All About Printmaking Techniques


- By Leslie Simon

If you have ever used a rubber stamp, you have made a print!

A print is an impression that is produced from a block, plate or stone on which an artist has engraved a design. Once a design is carved or drawn on, depending on the print process you will use, the ink is spread over the design. You then press a piece of paper or other material down, and the design is then imprinted onto the paper. Artists can create many prints, spreading more ink onto the design in between each imprint. Each print is unique and one-of-a-kind due to subtle differences from the thickness of the ink, the pressure put on the paper, and other variables that are part of this handmade process.

When the ancient Sumerians in 3000 BCE engraved designs onto stone cylinders then rolled them onto soft clay tablets to leave impressions, they were creating some of the first relief prints. Around 100 BCE, the Chinese performed “rubbings,” using a similar process to print this type of relief art on the new Chinese invention “paper.”

Later down the line, European royals began creating elaborate stamps with their insignias, with the first documented impressed royal signature being that of Henry VI in 1436. Playing cards printed from relief printing using woodcuts were very popular, and the earliest dated woodcut containing religious themes was “Madonna with Four Virgin Saints in a Garden” from 1418. Once woodcuts were used for book illustrations, their popularity traveled, with France and Italy excelling in the craft. Besides artistic purposes, imprinting is used extensively today for printing currency.

On March 21 from 12-4pm, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities will host Print Madness, an expressive exhibition that is free and open to the public where artists will be presenting onsite demonstrations of the family of techniques that make up printmaking.

Read about Print Madness

Here are six major techniques you can see printmakers use at this family-friendly event:



An image is created from the raised part of a carved or etched block as an artist takes a piece of wood, plastic, linoleum, etc. and carves the negative space out. The part that is raised is the design, and this is covered in ink using a brayer. Paper is then laid onto the design and pressed down firmly onto the ink. The artist then raises the paper up carefully by one corner and peeling it off the block. Ta-da! A print!



Lithography is a printing process based on the fact that oil and water don’t mix. The artist takes a smooth stone, then draws a design on it with a greasy medium. Gum Arabic is applied, causing a chemical reaction that seals the design. The stone is then washed, brushed with water, then inked. A wet piece of paper is then pressed down onto the ink.

Unlike relief printing, lithograph does not involve cutting out or engraving a design. Instead, the design is drawn flat onto a flat, porous surface with a greasy medium like a conte crayon, grease pencil or a tusche (black liquid). Invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798 in Germany, this playwright was looking for a way to make multiple copies of his plays. He got a patent for his design a year later, and twenty years later England and the United States were printing books, magazines and newspapers using his technique.



Intaglio is Italian for “to engrave or carve.” An artist takes a metal plate and engraves a design into the plate. Ink is rubbed onto the plate and then wiped off, leaving only ink in the grooves of the incised design. A wet piece of paper is placed on top and then pressed down so that it connects with the ink is in the grooves. Slightly diagonal cuts were made to create the look of shading, bringing a more 3D element to these prints. Several hundred prints can be made until the sharp edges start wearing down.



A monoprint can only be printed uniquely once, and can’t be exactly duplicated. On a smooth surface, the artist applies a design onto the plate in the final medium. Paper is laid on top of the plate before the ink dries, and the design is transferred to the paper. The artist only gets one strong impression from this process.



A widely used relief printing process using a printing press where an inked, raised surface is pressed down onto a continuous roll of paper. This process (including the press) was invented by Johannes Gutenberg and used reusable letters that you could move around to make different words and sentences. This invention kicked off the Printing Revolution, which brought humans into a new modern era that was more knowledge-based as learning materials were able to be circulated through the public.

 Gutenberg-style press


Serigraphy (silk-screen or screenprinting) was developed in America in the 20th Century, and was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. As part of the New Deal WPA (Works Progress Administration), Anthony Velonis of New York City was the head of the Fine Arts project. This project looked for ways to put unemployed artists to work. The work available was mostly commercial, so Velonis invented serigraphy as a way to make the artists feel that they still had their creative freedom. Seri (Latin for “silk”) and graphein (Greek for “to draw”).

The artist draws a design and prints it out on a transparency. The design, screen, and light screen are coated with emulsion, and the design is then burned into the screen. The screen is pressed on top of paper and ink is forced through the stencil on a silk or synthetic material mesh screen, and the viscous ink is squeegeed off, with each color having its own separate screen. These wet prints are then hung to dry. This process is extremely popular today for printing designs on custom t-shirts and apparel.

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