History of printmaking

Graphic art is the oldest one among the existing kinds of visual art. This term unite a whole range of various graphic techniques, which can be classified into two groups by the number of the works produced: “unique graphics”, when the technique allows making only one piece (drawing in various materials, like charcoal, ink, etc.; watercolors), and “printmaking“, when various mechanical devices enables creating a certain copies of the same image.

During its history, printmaking divided into several major types, each of them have the same idea: the design is initially made on the printing plate (which can be of various materials – wooden, metal, etc.), covered with pigments and then transferred to the paper.

The types of printmaking are:

Relief printmaking, when an imaged is printed from the raised surface, covered with pigment.

Intaglio printmaking, when the picture is cut into the printing plate.

Planography, when the printing plate is flat.

Stencil printmaking, when a sheet of paper, fabric, plastic, metal or other material with designs cut, perforated or punched from it.

Let’s have a closer look at features of each of them.

Relief printmaking

relief printmakingOne type of engraving – xylography or woodcut – is known from old times. The first print, made in such technique, was created in 868 – it was the Diamond Sutra from Tang Dynasty. In Europe woodcut spread only in the 15th century: the earliest known one is so-called “Brussels Madonna” of 1418.

Right up to the 19th cent., engraving was edged, when a board was with a longitudinal cut. It was precoated and only then covered with a design. The image’s lines were curved and wood was removed with special chisel. The depth of the relief was no more than 5 mm. The pigment was applied on that relief. Afterwards a sheet of paper was gently evenly pressed to the printing board.

In the 18th century Thomas Bewick suggested another method of creating the relief engraving: he carved his works against the grain, in hard box wood. This innovation allowed making more nuances in tones, presented with parallel hatching, and details in the design, whereas traditional edged woodcut was defined by certain roughness and decorativeness.

At the beginning of the 20th century a linocut was introduced. Its technique was very alike the edged printing, though the paint was applied with a roller. Such technique enables making a significant number of high-quality prints – up to 500 copies.

Intaglio printmaking

intaglio printmaking

Intaglio printmaking is another way of producing graphic images. Its most popular type was steel engraving. The printing plate is metallic – usually cooper or zinc, or iron or brass. The design is transferred onto the plate in lines and dots, and then the pigment is tamped into the deepenings. The plate is covered with wet paper and rolled through the printing press. Steel engraving emerge at the beginning of the 15th century: a sheet music was printed with cooper plate in 1446. For engraving a special steel chisel with diamond or square section that helped making very clear and accurate lines.

The epoch of Renaissance was marked by flourishing of that technique. A whole range of masters, like Albrecht Durer and Andrea Mantegna, referred to it, creating uniquely refined prints.

Another type of intaglio engraving is etching that shaped up at the beginning of the 16th century. To be more exact, the first one was made in 1513 by the Swiss artist Urs Graf. The iron plate is covered with special waxy ground. The design is scratched on it with the etching needle. Afterwards the plate dipped in a bath of acid, which is known as the mordant or etchant, so the image was “pickled”.

A specific kind of printmaking appeared in the 18th century, when stipple engraving was invented. Technically it’s similar to etching, yet the picture consisted not of hatching, but of numerous dots of various sizes and density. Such manner added airiness and softness to the pieces, so it comes as no surprise that French rococo masters adored stipple engraving.

Apart from above-mentioned techniques, Frenchmen developed one for reproducing ink tonal drawing – aquatint. For recreating delicate grades of light and shade, powder rosin is used in it, which is adhered to the plate by heating.


planographyWith time, a great variety of printmaking techniques was expanded by a new one, which received the name of lithography. It was born in Germany in 1796. Alois Senefelder is credited to be its inventor, who noticed that some sorts of limestone becomes water-repelling after pickling them with weak acid. That’s the core of the process of lithographic printing. The stone block of turpentine is smoothed and polished. After that a design is made on it with a special lithographic pencil or brush with ink. Pigment easily applies to the places, where images was drawn and they don’t wash off with water.

Lithographic technique is attractive with the easiness of transferring of the picture on the stone. But it requires special virtuosity in making subtle lines and excellent tone, which are required for a good lithographic print.

Color printmaking

color printmaking

Although stereotypically we think of graphic art as of art in black and white colors, color is an important part of printing art. It can be achieved in two ways. In the first case, the printing plate is covered with different paints and then it is printed (so-called monotyping). Each estamp is unlike the previous one, moreover it’s rather time-consuming, as you need to apply paint again and again. The other method suggest using separate printing blocks for each color, which is applied on the needed parts of the matrix and printed one-by-one on the paper.

There’re quite a few types of color printing. One of the well-known ones as chiaroscuro woodcut. One of its pioneers was Ugo da Carpi – an Italian master of the 16th century. He made his masterpieces involving the use of three boards with different paint’s hues on them.

As early as in the 17th cent. color printing appeared on the Far East. Japan became the center of the development of this art, famous for such outstanding printmakers as Harunobu, Hokusai, Sharaku and others. Japanese printing played a huge role in shaping up the tastes of western masters of fin de siècle, as painters and graphic artists admired their decorativeness, compositional excellence and exquisite coloring.

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