plate.
      To soften the paper, I soak it in water and then blot it dry. Softened paper elongates when it goes through the press and then shrinks again when it dries, which can make aligning the images on multiple plates tricky.
      Therefore I ink all of my intaglio plates first and then print one after the other on one sheet of paper to make a print. I then place the print between boards so that it dries flat and start inking the plates all over again to make the next print.
    • Here’s a video of Mark Lunning of Open Press in Denver printing a two color relief plate with chine collé: Ken Elliott: Printing a two color etching with Chine Collé
Curating a print involves tearing off registration tabs, cleaning up its margins, signing and numbering it.
This is also when I decide which prints will go in the edition, which prints will be marked as proofs, and which are rejects.
Here’s a video of Tom Killion explaining the steps he goes through to make a multi-block relief print: Woodcut artist Tom Killion explains process
And here’s a blog post about multi-block letterpress printing, color overlapping, and registration by Kim Bentley & Kyle Van Horn of Baltimore Print Studios: The Printing Process: Letterpress Printing