Basic Printing Methods

Overview of Printing Techniques

A little guide to the various methods used to make original prints.


The intention here is to give an overview of the various ways hand prints are made, to enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of them and to give an insight into the amount of effort and skill which goes into the production of a print. If you have never quite understood why one kind of print should be more special than another, I hope this will go some way towards offering an explanation. There are many technical books on the subject as well as courses and evening classes for those who wish to explore the art themselves. There are also ‘in depth’ books on the subject for collectors and connoisseurs.


  What is an original print?
  When the artist mixes the inny with the outy
  Sources of more information 


Potato-cuts and rubber stamps

All you need to know about Rubber StampingRemember potato-cuts at school? – and those hand prints on huge sheets of paper?
It’s the sticking-out bit that gets a coating of paint and the inny bits stay white. That’s relief printing. As you move on to more sophisticated forms, so the method used to make the plate, the quality of the colour and method of applying it changes, but the principle remains the same.

Even the humble rubber stamp has been used to great effect by artists. By cutting away the bits they want to stay white from an ordinary stationery pencil rubber, sticking it to a piece of wood to make a holder, they produce a repeatable image.

This cutting ‘cutting away’ is how many relief plates are made, including lino-cuts and woodcuts. Printing inks are normally applied to the surface of the plate with a roller or a pad to get an even coating, and transferred to the paper, either by rubbing the back of the paper with a burnishing tool (or the back of a spoon) or by putting the sandwich under pressure in a press. The pressure needed for relief printing is not great so all sorts of softer materials can be used to make the plate.

Wood-cuts, wood engravings and lino-cuts


Wood cut is where the wood used is cut with the grain to produce the surface to be worked. The texture of the grain can be used as part of the image and the grain can influence the flow of the cut.

Wood engravings are made, usually of boxwood, cut across the grain, the end grain becoming the working surface

. It is cut with a gouge called a burin. This very smooth and stable surface will allow extraordinary degrees of detail in the hands of a skilled artist or craftsperson. Very fine and detailed examples of early wood engraving are often seen in book illustration, although now they are more often made as stand-alone works.


Lino-cuts have a style of their own too. Again the white parts of the image are cut away leaving the raised part to produce the image. Due to the ease of cutting into this rather softer material, there is a freedom of movement which can produce quite spontaneous looking images, whilst retaining clean edges to the cut. It can also be very bold when large smooth areas are left for printing. Board can also be used in this way.

Colour prints can be made using several plates and printing them one after another, carefully lining them up with the image already made by the previous print. This is known as ‘register’. Another method used in lino cutting for colour prints (known as a ‘lossy’ method) is to progressively remove more of the surface to make the next layer of colour so that, with each layer the previous layer has been permanently destroyed. You have to be sure how many prints you want with the first layer, and print them, as that part of the plate will no longer exist once you move on!

Metal engraving, typesetting and block illustration

letter HMetal engraving is commonly done on copper, the metal being cut away using a burin. They can be designed to print either in relief or intaglio, and can also be combined with etching. More on those in the next section.

You might be familiar with pages from old books, often with a small picture or fancy letter at the top of the page. The advantage of relief printing in this context was that the blocks with the illustration could be typeset with the text and printed all in one go. Anyway, to mention it is a good excuse to show a couple of blocks I have. They can be made of wood or metal, usually copper, mounted on wooden blocks.

That’s enough about relief for now. Whew! That’s a relief.

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Ink in the dips

Intaglio is the term used for any plate that produces the inked part of the image from grooves or textures made in it. The ink is applied with a pad (a dabber) to fill the grooves and is wiped from the surface. Damp paper is placed on the plate and the ink transferred to it under pressure. The pressure required is much greater than that needed for relief printing. The depth and size of the pit holding the ink will determine the amount of ink transferred and the degree of texture achieved. Great subtlety of tone can be achieved as well as textured qualities.

