What is a print?
An original print is an image that has been conceived and executed by the artist solely as a print, usually in a numbered edition, and signed by the artist. Each print in the edition is an original that has been hand printed from a plate, stone, screen, block or other matrix created for that purpose.
A reproduction (although often called a print) has no relationship whatsoever to an original print. it is a copy of a work of art conceived by the artist in another medium (painting, watercolour, etc.). The reproduction has usually been made by photo-mechanical means. Numbering and signing a reproduction does not change its essence; it is still a reproduction of a painting, watercolour etc. It is not an original print.
Watch an interactive, animated demonstration of the four main printmaking processes – relief, etching, lithography, and screenprinting – on the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) website. It also includes images of more than forty prints from the MOMA collection in order to demonstrate the range of effects that are associated with each technique.
Of the many approaches to intaglio printing there are three that are primarily line processes and closely related to drawing techniques: Engraving, Etching and Drypoint. Other intaglio methods used to achieve tonal variations are Mezzotint and Aquatint. In intaglio printing, a plate — usually of metal (copper or zinc) — is used and the lines or areas that create the image are incised into the plate by sharp tools or bitten into the plate by acid. Once the plate has been fully prepared and inked, it is run through the press under great pressure, forcing dampened paper into the grooves to pick up the ink and thus the image.
In Engraving, marks are incised onto the plate with metal carving tools called burins. No acid is used in this method. The plate is then inked and printed. Until recently, this method was used most often by commercial printing houses because of the plate’s ability to withstand extremely large editions. Engravings can be found as the black and white picture plates in many old books.
Etching requires the use of acid in the making of the plate. The plate is covered with an acid resistant ground. The image is drawn onto the plate, scratching through the ground and exposing the metal. The plate is then immersed in acid, and the exposed areas are “bitten” into, creating lines which will hold the ink. The longer that the plate sits in the acid, the deeper, and therefore darker, the lines will print. This enables the printmaker to control the tonal range, from very faint grey to dense black.
In Drypoint, the printmaker produces a “furrow,” or rough line, that leaves metal burrs on either side of the groove, by drawing directly onto the plate with a steel needle. These burrs hold ink and print in a characteristically fuzzy manner. This is a positive quality of a drypoint; however, this method generally cannot withstand editions over twenty, as the pressure used in printing flattens the burrs and reduces the ability to hold ink.
To make an Aquatint, the printmaker sprinkles a fine rosin powder over a clean metal plate. The powder is heated until bonded to the plate, then cooled. The result is a dot-like pattern that is resistant to acid. The plate is then immersed in acid. When the rosin is removed, the areas around the rosin form a texture that holds ink and creates tonal values that will vary depending on how long they have been immersed in the acid.
Mezzotint requires that the plate is first manipulated to produce a solid textured surface that will print an even black. The plate is usually roughened by a small metal spade with sharp teeth (a rocker). This roughened area holds the ink to produce a deep velvety black. To produce a white or lighter area, the plate would be burnished to a polished surface that would hold less or no ink.
The natural antipathy of grease to water is the basis of original lithography. A drawing is made on a limestone (or a specially grained zinc or aluminium plate) using greasy drawing materials. The image is then “etched” or processed with a mixture of nitric acid and gum arabic which chemically alters the surface of the stone to desensitize the non-image areas so that they do not attract any ink during printing. The image is then sponged with water and inked with a roller. The greasy image areas attract and hold the printing ink while the non-image areas repel the grease and hold a thin film of water. Paper is placed over the stone and run through the press for printing. For multi-coloured prints, a new stone is used or the surface of the original stone is ground down to prepare it to receive a new drawing.
A Monotype is a print that exists in an edition of one. A image is drawn painted on a non-absorbent plate with an unworked (i.e. unmarked or unincised) surface, such as metal, glass or plastic, using various techniques and materials such as brayers, brushes and scrapers.
Similar to a monotype but slightly different, a Monoprint is a unique print made from a plate that already has an image incised in it. The variation, or uniqueness of each monoprint pulled from the same plate results from variations in how the plate is inked before each time it is run through the press.
Relief Printing involves cutting away part of the surface of a flat block to produce the image. This cut-away block is then inked and the flat, raised areas are printed. Multiple blocks are used for multi-coloured images. Common matrices (a matrix is an object upon which a design has been formed and which is then used to make an impression on a piece of paper, thus creating a print) used in relief printing processes are wood and linoleum.
In screenprinting (sometimes called silkscreen or serigraphy), mesh fabric is stretched tightly over a wood or aluminum frame becoming the support for a stencil design. Stencils may be created in several ways all of which rely on the non-image areas being blocked out completely so that no ink will pass through the nylon mesh onto the paper during printing. Many artists today work with photosensitive emulsion allowing them to print photo-based or computer manipulated imagery. The screen is coated with emulsion onto which a positive film is exposed. The positive image is then washed away leaving an open stencil for printing, while the unexposed areas dissolve when washed with water during developing, becoming the open printing areas. Ink is then pushed through the screen with the dragging motion of a rubber squeegee.