What is a print

Many people are very confused by prints; seeing a print on the wall they do not quite understand what they are looking at. The purpose of this section of the website is to clarify this confusion.

Much of the problem is due to the word 'print' itself. It can refer to a mechanically created reproduction of a painting or drawing, such as is sold in many museum shops; it can refer to a photographic image. It can even refer to something totally non visual such as the print on the page of a book. In art terms, however, it means an image created on a piece of paper by an artist where the actual creation of the work uses the mechanics of a printing press and one of a variety of techniques (which are briefly described in the drop-down list to the right of this page).

In essence, when an artist decides to draw a work using one of the print techniques it is the same as when he decides to use painting or drawing direct onto a canvas or paper. Only the actual 'method' of the image-making is different. The work created is an original work of art by the artist in the same way as a drawing; the only difference is that the nature of the technique allows for the image to be created more than once, i.e. in an edition. There is a close parallel between an artist's prints and the work of a sculptor who casts his images in bronze. It is usual for him to make more than one cast, but each is seen as an original sculpture.

When artists use printmaking to make images in this way their works are referred to as 'original prints'. This is to emphasise the fact that they themselves made the work and that they are original works of art not just a mechanical reproduction.

The Value of Original Prints:

A question that is often asked is 'why are original prints more valuable than ordinary reproduction prints?'. An artist's work in printmaking, his 'original prints', unlike mechanically created reproductions, have a value just like his drawings or paintings. They are works from his own hand, but, with a few exceptions, the fact that they may exist in an edition makes them less expensive to own than a drawing of equivalent importance.

A number of factors affect the value of original prints – the size of the edition, the importance of the work within the overall oeuvre of the artist, the condition (as for any work of art), and, for modern prints, the question of whether it is signed by the artist. The importance of signatures and editions is discussed in more detail below.

Editions and signatures.

It is widely believed that the status of a print is defined by whether it carries a hand-written signature by the artist. In fact there are many mechanically created reproduction prints which are shown to be authorised by the artist by being pencil signed; but they remain reproductions. Equally an artist can work in one of the printmaking techniques to create an ‘original print’ but decide to leave the work unsigned. Such a work remains a creative original work of art, albeit unsigned.

In fact the concept of an artist signing his prints is very modern. In the old master period no artist thought a hand-written signature was necessary. Goya, for example, never hand-signed his prints yet they are highly valued works of art. The idea of hand-signing prints started around the 1890’s but it did not really become a widely accepted practice until around 1910-20.

The idea of the 'limited edition' is also modern. Rembrandt and Durer printed and reprinted impressions of their etchings and engravings to suit the demands of the market. Just as with hand-written signatures so the concept of limited editions and numbering was introduced as the market for artists prints became more organised at the end of the 19th century. Many very important early 20th century prints are not actually numbered but the edition sizes are known from the records that the artists or their studios maintained.



The confusing term aquatint (it has nothing to do with 'aqua' – water - or colour tinting) is an etching technique which also creates areas of tone rather than line. It is frequently combined with pure etching so as to contrast line and tone.

The plate is first covered in a solution made up of tiny granules of an acid-resistant material, such as resin. As the next step it is heated so that the resin wash sticks to the plate. The parts of the plate which the artist does not want to bite are then covered in wax, leaving open the shapes he wants. Finally the plate is bitten like any other etching; the acid cuts into the plate around the edge of each granule of resin creating a network of tiny grooves. When the ink is applied to the bitten plate the grooves retaining the ink are so close together that they create an area of tone rather than line.

The problem with aquatint is that the artist is forced to work in negative, that is to say he has to 'stop-out' the areas that he does not want to the bite. For example to make a cloud shape he has to paint stop-out onto the rest of the sky, leaving open the shape of the cloud.

A method of avoiding this was discovered called 'sugar-lift aquatint' (one used to great effect by such artists as Picasso). In this method the artist paints the images he wants onto the plate, for example the clouds, using a fluid in which he has dissolved sugar. He then paints a special stop-out varnish solution all over the plate, even over the image, and the plate is immersed in water. As the water gradually reaches through the stop-out it swells the sugar in the image areas and the overlaying varnish eventually falls away, leaving open the shapes the artist painted.

Resin is then applied to the plate in the open areas, as in regular aquatint, and the plate heated and bitten as before. The result is to have an aquatint tone only in the parts that the artist actually painted and without him having to think of the image in 'negative' terms.

There are also other types of intaglio working of the plate, such as mezzotint, which are also used to create tone values rather than line.

Block Prints

Block Prints or Relief Prints:

The very oldest forms of printmaking used cut blocks. These are the complete reverse of intaglio or incised blocks. In a block print the part of the image that the artist does not want is cut away, leaving the image as areas of flat surface. Ink is then applied to this flat area and the image printed onto a sheet laid over it, either in a press or with pressure from any flat surface or even from an implement such as the back of a spoon. The flat surface areas of the block print as shapes and the cutaway parts appears as white or unlinked.

Early block-prints were printed from woodblocks, often made up of various pieces of wood fixed together. Printing from the 'flat' of the wood, with the grain in the surface, created highly textural images, a quality much exploited by the early 20th century Expressionist artists. In the first part of the 20th century artists also began to realise that the newly invented substance of linoleum, either in the form of floor tiles or sheet, or in specially made thicker pieces, could be cut with much greater freedom. At the same time the smoother more anonymous surface of the block allowed a crisper type of image.

