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, an etching technique, is a way of making tones. Despite the “aqua” in its title, the aquatint process does not involve water. It was invented in the 1700s 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 and 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, which is made to create and contain a rosin dust storm. After the dust storm, the plate is slipped into the box to collect the falling grains. The plate is then taken out and heated to melt the grains, which adhere to the plate when cooled.



The BAT (bon à tirer, roughly translated from French ‘good to pull’) is a Trial Proof that the artist signs as approval and the ‘go-ahead’ to proceed with printing an edition. The printer/s use it as a comparison when printing an edition and the additional prints, such as the Artist’s Proofs, Printer’s Proofs, Publisher’s Proof and Hors de Commerce; the objective is to have every impression match the BAT. Moreover, it serves as a form of quality control. Certain studios (especially in the US) follow the practice of having the artist sign “OK to Print”.


Because the word ‘etching’ comes from a Dutch word meaning ‘to eat’, the acid corrodes the metal from a metal plate and 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.


Chine collé

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,  essentially a form of engraving, is a sensitive and immediate (direct / additive) intaglio technique. It 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 are used. Due to the directness of the needle on the plate surface, drypoint allows for expressive flowing lines while simultaneously accommodating jagged and ‘irritated’ lines.

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, 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, limiting an edition permits original prints to increase in value like other types of art.



Etching comes from a Dutch word meaning “to eat.” The word implies the use of acid to corrode 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

Ferric Chloride is an orange-brown liquid that turns murky brown when modified to etch. It is very compatible with copper and brass. When in contact with copper, the ferric chloride corrodes the surface and draws out ions from the copper. This action manifests in precipitation, from a liquid state to a brown-black solid state.

While the copper is in the solution, it replaces the iron (ferric) because copper has a property known as electro-negativity. This causes the solution to become a mixture of ferrous and cupric ions. As the copper uses more iron in the solution, the cupric chloride forms (precipitates) from the solution as a green, blue, brown, or black solid.

Effectively, copper dissolves without producing any gas; 2Fe³ + Cu (solid)  =  2Fe³ + Cu²(4).



Hardground, an etching technique, 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 and 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.



Lift-ground, an etching technique, creates a stencil-like image/design on a copper plate. This working method can produce outlines of painterly marks, straight edges, geometric shapes, patterns and textures.

Lift-ground involves making marks on a copper plate with a water-soluble solution. After the solution has dried, the plate is covered with diluted liquid acid-resist to mask the non-painted areas. Upon drying, the plate is submerged in warm water, which causes the solution to swell from the warmth, break through the resist, and lift off the plate. What remains is exposed copper, representing a stencil of the original marks. By etching the plate, an open-bite is achieved. Rosining the plate will allow the exposed copper to etch as tones (the darkness of the tone depends on the depth of bite), assigned as a lift-ground aquatint.



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 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 print prints and, subsequently, editions. The plates themselves are not the artwork or the original. Once a plate is made, prints can be pulled repeatedly from it. Fine art prints are multiple originals (within an edition), not reproductions.



Mono-print 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 generated solely from autonomous marks on a surface – such as PVC, perspex or metal. The monotype contains no ‘re-usable’ elements. In other words, in creating a monotype, the surface an artist paints (with oil- or water-based materials) 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 and cognate print can be pulled after printing the initial impression. 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 etching. 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. Aquatint, an etching technique, 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 (biting) 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.


Printer’s Proof

A printer’s proof is the print given to each printer involved in plate production and edition printing.


Publisher’s Proof

A Publisher’s Proof is the print given to the gallery and institute that funded a print project.



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.



Soap-ground, an etching technique, uses a permeable ground. This working method lends to organic and painterly marks, which can be tonal and vary in depth. It’s not entirely acid-resistant and acts as a timed stop-out. The ground resists the acid longer when applied thicker and etches earlier when used thinly.

The action is that the water in the ferric chloride softens the ground. An essential ingredient is soap granules, and the speed depends on the ground’s thinness. This allows the ferric chloride molecules suspended in the water to saturate the ground, eventually breaking through to the copper and etching the metal.

The ground can be used by itself or as an underpainting with melted rosin. If one doesn’t combine it with aquatint, the areas of the copper not covered with ground will open-bite.  If one uses aquatint (soap-ground aquatint) with the ground, the areas that are not covered with the ground and only the aquatint will print as a tone – the darkness of the tone depends on the depth of bite, i.e., the time spent in the ferric chloride. Also, the overall images will be more contrasted and have a bit of a salt and pepper appearance depending on the fineness of the rosining.



Soft-ground, an etching technique, looks different from hard-ground etched 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. Soft-ground is essentially beeswax mixed with petroleum jelly or tallow and a small amount of asphaltum; the wax and petroleum jelly or tallow retain the ground’s softness, allowing for a crisp impression of anything pressed into it.

The character of the line changes 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.



Spitbite, an aquatint technique, involves etching gestural tonal gradations similar to ink washes and loose watercolour marks by painting directly onto a rosin-covered plate with ferric chloride – an etching mordant. To allow for the ferric chloride to not pull away from the surface of the copper plate spit or gum arabic is added to it. 


Trial Proof

Trial Proofs are prints printed after the State Proofs and before the bon à tirer (signed as BAT on the print) that differ from the numbered edition in the use of colours; otherwise, these prints, in terms of marks, are identical to the BAT and a numbered print from the edition.


Unique Print

A Unique Print is a one-off print, not part of an edition. The printmaking technique that usually lends itself to unique prints is monotype, but a one-off 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.


Reductive woodcut

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 white paper as the highlight and then prints from light to dark.