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 the effects of ink and wash drawings. With aquatint, one can capture a complete tonal range from a hint of a tone to mid-tones to shadows and extreme darks. Aquatints can be airy like those in the etchings of Paula Rego to velvety like those in the etchings of Pablo Picasso. Francisca Goya benefitted from aquatint’s ability to achieve darkness in tone and content.
To make an aquatint, a dense collection of tiny grains of gum rosin is melted onto a metal plate, which then 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. The plate is taken out and heated to melt the grains 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 called biting the plate. The acid will bite any part of the metal it touches, and the longer the acid is in contact with the metal, the more it bites, the deeper the grooves, and the more ink the grooves hold.
Paper is as elemental in printing as the ink colour, tone and 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 are 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 simultaneously 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 wear 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 original prints. The word edition is not a synonym for print. Editions exclude the proofs retained by the artist, printers and publisher/s. Since an original print’s value in the marketplace is based partly on how many others there are, the practice of limiting an edition permits original prints to increase in value like other types of art.
Etching comes from a Dutch word which means “to eat”. The word etching implies the use of acid corroding a metal plate. How the acid interacts with the metal plate gives the image its character, and how it is prepared determines how the acid will interact. The ways of preparing plates for acid provide names for several processes, namely hardground etching, softground etching and aquatint.
Ferric Chloride is an orange-brown liquid that turns murky-brown when modified to etch – very compatible with copper and brass. When in contact with copper, the ferric chloride corrodes the surface; the ferric chloride draws out ions from the copper. This action manifests in precipitation, from a liquid 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. After that, lines can be drawn through the ground with any pointed tool – the traditional one is a sharp metal cylinder called a needle. The resulting print is called a hardground etching. By using hardground, one can draw smoothly – all that is needed is to 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 containing pigmented ink 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 cotton wool ball to expose the metal. The plate is etched for a period (depth of bite) to achieve the desired tone.
With a linocut, the negative areas not printed are removed using carving tools, leaving 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 of prints; 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 through tons of pressure from an etching press. The image on the paper appears backwards (mirror image) from how it is in the matrix. In some types of printing, a press is unnecessary; hand pressure is enough – in relief printing, it’s common practice to use a baren to print.
Matrices are made to make prints and, subsequently, to print editions. The plates themselves are not the artwork or the original. Once a plate is made, prints can be pulled from it repeatedly. 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 a monoprint; the monoprint has an element generated from a matrix, which 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 on a surface – such as PVC or perspex. The monotype contains no ‘re-usable’ elements. In other words, in creating a monotype, the surface 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 cognate print can be pulled after the initial impression has been printed. However, as the term ghost implies, this second print pulled is the faint marks left over on the surface.
Photogravure is both an intaglio and photomechanical technique. The technique combines the details of photography with densely pigmented intaglio inks. Using 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 bonded to a rosin-coated copperplate. An aquatint is critical 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. The technique accomplishes a full range of tones and attests to a high-quality fine art print.
A Printer’s Proof is the print given to each printer involved in the plate production and printing of the edition.
A Publisher’s Proof is the print given to the gallery and institute that funded a print project.
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 to 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 the 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 various carving tools.
Spitbite aquatint involves painting directly onto a rosin-covered plate with ferric chloride to achieve gestural tonal gradations similar to ink washes and 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, and 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 ground’s softness, allowing 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 more prominent and closer together than 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.
A Unique Print is a one-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 a 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 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.