Herewith are explanations of printmaking techniques and terms.
The explanations are written by Zhané Warren. As a master printer these are her experience of the techniques and understanding of the terms.
If the text is used please credit the author.
Aquatint is a way of making tones. Despite the “aqua” in its title, the aquatint process does not involve water. It was invented in the mid-eighteenth century to simulate watercolour drawings. With aquatint one can capture a complete tonal range from a hint of a tone to mid-tones to shadows and darks. Aquatints can be airy like those in the etchings of Paula Rego to velvety like those in the etchings of Pablo Picasso.
Aquatint is made by a dense collection of tiny grains melted onto the plate and functions as a porous ground; each grain or clump of grains becomes an island that protects the plate, which the acid will bite around.
The most common means of applying the grains is with an aquatint box, made for creating and containing a rosin dust storm. After the dust storm is created, the plate is slipped into the box to collect the grains as they fall. Then its taken out and heated to melt the grains for them to adhere to the plate once cooled.
Because the word ‘etching’ comes from a Dutch word meaning ‘to eat’; the acid, which corrodes the metal from a metal-plate is referred to as biting the plate. Acid will bite any part of the metal it is touches, and the longer the acid is in contact with the metal, the more it bites, the deeper the grooves, the more ink the grooves hold.
Paper is as elemental in printing as the ink colour, tone and the technique you employ. In chine collé a thin sheet of paper is printed on while simultaneously pasted onto a sturdier sheet of paper – all while the thin paper, inked metal-plate and base sheet is being rolled through an etching press. The thin sheet – a lightweight paper – is the impression paper and the sturdier – heavyweight paper – is the support / base paper.
Drypoint is a sensitive and immediate (direct / additive) intaglio technique. Drypoint is not etching because no acid is used to create the incisions in the metal plate, instead a sharp tool and the artist’s hand is used. Drypoint allows for expressive flowing lines while at the same time accommodating jagged and ‘irritated’ lines due to the directness of the needle on the plate surface.
During the drawing action with a needle or other abrasive tool/material the displaced metal forms a raised burr on the surface along the length of the lines or marks. The main principle of drypoint is that the incised marks and lines hold the printing ink in both the crevices and the burr, and can print with a rich velvety quality. The inking up process and pressure exerted by the press soon wears down the burr on the surface of the plate. The incised lines are often very shallow and eventually unable to contain much ink – prints gradually lose their richness and quality.
An edition refers to those prints pulled from the same matrix and inked in the same way thereby referring to a set of the same image. Even though the prints are not unique prints, they are each an original fine art print. The word edition is not a synonym for print. Editions exclude proofs, which are the prints retained by the artist, printers and publisher. Since a fine art print’s value in the marketplace is based partly on how many others there are, the practice of limiting editions permits fine art prints to increase in value like other types of art.
The word “etching” comes from a Dutch word, which means “to eat”. The word etching implies the use of acid corroding a metal plate. The way the acid interacts with the metal-plate gives the image its character, and the way the metal-plate is prepared determines how the acid will interact with it. The ways of preparing plates for acid give names to several processes, namely hardground etching, softground etching and aquatint.
Ferric Chloride is a orange-brown liquid that when modified to etch turns murky-brown – very compatible with copper and brass. The substance when in contact with copper corrodes the surface; the ferric chloride draws out ions from the copper. This action manifests in precipitation, from a solution state to a brown-black solid state.
Whilst the copper is in the solution, it replaces the iron (ferric) from the solution because the copper has a property known as electro-negativity. Thereby causing the solution to become a mixture of ferrous and cupric ions. As more iron in the solution is used up by the copper – also in the solution – the cupric chloride forms (precipitates) from the solution, as anything from a green to a blue to a brown to a black solid.
Effectively, copper dissolves without producing any gas; 2Fe³ + Cu (solid) = 2Fe³ + Cu²(4).
Hardground etching is a way of making fine line work. The best ground for line work is beeswax mixed with asphaltum and gum rosin. The plate can be handled without the ground being accidentally nicked. The plate is degreased, set on a heated surface and the ground, which comes in a ball, is spread onto it and then spread out evenly with a rubber brayer. When the wax cools, the plate is smoked with the flame of tapers. Thereafter, lines can be drawn through the ground with any pointed tool – the traditional one is a pointed metal cylinder called a needle. The resulting print is called a hardground etching. In using hardground, the artist can draw smoothly – all he or she needs to do is break the wax. The acid does the rest. The longer the plate is in the acid the deeper the bite and the stronger the lines will print.
The term intaglio (with a silent g and the Italian word for incised) indicates a printing technique that results in a matrix that contains pigmented ink, which is below the surface. In other words that which is engraved, etched or scratched in a metal plate to form grooves and pits to hold pigmented ink below the surface of the metal. Therefore, intaglio is the umbrella term for engraving, drypoint, etching, mezzotint, photogravure, photo-etching, collagraph and photopolymer.