Variations on woodblock and lino printmaking were also discovered in which the artist cut an incised line into the flat surface and then inked the block in the manner of an etching (with the ink pushed into the lines and the surface wiped clean, rather than the opposite which is usual in a blockprint). As a result only the line printed.

The reverse of this 'line printing' from a block was used to brilliant effect by Matisse, and some other artists. He cut an incised line into a lino block and then inked only the flat surrounding surface not the cut line, so that when printed the image appeared as a white line on a black background.


Engraving and drypoint:

The oldest of the intaglio techniques is engraving. For this the artist works the plate surface dry with a variety of gouges. The plate is usually placed on a turntable and the gouges pushed away from the artist, giving a particular type of curving line. The differing widths of gouge create differing densities of line when inked.

In more modern times drypoint is often combined with engraving, or used on its own. For this the artist uses a needle-like tool, scratching the plate surface in free strokes just like drawing with a fine pencil. Because the plate surface is only very lightly incised the lines are not deep and the strokes on the print are delicate but free. Rough edges on the scratched strokes allow the ink to blur at the edges of the printed line creating tone.


Etching and other 'bitten' techniques - known collectively as 'intaglio' printmaking'.

In all the 'bitten' or 'incised' printmaking techniques the artist uses a plate into which he makes a groove or incision in one way or another. Ink is passed over the plate surface and is held in the groove. The remaining plate surface is wiped to remove excess ink and the plate placed in a press. A piece of paper is laid over the plate. In the press a roller or flat surface is then pushed down on the paper with great force in a press. The ink is forced out of the grooves or cuts on the plate and onto the paper. The plate can be made of copper or other metal of suitable strength. To print in colour in any 'bitten' or 'intaglio' technique the artist must either make the parts of the image that he wants in different colours on separate plates, printing each colour ink one by one onto the sheet, or he must paint the differing colours onto the various parts of the plate and print them all at once.

The 'grooves' or 'cuts' in the plate surface can be made in a wide variety of ways, depending on the final visual effect that the artist wants. The most widely used ways are described below.


In etching the line is incised using acid rather than the strength of the artist's hand. The metal plate is first covered in wax. The artist then draws into the wax, using either a stylus or tools with pointed tips. The strokes of the tool reveal the surface of the metal plate through the wax.


Probably the most widely known printmaking technique is lithography. Invented in the last years of the 18th century it allows an artist great freedom of drawing and the possibility of creating a huge range of visual effects, many of them not possible in actual drawing or painting. It is this creative freedom, allied to the possibility of using multiple colours, which has made lithography so popular with artists.

To make a lithograph the artist draws with a greasy substance, such as a special crayon or using greasy washes, onto the polished surface of a specially prepared porous limestone block or onto a zinc plate, which can be treated to have the same properties. The surface is then dampened with water which is repelled by the greasy drawing but absorbed by the block or plate. Ink is then rolled over the surface which sticks to the greasy part and is repelled by the dampened part. A piece of paper is laid over the surface, then block and paper are passed through a press which transfers the inked image to the paper.

To print in colour the artist must draw each part of the image that he wants to be in a different colour onto a separate block or plate. The colours are then printed one by one onto a single sheet of paper, building-up the image in stages.

Screenprint/Stencil Print

With the modern emphasis on images with strong colour screenprinting has become very popular. Its real development came in the 1960's following-on from the earlier idea of the stencil print and it does not need a heavy press. A screen of very fine mesh material is stretched over a frame. The artist then covers up the parts of the mesh where he does not want any ink to print, leaving a type of 'cut-out' of the shape that he wants. A sheet of paper is then pressed up close to the underside of the mesh and ink is passed over the stretched mesh. It will penetrate through onto the sheet of paper in the open areas but be blocked off in the masked parts.

To print differing colours the artist must make a screen for each colour and then print them one by one onto the sheet.

In the earlier stencil prints, the forerunners of screenprinting, no screen was used. The artist made a cut-out of the shape he wanted, in paper, cardboard or even plastic. This cut-out stencil was placed directly over the paper sheet; when ink was passed over the cut-out it printed through onto the sheet below. This was a technique which greatly appealed to some of the cubist artists in the 1920's for the solid areas of colour it created but had in fact existed since a much earlier date.

The plate is then immersed in a bath of acid. The acid bites into the plate where the bare metal is showing in the lines drawn by the artist but the wax protects the rest. Varying lengths of time in the acid will produce differing depths of line and thus differing densities of drawing in the final print. After biting the plate is cleaned. Ink is then rolled over it in the same manner as an engraving, so as to fill the bitten lines. The remaining surface is wiped, a sheet of paper placed over the plate and the two passed through the press under great pressure. The pressure transfers the ink from the lines on the plate to the sheet of paper.

The type of line the artist creates in etching can be varied to suit the visual effects he wants in his image. The line can be lightly bitten or deeply bitten. Wide open areas can be cleared on the surface of the copper plate so that the acid bites an area of tone; this is called 'open-bite'.