Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


History and Techniques

Hand Print from Chauvet cave, 28,000 BCE

Swiss Playing Cards, woodblock print,1745


Long before the printing press was invented, printmaking was a medium of communication. The first evidence of the use of a stencil to create an image was found in the cave paintings in France and Spain. Prehistoric man placed his hand on the wall of the cave and blew pulverized pigment around it. The ancient Sumerians engraved designs on stone cylinder seals some 3000 years ago, using them to print on clay tablets. Historians believe that it was the Chinese who produced the first prints on paper, as far back as the 2nd century AD. By 600 AD, the Chinese were stenciling intricate and colorful patterns on the fashionable fabrics worn by the wealthy. It was the Japanese, however, who refined the woodblock print and authenticated editions of prints, beginning a commercialized art trade. These prints were distributed throughout Europe, eventually leading to the printing of playing cards and religious images.


What is the difference between a fine art print and a reproduction?

A fine art print is a "multiple original." Usually within the confines of a limited edition, the artist conceives and executes his work specifically in the context of one or more hand-produced techniques (etching, woodcut, silk screen, lino cut, etc). Each of the works are created either by the artist or under his direct supervision (by a master printmaker). Each are considered "original" and signed by the artist. A "reproduction", on the other hand, is photo-mechanically reproduced, and not created by the artist. There is usually an unlimited production of these prints (usually called posters), and they have little monetary value.


Relief Printing


Relief printing involves printing from a raised surface. A simple example of this is a rubber stamp pressed into a stamp pad and pressed onto a piece of paper. Relief printing plates are made from flat sheets of material such as wood, linoleum, metal, styrofoam etc. Woodcut prints first appeared in the 8th century in the East and in the early 15th century in the West.

The Woodcut

Hokusai, The Great Wave

Hiroshige, Plum Estate 1857


There are two especially skilled masters of Japanese woodcut printing whose fame would spread to Europe: Katsushika Hokusai, and Ando Hiroshige. Both of these artists worked in the last half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century Hokusai's Great Wave is the most famous image of a series focusing on Mount Fuji, but he produced some 35,000 drawings and prints throughout his career. Hiroshige was also famous for his landscape images, but the effect is usually a little more serene. Many of these two artists' prints were to exert important influences on European printmakers (and their compositions would influence Impressionist painters).


The production of classic Japanese woodblock prints is a fairly complex process, involving a number of steps, each usually performed by a different person, one skilled in that particular step. Japanese prints were sometimes produced in limited editions as 'high art', but more often they were produced in far larger editions as popular, mass-produced art. During the hey-day of "ukiyo-e" printing, it was not uncommon for different steps to be performed in different establishments, each with a particular speciality.



Woodcut: Ernst Kirchner, Alpine Shepherd, 1917
4 Basic Printmaking Methods


For an interactive reference on how prints are created, go to

is the art of engraving on wood by hollowing out with chisels areas of a plank, leaving a design on the surface. The transfer of this design onto paper is achieved by inking the surface with typographic ink and either applying pressure by rolling the relief plate and paper into a press, or rubbing the back of the paper with a baren (Japanese method).

M.C. Escher, Day and Night

Escher is a graphic artist who is very well known for his puzzle-like compositions. He was a master of woodblock printing, as well as etching and lithography. Today, his work is widely distributed in poster-prints (a photo-mechanical process, not to be confused with "fine art prints".


Wood Engraving

Winslow Homer, In Came a Storm of Wind, 1869

Durer, St.Christopher and Christ

Edmund Evans, The Gardener's Daughter (1800s)


With a traditional woodcut, the design is drawn directly on the wood which is cut plankwise(along the length of the grain or tree trunk). Cut this way, however, the wood has a tendency to splinter. Artists discovered that they could avoid the problem by cutting on the end grain of hardwood blocks, a process called wood engraving. By using a burin (a metal tool also used in metal engraving), the wood engraver could produce a wider range of tones than were possible with a woodcut.


Albrecht Durer is well-known for his wood engravings as well as his etchings, which were widely distributed throughout Renaissance Europe. Because he was one of few artists working in printmaking mediums at this time, he was well-known outside of his German homeland. Winslow Homer, an English artist known primarily for his watercolor paintings, produced wood engravings as illustrations for books in the 19th century. Edmund Evans is considered one of the greatest wood-engravers of the Victorian era. In The Art Album, he reproduced the watercolor paintings of some of the best-known artists of the day. While some of the watercolors convert well into wood-engravings, it is clear in others that this is not the best method for reproducing the soft, transparent look of this medium.


Linocut Printmaking:

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Young Girl (after Cranach), 1958

Henri Matisse, from Pasiphae suite, 1944


The linocut is a printmaking technique similar to that of the woodcut, the difference being that the image is engraved on linoleum instead of wood. Since linoleum offers an easier surface for working, linocuts offer more precision and a greater variety of effects than woodcuts. Long disparaged by serious artists as not challenging enough, the linocut came into its own after artists like Picasso and Matisse began to work in that technique.


Intaglio Printing

Drypoint: Pablo Picasso, Cirque


Intaglio printing describes a process whereby an image or picture is cut into the surface of the printing plate. Here, the areas that are cut away, will have ink literally pushed into them. These cut lines are what will print on the paper. The simplest intaglio process is that of drypoint. A sharp-pointed tool (such as a dentist's tool) is directly drawn onto the surface of the metal plate. The displaced metal produces a "burr" which catches the ink.