Liftground aquatint involves painting an image on a rosin covered (already melted) plate with a water-soluble liquid. When the solution is dry, the entire plate is covered with a liquid acid-resist, to stop out the areas that are to remain white in the print. And, when the liquid acid-resist is dry, the plate is submerged in hot water, which will cause the solution to swell from the moisture and heat. The painted marks are wiped away with a ball of cotton wool to expose the metal. The plate is etched for a period (depth of bite) to achieve a desired tone.
With a linocut the negative areas that are not printed are removed, using carving tools, leaving these areas of the matrix in relief. The raised surface of the matrix receives the ink. Ink is rolled onto this raised positive surface using a brayer or roller, and the image is then printed onto paper. The area below the surface, which does not receive ink, will remain the colour of the paper.
The word matrix comes from mater, the Latin word for mother. A matrix can be almost any surface that accepts ink the same way each time it’s applied. The matrix is the source from which prints are generated; it holds and guides the ink. To make each impression – each individual print – the matrix is inked and printed onto a sheet of damp paper by means of tons of pressure from an etching press. The image on the paper appears backwards (mirror image) from the way it is in the matrix. In some types of printing a press is not needed, hand pressure is enough such as with relief printing.
Matrices are made to make prints, and subsequently to print editions. The plates themselves are not the artworks or the original. Once a plate is made, prints can be pulled from it again and again. Fine art prints are multiple originals (within an edition), not reproductions.
Monoprint is not another word for monotype. There is a distinct difference between a monotype and monoprint; in that the monoprint has an element that is generated from a matrix, and this element on its own can be repeated to form an edition.
A monotype is commonly referred to as the ‘painterly print’. A monotype is solely generated from autonomous marks made onto a surface – such as PVC or perspex. The monotype contains no ‘re-usable’ elements. In other words, in the creation of a monotype the surface onto which an artist paints does not hold any fixed information that can be printed more than once. Unlike the printing surface of an etching, which has been permanently etched and thus can be printed in an edition, the monotype exists as a once-off – a unique print.
The exception is that a ghost print and/or cognate print can be pulled after the initial impression has been printed. However, as the term ghost implies, this second print pulled is the feint marks left over on the surface.
Photogravure is both an intaglio and photomechanical technique. The technique combines the details of photography with the dense pigmented inks of intaglio. The use of pigmented inks and acid free pulp paper makes photogravure the most archival print technique. For photogravure, a continuous tone positive is exposed to light-sensitive pigmented gelatin tissue, which afterwards is bonded to a rosin coated copperplate. An aquatint is key to this tone-based technique. After the gelatin is developed the copperplate, with the image containing gelatin, is etched in baths of ferric chloride of different strengths. The etching commences with the extreme darks, moving through the tones to the lightest tone – pulling the etched copperplate from the ferric chloride once the bite reaches the extreme highlights. Thereby the technique accomplishes a full range of tones and attests for a high quality fine art print.
With a reductive woodcut the image is simplified by identifying the essential tones of highlights, lights, mid-tones and shadows. The word reductive directly relates the technique employed where one block of wood is carved successively and printed in different colours to represent the tones. One usually uses the white of the paper as your highlight, then printing from light to dark.
Relief takes its name from the fact that the raised surface of the matrix receives the ink for linocut and woodcut. Within a linocut or woodcut, for example, the negative areas that are not printed are removed, using carving tools, leaving these areas of the matrix in relief. Ink is rolled onto this raised positive surface using a brayer or roller, and the image is then printed onto paper. The area below the surface, which does not receive ink, will remain the colour of the paper. The individuality of the relief lies in the energy, directness, authority and spontaneity that can be given to the cut image using a variety of carving tools.
Spitbite aquatint involves, painting directly onto a rosin-covered plate with ferric chloride to achieve gestural tonal gradations that seem to be similar in appearance to ink washes and/or loose watercolour marks.
Softground etching lines look different from hard ground lines in that they are crumbly-looking rather than wiry and aren’t even from end to end. Moreover, tonal areas resembling pencil shading can be made and impressions from flat objects such as fabric, paper, foil can be achieved through the medium. Softground is essentially beeswax, mixed with petroleum jelly or tallow and a small amount of asphaltum; the wax and petroleum jelly or tallow retains the softness of the ground, to allow for a crisp impression of anything pressed into it.
The character of the line change depending on the amount of pressure used in drawing. More pressure removes more wax, so where the artist pressed harder the tooth-creating marks are bigger and closer together than those in the areas where only light pressure was used. Using coarsely grained paper gives coarse-textured lines and fine paper fine lines. In general, soft ground lines look like lines made by the drawing instrument – a clutch-pencil, HB pencil, ballpoint pen or any other object on which pressure can be applied.
An unique print is a once-off print. The print therefore does form part of an edition. The printmaking technique that usually lends itself to unique prints is monotype and monoprint. But, a state – and trial proof can also be considered an unique print.
With a woodcut the negative areas that are not printed are removed, using carving tools, leaving these areas of the matrix in relief. The raised surface of the matrix receives the ink. Ink is rolled onto this raised positive surface using a brayer or roller, and the image is then printed onto paper. The area below the surface, which does not receive ink, will remain the colour of the paper.