history of print making

General History of Print Making

A print is a shape or mark made from a block or plate or other object that is covered with wet color (usually ink) and then pressed onto a flat surface, such as paper or textile. Most prints can be produced over and over again by re-inking the printing block or plate. Printmaking can be done in many ways, including using an engraved block or stone, transfer paper, or a film negative. The making of fine prints is generally included in the graphic arts, while the work of artists whose designs are made to satisfy the needs of more commercial clients are included in graphic design.


In the graphic arts, lithography is a method of printing from a prepared flat stone or metal or plastic plate, invented in the late eighteenth century. A drawing is made on the stone or plate with a greasy crayon or tusche, and then washed with water. When ink is applied, it sticks to the greasy drawing but runs off (or is resisted by) the wet surface, allowing a print - a lithograph - to be made of the drawing. The artist, or other print maker under the artist's supervision, then covers the plate with a sheet of paper and runs both through a press under light pressure. For color lithography, separate drawings are made for each color.

Silkscreening Overview

We have all used a stencil in school to trace out letters or spray paint numbers onto a wall. Serigraphy, or silk-screening, is very similar in that it uses a stencil-like process. If you were to take the screen off your window and apply a coating onto it that would cover certain areas while leaving other areas open, you would have then created a stencil. If you were to then squeegee paint onto the entire screen, the color would only seep through the areas that were not protected by the coating. This is the basic technique used in fine art serigraphy, but the screen used to replicate this process was originally made of silk, hence the term silkscreen.

In creating a serigraph, a screen is "burned" (a photographic term) and paint is passed through onto a piece of art paper that sits in exact register on a silkscreening machine. In order to obtain a finished piece, this process must be repeated as many times as there are colors in the particular painting being reproduced. In other words, if there are 85 different colors detected on the original, then 85 individual stencils, one for each color, must be made by the master printer.

Each color of paint will be passed onto the art paper, one color at a time, until the consequential "build-up" of all 85 colors take their place and emerge as an exact replica of the original image.

Creating the Screen

Unlike a cut-out stencil, the screen used to make this type of fine art reproduction is an extremely fine-meshed nylon fabric that is tightly stretched over an aluminum frame. A photo-sensitive (or light-sensitive) liquid is applied over the entire screen (closing all openings in the fabric), making it impermeable to anything (in this case, paint) that may pass through it. Even though this liquid substance can be washed off with water, once it is exposed to bright light, it will harden and not come off of the screen. Anything on the screen that has been blocked from the light will wash off.

For example, let's say you want to reproduce the Nike "Swoosh" logo. First, you will take a piece of clear plastic and draw the swoosh logo in black ink. Second, you will place that drawing on top of the stretched nylon frame that has been coated with the light-sensitive substance (but not yet exposed to the bright light). Third, you will expose these pieces together to the light. The area all around the ink drawing will harden, but the area of screen directly under the ink drawing (which was shielded from the light) will not. Once you rinse off the un-hardened light-sensitive coating, only that area will be permeable to paint: the Nike Swoosh. A screen, or stencil, of that image now exists.

Printing from the Screen

With this screen in place on the hood of a serigraphy machine, a piece of fine art paper is placed underneath on the table. The hood holding the screen comes down on top of the paper, and the machine spreads paint across the top of the screen. A squeegee then travels down the entire piece, pushing the paint through the open area of the screen onto the paper and leaving a screened image on the paper. For the fine art process, the paper must be in exact registration, as the same piece will be put back onto the silkscreen press as many as a 100 times. The artwork to make one stencil can take many hours to produce by a Master Printer who knows how to interpret and separate each color from the original work of art. In addition, he or she must custom mix every color by hand to match the original artwork.


A 21st Century invention, the serio-lithograph combines the best elements of two accepted fine art mediums, the serigraph (or silkscreen print) and the traditional lithograph.

Typically printed on high-quality papers, a traditional or offset lithograph lays down the foundation of a finely detailed reproduction. The publisher then takes the entire edition to a Fine Art Atelier, where a skilled "chromist" creates new stencils by hand that enhance the texture and appearance of the original image, adding color and depth. A high-gloss varnish enhances the two printing methods, adding a rich, lustered finish. Utilizing the latest technology of both printing methods, the serio-lithograph recreates the painterly look of an oil painting, while capturing the fine detail reproduction of a lithograph.


An aquatint is created by etching sections, rather than lines, of a plate in order to create larger areas of uniform color. By applying and then heating resin or a similar substance to a metal plate, these larger areas of color are adhered to the plate. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which bites or etches the plate and creates areas that will hold the ink. An aquatint is an intaglio process, characterized by sunken or "carved" areas on the metal plate that retain the ink and create an embossed impression on either side of wet paper when the paper is pressed up against the metal plate. Aquatinting, with its fluid areas of washed-out tones, was often used to duplicate the feel of a watercolor when making multiple images for an edition. Invented in Europe in 1768, aquatint printing frequently relies on etching techniques to create linear elements in the image.


An etching is created by covering a metal plate with an acid-resistant layer of wax and drawing through the wax-medium using an etching needle. The etched plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the exposed lines, thus etching the design into the plate. To create the perception of depth, the artist will select certain sections of the design that are "stopped out" with varnish and then immerse the plate in the acid again. This creates a deeper bite, and thus darker lines, for those areas not "stopped out."


The etching process was invented around the Fourteenth Century as a method of making decorations on armor. The earliest known printed etching is dated 1513, and Rembrandt perfected the technique in the mid-17th Century. The artist etches lines in a metal plate, applies resin or a similar substance, and then heats the plate. He or she then immerses the plate in an acid bath, which bites or etches the plate and creates areas that will hold the ink.


Giclée printing began in Los Angeles in 1989 as a means for artists and printers to create a guide, or preview, of what a lithograph or serigraph ought to look like when an edition was completed. Today, thanks to the close cooperation between artists like David Hockney and technicians in the printmaking industry, the giclée is equal to or better than most other methods of reproduction in terms of reproducing an artist’s original work.

To create a giclée, also known as a digital print, an artist's original is scanned by a digital camera, and the information fed into a computer where it can be color-separated, changed, enhanced or manipulated on a monitor in ways never before possible through other printmaking methods. The computer receiving this information then stores the imagery until it is time for the edition to be produced, and then sends it to a high resolution printer where it is printed on canvas or paper according to the size and specifications desired by the artist. Most giclées are now produced using archival or pigmented inks rich in color and true to the artist's vision.


Intaglio is the collective term for several graphic processes in which prints are made from ink trapped in the grooves of an incised metal plate. Etchings and engravings are the most typical examples. It may also refer to imagery incised on gems or hardstones; seals; dies for coins; or to an object which, when pressed or stamped into a soft substance, produces a positive relief in that substance.


The woodcut is one of the most widely known and used forms of relief print. In a woodcut, it is the raised surface containing the positive image that is printed. The background area, or negative space, is carved away, creating the white, or non-printing, areas. As with other relief prints, ink is applied with a roller to the raised surface, paper placed on it, and the image transferred by rubbing the back of the paper or by running the block and paper through a press. Many kinds of wood can be used in making woodcuts, such as pine, poplar, and cherry.

Woodcuts were made in the Orient as early as the Ninth Century and introduced to Europe in the early Fifteenth Century. The earliest European woodcut is the "Brussels Madonna" of 1418. The use of woodcuts was spread by the inventions of moveable type and the printing press in the 1450s. Wood engraving was prevalent in England in the early Eighteenth Century and popularized in America during the Civil War.