Etching and Engraving

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504 (with details of cross-hatched lines)


A more common form of intaglio printing is the engraving. Using a sharp V-shaped tool (called a burin), the printmaker gouges the lines of an image into the surface of a smooth polished sheet of metal. To make a print, ink is pushed into the lines of the design. The surface is then wiped clean so that the only areas that will retain the ink are the cut lines. A sheet of paper which has been soaked in water is then placed on the plate which is run through a printing press. The paper is literally forced into the small lines that have been cut into the plate. Etching is a variation of the engraving technique. With etching, acids are used to eat into the metal plate. It generally produces a softer effect than engraving, producing more subtle gradations of tone.


Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching 1652

Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters 1799

Rembrandt was a prolific printmaker, leaving to posterity approximately 300 plates, which represent virtually every aspect of human endeavor. Some of his most popular prints were of religious subjects.


Goya's enigmatic Los Caprichos series includes scenes of witchcraft, misery, and human depravation, condemns superstitions and denounces the decadence of the Church, the corruption of the Monarchy, and the brutality of the uneducated. The series of Los Caprichos includes 80 prints that combine etching, engraving and aquatint. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is one of the more famous prints in the suite.




Mary Cassatt: Mother and Child

Edvard Munch: The Kiss


Aquatint: This technique is so called because its finished prints often resemble watercolors or wash drawings. It is a favorite method of printmakers to achieve a wide range of tonal values. The technique consists of exposing the plate to acid through a layer (or sometimes succesive layers) of resin or sugar. The acid bites the plate only in the spaces between the resin particles, achieving a finely and evenly pitted surface that yields broad areas of tone when the grains are washed off and the plate is inked and printed. A great many tones can be achieved on a single plate by exposing different areas to different acid concentrations or different exposure times. Aquatint techniques are generally used in combination with etching or engraving to achieve linear definition. The plate is then bitten in the acid bath and the resulting print has a soft, painterly look.





Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century. It is a mechanical planographic process in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level, as opposed to intaglio and relief processes in which the design is cut into the printing block. Lithography is based on the chemical repellence of oil and water. Designs are drawn or painted with greasy ink or crayons on specially prepared limestone. The stone is moistened with water, which the stone accepts in areas not covered by the crayon. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adheres only to the drawing and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print is then made by pressing paper against the inked drawing.



Kathe Kollwitz

Edvard Munch



Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was associated with the Parisian night-life, especially in his posters for the Moulin Rouge, a famous Paris nightclub. Jane Avril was an actress who danced at the club. Another dancer, "La Goulue" (the glutton) earned her name by out-drinking everyone. The artist created a caricacture self-portrait (center) which emphasized his shortened legs. His dwarf stature was created from a couple of horse-riding accidents in his teens. He broke each of his legs and they failed to grow afterwards due to a genetic disorder. Despite his crippling (or perhaps because of it), he became one of the more important artists of his time, especially influential in his graphic style in his use of lithography.



Andy Warhol, Marilyn 1967

Robert Indiana, Love, 1967


Silk screen or "serigraphy" originated in China and found its way to the West in the 15th century. It's a stencil process based on the porosity (open weave) of silk (or nylon) which allows ink to pass through the areas which are not "stopped" with glue, varnish or plastic stencils. One or more layers of ink are applied with a squegee, each one covering the open areas of succeding screens until the final composite image is achieved. Photographic transfers, both in line and halftone, can also be fixed to the screen with a light-sensitive emulsion.

Associated with commercial advertising and commercial printing, Andy Warhol chose the medium to deliberately challenge the time-honored concept of artistic originality. His Marilyn series is one of his more famous expressions, whereon he produced the same photographic image a number of times, each time changing the colors and purposefully "mis-registering" or overlapping the stencils.

Robert Indiana's iconic Love (1967) was initially conceived as a Christmas card design for The Museum of Modern Art, published in 1965. Its boldface, stenciled letters had the visual impact of an advertisement or logo, and the image reached millions when it was reproduced as an eight-cent U. S. postage stamp in 1973, becoming a mass-produced commodity itself.



Suzy Harmon Olsen, Trees, watercolor monoprint

Coleen Corradi: Violin Forms I


A monoprint is a one of a kind print achieved by applying colored inks to a smooth surface and then transferring that image to paper. The earliest monoprints date back to the 1600's. Many famous artists including Gaugin, Rembrandt, and Degas experimented with monoprint techniques. Monoprinting is a wonderfully spontaneous art form which is well suited to mixed media techniques. The method is aptly named because it is one image (mono) painted on a plate with inks (oil based or waterbased) and then transferred to paper by hand pressure or with the means of a press.

Suzy Olsen is a close friend who specializes in creating watercolor monoprints. She paints the image onto a plexiglass panel, then runs the dampened paper through the press, transferring the watercolor to the sheet. This requires several re-workings of the image, adding different colors to successive layers. The result is a one-of-a-kind print. Suzy's works are located at

I discovered Colleen Corradi online. The Violin Forms, above is the first print in a series, in which she uses different colors for successive prints. The "shadow" image left on the plate allows her to develope more images of the same theme. See her website for the full series:

Next: Expressionism