Fine Art Printmaking
Woodcuts, Engraving, Etching, Lithography, Silkscreen

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Jane Avril Poster (1893) by
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Techniques, History, Printmakers

The fine art of printmaking is concerned with the production of images by varying methods of replication onto paper, parchment, fabric or other supports. The resulting fine prints (impressions), while not 'original' in the sense of a fine art painting or drawing, are considered nevertheless to be works of art in their own right, even though they exist in multiples. It remains to be seen whether the latest fine printing techniques alter this assessment.

Printmaking, which encompasses woodcuts, engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint, drypoint, lithography, screen-printing, digital prints and foil imaging is often a core component of fine-arts training courses, and today's printmakers are grounded in most of these print methods.


The Basic Printmaking Process

Prints are made from a single original plate or surface, called a 'matrix'. There are several different types of matrix, including: plates of metal, typically copper or zinc which are used for engravings or etchings; stone, which is used to make lithographs; wood blocks, employed for woodcuts; linoleum, used for linocuts; fabric plates, used in screen-printing, and others. Conventional fine prints are usually produced in limited edition sets, each print being numbered and signed by the artist.

For a list of terms related to
engraving, etching, lithography
woodblock, screenprinting and
other print forms, see:
Printmaking Glossary.

Important Examples

Elizabeth Taylor (c.1967)
Silkcreen print, by Andy Warhol.

Woman and Dog in front of Moon
(1936) Lithograph, by Joan Miro.

Tristesse du Roi, Lithograph, by
Henri Matisse.


There are three principal methods of printmaking, although there are several variations within each method.

(1) Relief printing. Here the background is cut down, leaving a raised image which takes the ink. Materials used in relief printing are usually wood and linoleum. To make a relief print, the raised area of the wood or lino is inked (leaving the background untouched) and paper is pressed onto it to receive the inked impression. Relief printing is used for woodcut, woodblock, engraving, linocut and metalcut. For a key application, see: Book Illustration.

For a list of important dates about
movements, styles, famous artists -
like painters and printmakers -
see: History of Art Timeline.

Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

For details of colleges who
offer educational courses on
etching, engraving, lithography
and screen-printing, see:
Best Art Schools.

(2) Intaglio printing (from the Italian 'intagliare' to engrave). In this process, a metal plate is used, and the selected image is either engraved into the metal with a tool known as a 'burin', or the plate is coated with a waxy acid-resistant substance called 'ground' upon which the design is drawn with a metal needle. The plate is then soaked in acid which eats into the areas exposed by the drawing to produce an image. Intaglio is used for engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint, chine-collé and drypoint. Intaglio uses the opposite process to woodcuts, in that the raised portions remain blank while the grooves or crevices are inked.

(3) Planographic (surface-printing). In this process, the entire matrix surface is involved, but some areas are treated to retain the ink. The best known example is lithography, during which the design is drawn onto the matrix (stone) with a greasy crayon. Ink is then applied to the whole surface, but adheres only to the grease marks of the drawing. Other surface printing methods include stencil printmaking - where the image or design is cut out and then printed by spraying ink or paint through the stencil. The planegraphic technique is also used for monotyping, digital prints, screen-printing and pochoir. The most famous exponent of this form of printmaking - in his case, screenprints - was Andy Warhol. For more, see Andy Warhol's Pop Art of the sixties and seventies.



Another print method is stencil-printing, from which silkscreen printing (serigraphy) is derived. In this process, a design is drawn directly onto the screen, and undrawn areas sealed with glue or varnish. Oil-based ink is then squeezed through the mesh of the silk screen onto paper. Alternative methods of transferring an image to silkscreen are the use of photo stencils. Andy Warhol (1928-87) popularized these techniques in his multiple portraits of 1960s celebrities.

Contemporary printmakers often use a combination of conventional and digital techniques as well as the use of digital printers and photographic equipment. The lastest type of digital fine art printmaking is Giclee Prints.

For details of other graphic arts, such as fine art photography, read about the Greatest Photographers (c.1880-present).


Following its invention by Chinese art many centuries previously, fine art printmaking became established during the German Renaissance (1430-1580), during the early period of the Northern Renaissance. Its leading exponents were the Old Masters Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Martin Schongauer (1448-91), Rembrandt (1606-69) and Goya (1746-1828). Technical and artistic developments which paved the way for new types of fine print, included the following.

The invention of the screw printing press in 1450, by the German Johann Gutenberg, along with an oil-based ink, metal prism matrices, punch-stamped typeface molds and a functional metal alloy to mold the type. Astonishingly, only minor improvements were made to Gutenberg's press design until about 1800.

1799, the invention of lithography (using a matrix of fine-grained limestone) by the Austrian printer Alois Senefelder.

1803, the invention of machine made paper (made from linen and cotton rags) by the Frenchman Nicholas Louis Robert.

1800s, the replacement of Gutenberg's wooden screw press with an iron framed lever press, by Lord Stanhope, and the appearance of Frederich Koenig's steam printing machine.

1840, the invention of the revolving perfecting press by American Richard March Hoe, (followed in 1846 by the first rotary press) and the manufacture of paper from wood pulp.

1859, the invention of photo-lithography by the French lithographer, Firmin Gillot, followed in 1872 by his son's invention of zincography, combining photography with etching.

Belle Epoque Poster Lithographs

1860s, the appearance of large numbers of Japanese prints in Europe attracted many famous painters of the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism movements into lithography, including Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Félix Vallotton and the American artist Mary Cassatt. Then, after Jules Cheret (1836-1932) invented his "three stone chromolithographic process", poster art suddenly became high fashion, especially in 1866, making low-cost colour posters a reality. Japonism and the arrival of colourful Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, plus the emergence of the Czech lithographer Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) gave a huge boost to Belle Epoque Art Nouveau chromolithography, as the functionalist designer Leonetto Cappiello (1875-1942) did for poster art in the years 1903-23. See: History of Poster Art.

Twentieth Century Printmakers

Pablo Picasso was the supreme exponent of contemporary graphic art. He produced over 1,000 prints, including etchings, engravings, drypoints, woodcuts, lithographs and linoleum cuts. Georges Braque produced numerous Cubist etchings, while Henri Matisse created a large number of lithographs as well as several outstanding line etchings and cutout prints. The French Expressionist Georges Rouault was noted for his Miserere et Guerre set of etchings. Marc Chagall produced a significant body of graphic art including illustrations of the Bible. The witty colour etchings of Joan Miro, as well as the collage prints of Max Ernst were also highly influential. In Britain, Henry Moore, and Graham Sutherland, as well as David Hockney, produced a wide range of printworks, while in the United States many members of the Pop-Art movement became active in printmaking. Examples of the latter, together with their specialities, are: Andy Warhol (screenprints), George Wesley Bellows (lithography), Edward Hopper, John Sloan and Reginald Marsh (etchings), Milton Avery (drypoint), Stuart Davis (colour lithography) and Ben Shahn, a particularly prolific printmaker who excelled in almost all print media.

Irish Printmakers

The 18th century artist James Malton (c.1760-1803) was the first great printmaker in Ireland, noted for his aquatint engravings of Dublin views. Other exponents of printmaking and graphic art in Ireland include: Patrick Hickey (1927-98) (etching/lithographical art), the Popartist Robert Ballagh (b.1943), and the etcher Hector McDonnell (b.1947), to name but three.

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