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Print techniques

by Robert Cumming

In this competition I have chosen to look at prints and will ask you to try and identify four basic print techniques.

There are four principal ways of making prints. These are:

1. Relief prints. In these the parts of the wood block or metal plate, which are to carry the ink and print, are left in relief and the rest of it is cut away. Woodcut and wood-engraving are examples of relief prints. You may well have made relief prints with potatoes at nursery school.

2. Intaglio prints. This process is the opposite of the relief print. Here a line is cut into a metal plate to form a channel and it is this channel or groove that holds the ink. Examples of this technique are etching, aquatint and mezzotint. You may have made intaglio prints with pieces of lino at school.

3. Planographic or surface prints. Here there is no cutting. The print is made from a flat surface and the separation out of the areas which are to carry ink, or not, is made by exploiting the fact that oil and water do not mix. The principal print technique here is lithography.

4. Stencil prints. In this simple method a hole is cut in a protective sheet and colour is brushed through the hole onto the paper beneath. The principal modern stencil print is the silk-screen print. You may have made stencil prints at nursery school.

I have selected four different print techniques and shall ask you which of the six selected prints are made by which method. To help you make you identification I will give a brief explanation of each print method and describe the visual clues to look for in identifying which is which.

I have given a simple account of the basic techniques of each print making method with a view to bringing out the different visual qualities and appearances of each technique. I have not gone into the history of each technique or tried to explain why some methods have appealed to some artists rather than others. However, you might like to ponder, as you look at the prints, which medium would be most suitable for an artist who values spontaneous freedom of expression; which would suit an artist who seeks directness and lack of sophistication; which would suit an artist who values precision and clarity; and which would suit an artist who likes subtle and elusive suggestion.


The design is drawn on the smooth flat surface of a block of wood and the artist cuts away the parts, which are to be printed without ink so leaving the design in relief.

Woodcuts are recognisable because of their boldness and simplicity and the simple divisions between black and white. The areas which are left standing to hold the ink may also be cut into and incised leaving a visual appearance not dissimilar to a piece of wood which has been whittled away or cut into by a pen knife.


In an engraving a metal tool, called a burin, is pushed across the surface of a metal plate to make a sharp incision. The burin cuts a V-shaped furrow and shreds of metal which are thrown up are cleared away from the surface of the plate. To make the print, ink is rubbed over the surface of the plate and firmly pressed into the incised lines. The ink is then wiped away from the surface of the plate but leaving it in the incised channels or furrows. Paper is then placed on the metal plate and rolled through a press under heavy pressure, which causes the paper to absorb the ink that is in the incised furrows.

Pushing a sharp burin through a metal plate requires a precise steady action. The more pressure that is applied, the deeper and broader the line becomes.

You can recognise engraved prints because the lines have a calculated precise appearance with sharp edges and will be thicker or thinner according to how much pressure is placed on the burin. It is a linear medium, meaning that everything is made up from lines no half tones are possible. Shading has to be suggested by parallel strokes, or cross-hatched strokes, or by making indentations and dots.


In an etching the line that is made in the metal plate to hold the ink is not cut, but created by acid eating into the surface of the plate. A metal plate is first coated with an acid resistant substance. The etcher then draws his design on this surface with a steel needle held lightly like a pen. The needle cuts through the acid resistant surface into the metal underneath. The plate is then immersed in a bath of acid. The acid bites into the metal wherever the acid resistant surface has been pierced by the needle. The longer the plate is left in the acid, the deeper the line will become.

The line created in an etching is much freer and more spontaneous because the etching needle is held quite lightly and it does not need to be pushed deeply into the surface of the metal plate. Also, it does not vary in thickness because the depth of the furrow is produced by acid not by the pressure of the hand. Whereas engraved lines, because they are produced by a sharp cutting instrument, have a very clear cut edge, the lines of an etching line are irregular because they have been made by a chemical reaction between the acid and the metal of the plate.

To make the print the acid resistant surface is removed, ink is spread over the plate and forced into the etched lines. Ink is then wiped from the surface of the plate, covered with paper and fed through a press under pressure exactly as with engraving.


In a lithograph the artist draws a design on a specially prepared piece of limestone with a greasy ink or crayon just as if he were drawing on a piece of paper. The stone is then treated with chemicals so that the greasy content of the drawing is fixed to the stone. Water is then applied. It sinks into the absorbent surface of the limestone but is rejected in those areas where there is grease. When greasy ink is rolled over the stone it adheres only to the greasy lines and is rejected by the parts which have absorbed water. Paper is then placed on the surface and passed through a press and the ink prints onto the paper.

Lithography allows great freedom and flexibility. As well as drawing lines with a greasy crayon the artist may paint on the stone with greasy inks creating washes, which may be opaque or diluted. Lithographs often have a softness about them and the lines often appear to be very free, seeming to have been done by the artist direct onto the paper rather than through a print medium. Many variations are possible. The medium can produce rich solid blacks or subtle greys which look like watercolour washes.