The paper is soaked and allowed to return to ‘damp’ in order to allow the stretching required to be pushed into the hollows and around the edges of the plate. A ‘sandwich’ of the inked plate, the damp paper, protective tissue and a very soft wool blanket is made and the whole is passed through the press. The blanket allows the paper to be squashed into the grooves and around the edges of the plate. The ‘plate mark’ often referred to when looking at old prints is the mark made by the edge of the plate.

Let’s look at some of the ways of making intaglio prints.

engraved printengraving plate


Engraving is the term used when the lines or dots are cut out of the material (wood or metal) using a burin. A burin is a hand tool used by cutting into the material to gouge out the hollows. The width and depth of the line is controlled by the hand of the artist.

Various means are employed to achieve the semblance of light and shade in the finished print. Lines of varying width, parallel lines, cross-hatching and dots are used. It is a very labour intensive process, early engravings taking many weeks and months to complete. It was formerly used in the publication of books and prints, but is now mostly used by artists fascinated by the medium. As etching came into being, so a mixture of the two techniques was widely used in publications of all sorts, engraving providing crispness and accent and etching providing tone and the main design.


The artist draws directly onto the metal plate with a sharp strong needle. As the metal is not being cut away, but scratched, burrs appear at the edges of the line which soften it. As impressions are made of the print, so these little burrs are worn away and the character of the print changes. For this reason, editions of drypoints will often be quite small. However, sometimes the artist will deliberately smooth away the burrs to gain the effect they want. Etchings and engravings will sometimes have elements of drypoint in them.


Etching is the eating away of metal by immersing it in acid to produce the recessed areas. The variation in the depth of line or texture is controlled by the length of time the plate is in the acid. The plate may be immersed numerous times and washed off as further work is done on the plate. Enormous variation in tone and texture is possible in etching by using different methods of protecting parts of the plate from the acid.

Etching is marvellously varied in the ways of keeping the acid from the parts which need to be lighter, each of them producing very different effects. There can be mixed methods used on a single plate, and can also be combined with engraving and drypoint.

The simplest method is to prepare a metal plate of copper or zinc by applying a coat of wax or resin (known as a ‘ground’) to protect the parts not to be ‘bitten’. The artist then draws with an etching needle directly onto the plate exposing the metal, and puts it into the acid. This can be done repeatedly, so that the lines drawn are etched by degrees. With each dipping the earlier lines will become deeper and wider and therefore produce a darker area than those lines added later. The longer the immersion the deeper the bite.

Soft ground is used when the desired effect is similar to that of a pencil mark. The even coating of soft wax can be overlaid with a thin tissue and the drawing done on it. When the tissue is pulled away, it pulls away the wax stuck to it, leaving traces on the surface and giving a soft edge. The pressure applied in the initial drawing will affect the amount of wax removed. Artists can also press textured materials such as cloth and sandpaper into the ground to make tonal areas. Marvellous, isn’t it?


Aquatint requires the artist to think in areas of tone. The resist is a powdered resin melted onto the surface of the plate. The distribution and size of the powder grains will determine the delicacy or roughness of the etching, both qualities being desirable depending on the subject and desired effect. The variation in tone is achieved by ‘stopping out’ lighter areas bit by bit, immersing in acid repeatedly, taking ‘proofs’ until the required image is gained. Test strips can be made to ascertain the length of time needed to gain the depth of tone for different areas. Varnish is generally used for stopping out. The tone changes can be very subtle with many stages. Completely smooth or white areas are stopped out before the first dunking in acid.

A plate can be made using aquatint exclusively, or by combining with other methods to make the finished image.

By now we begin to see why the artist’s hackles rise at the term “just a print” and I have hardly touched on the details!


The mezzotint plate is first prepared by making the surface rough. A rocker or wheel with lots of tiny points is run back a forth over the plate until an even velvety looking surface is made. If you were to print it at this stage it would be very deep black all over. A burnisher is then used to bring back areas of the plate to white. Infinite levels of tone and half-tone can be made by varying the amount of polishing back to smooth. Effects of almost a photographic or sprayed quality can be achieved.

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Flat as a pancake

Planographic is the term used when the surface of the plate or printing vehicle is flat, but areas of the surface are treated to repel or retain the printing medium. These methods are both younger than the previous methods described, and have their own characteristics.


The lithographic plate can be of stone or zinc. These days it is more readily available in zinc. Here the non-mixing properties of oil and water are put to use. The prepared surface must be scrupulously clean and free of fingerprints, as they will affect the behaviour of the ink.

A greasy image is drawn onto the surface using a pencil, crayon or oily brush. The surface is then dampened. The ink applied will be drawn to and retained by the oily areas and repelled by the damp ones. The image is transferred to the paper under pressure. Several plates can be used to apply different colours, and the transparency of the inks used to great effect.

The images created can have a very spontaneous quality as well as much variation in texture and depth of colour. They can even closely resemble pencil drawings and watercolour. If you’re averse to ‘bumpy’ bits in you artworks, this is for you! I jest. More flat art next.

Screen-printing or Serigraphy

Screen prints are a form of stencil. A very fine fabric , silk or more commonly now, synthetic is tightly stretched over a frame. This forms the screen. The stopping out may be done by applying a plastic warmed sheet that sticks to the fabric, having first carefully cut away the parts which need to print, or by applying a liquid filler which will not be affected by the ink. The open areas left are in effect, a stencil. The paper is placed under the screen and ink drawn across and pushed evenly through the fine fabric with a squeegie ( a sort of overgrown windscreen wiper, thick rubber held in a wooden bar).

This method can print solid and brilliant colours, as well as make use of transparent inks to make more colours. It can be used to print on all sorts of things too. Fabrics and wallpapers among them.

As with other forms of printing, many screens may be needed to make one full colour print and must be carefully aligned with the previous layer.

Mono- prints

A mono print is unique. The colour is applied to either glass or other smooth surface and transferred to paper under pressure. Several layers may be used, pieces of paper or other materials may be placed to stop out areas, or to apply more colour. Ink or paint may be used, even the application of blobs to make splattered areas. It can take several days while layers are allowed to dry or be very immediate. A mono-print is not repeatable in an exact form, in the same way that a painting is not repeatable except by copying.

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When the Artist mixes the ‘inny’ with the ‘outy’


Ah well, this is all about texture, as well as colour. The plates can be made using just about anything that comes to hand. Stick it all together. Chop it up. Rearrange it on the press. Varnish it, roughen it; you can do anything and have lots of fun and easily spend much too long experimenting with your plate. If you don’t like the result you can stick more onto it and mess about for ever. Especially when you first use this method.

I’m only supposed to be telling you what it is, so……..

Materials such as cut up card, leaves, seeds and meshes can all be used singly or combined to make the plate.

Artists have used this medium to wonderful effect, sometimes using both the relief and the intaglio parts of the plate with carefully applied colour. A collograph can look very similar to a lino-cut having very smooth areas and printed in relief or it can be deeply textured. It can be passed through the press without any ink at all to produce an image indicated only by the shadows of the varied texture.

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Sources of more information

Some books to find in the library or buy.

Clicking on the image will take you to where the books are available.

The price varies as some are second-hand books

A comprehensive and easy to follow guide to methods of printing and how to determine what you are looking at. Recommended!

Looking at prints

A detailed book for anyone who wants to make prints.

The printmaker’s bible. Good reference book.


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I wrote this! Christina Bonnett.

Author- Christina Bonnett. Information in this article is given in good faith. Apologies for any glaring inaccuracies


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Christina Bonnett

About the Author

Christina Bonnett

Besides painting, I enjoy making all kinds of things, being outdoors, gardening and encouraging anyone who shows any interest to paint and draw. (Christina is the owner of Outlines)

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