Prints, unlike paintings or drawings, generally exist in multiple examples. They are created by drawing a composition not directly on paper but on another surface, called a matrix, and then, by various techniques, printing that image on paper. Those techniques may involve one or another kind of printing press and ink, or the image may be transferred by pressing the paper by hand onto the inked surface of the paper and rubbing. Multiple “impressions” are made by printing new pieces of paper from the matrix in the same way. The total number of impressions an artist decides to make for any one image is called an edition. In modern times each impression in an edition is signed and numbered by the artist, but this is a relatively recent practice.

Matrix. From the Latin word mater, meaning mother, the matrix is a surface, a woodblock, a metal plate, a lithographic stone or a mesh screen for example, on which the image to be printed is prepared.

Numbering. The numbering of individual impressions of prints can be found as early as the late nineteenth century. However, it did not become standard practice until the mid 1960’s. Today, all limited edition prints should be numbered, with the first number being the impression number and the second number representing the whole edition, thus 12/50, impression number 12 from an edition of 50. The numbering sequence does not necessarily reflect the order of printing; prints are not numbered as they come off the press but some time later, after the ink has dried. And one must keep in mind that the edition number does not include proofs (see proofs), but only the total in the numbered edition.

Trial Proof. An impression pulled before the edition to see what the print looks like at that stage of development, after which the artist may go back to the matrix and change it. There can be any number of trial proofs, depending upon how that particular artist works, but it is usually a small number and each one usually differs from the others. In French, a trial proof is usually called an epreuve d’essai, in German a Probedruck.

Bon a Tirer Proof. Literally, the “okay-to-print” proof. If the artist is not printing his own edition, the bon a tirer (sometimes abbreviated as b.a.t.) is the final trial proof, the one that the artist has approved, telling the printer that this is the way he wants the edition to look. There is only one of these proofs for an edition.

Printer’s Proof. A complimentary proof given to the printer. There can be from one to several of these proofs, depending upon the number of printers involved and the generosity of the artist.

Artist’s Proofs. Formerly, when an artist was commissioned to execute a print, he was provided with lodging and living expenses, a printing studio and workmen, supplies and paper. The artist was given a portion of the edition (to sell) as payment for his work. Today, though artists get paid for their editions, the tradition of the “artist’s proof” has persisted and a certain number of impressions are put aside for the artist to do with as he will. Artist’s proofs are annotated as such or as A.P., or Epreuve d’artiste or E.A.

Hors Commerce Proof. Impressions annotated H.C. are supposedly “not for sale”. These “proofs” started to appear on the market as extensions of editions being printed in the late 1960’s. They may differ from the edition by, for example, being printed on a different paper or with a variant inking; they may also not differ at all. Publishers may sometimes use such impressions as exhibition copies, thereby preserving the numbered impressions from rough usage.

Signatures. The very earliest prints were not signed at all, although by the later part of the fifteenth century many artists indicated their authorship of a print by incorporating a signature or monogram into the matrix design, what is called “signed in the plate,” or “plate signature.” While some prints were pencil signed as early as the late eighteenth century, the practice of signing one’s work in pencil or ink did not really become common practice until the late 1880’s. At this time, it was done for the benefit of collectors; artists and publishers noted that when presented with a choice, collectors preferred to buy pencil-signed impressions rather than unsigned ones. The practice spread rapidly and today it is customary for original prints to be signed by the artist. An unsigned impression of the same print is generally not as commercially valuable. When a print is described simply as “signed” it should mean that it is signed in pencil, ink or crayon; a plate signature should not be described as “signed.” A stamped signature should be described as such.

Second edition. A second edition is a later printing, usually authorized by the artist or by his heirs, from the original matrix, after an edition of declared number has already been printed. It should be annotated as a second or subsequent edition. Sometimes second editions are made, many years after the first, because the artist originally printed only four or five impressions, hardly amounting to any edition at all. Other times, they are simply a method of extending the commercial possibilities of the matrix to a greatly expanded market. A photographically produced replica of the original print, whether printed in a limited edition or not, is not a second edition; it is a reproduction.

Restrikes. Theoretically, these are any printings made after the first edition. A more useful definition would define restrikes as later impressions not authorized by the author or his heirs, as opposed to authorized subsequent editions. The inevitable problem with restrikes is that they are printed in almost unlimited quantities, thus diluting the value of every individual impression. While some restrikes are of good appearance, the excessive printing of the matrix tends to wear it out and many restrikes are only ghostly images of what the print is supposed to be. In the case of images that may be intrinsically valuable (i.e. Rembrandt etchings), the worn-out copper plate is frequently reworked several centuries later so that while the restrike may be said to have come from the original plate, there is hardly anything left of the original work on the plate, even the plate signature often being re-etched by someone else.

Posthumous Edition. This one is printed from a matrix after the death of the artist. It has usually been authorized by the artist’s heirs or is the product of a publisher who previously purchased the matrix from the artist. It should be limited in some way (though not necessarily hand-numbered) or it becomes simply a limitless restrike. Posthumous editions of prints that were pencil signed in their original edition frequently bear stamped signatures authorized by the artist’s heirs or the publisher.

Cancelling Plates. In modern terms, after a limited edition of a print is completed, the plate or stone or block may be erased or defaced with lines or holes to discourage further printing. This ensures the integrity of the size of the original edition by either preventing any further printings or by making any later printings recognizably different from the original ones. In earlier times, matrices were often printed until they wore out or until there was no further demand for the print, although lithographic stones, being very expensive, were usually erased by regrinding to make way for another image. The physical cancellation of plates began, like pencil signatures, sometime around the 1880’s but it has not been universally practiced.

Publisher. A publisher is one who underwrites the printing and marketing of an artist’s prints. An artist may be his own publisher, but this is no longer as common as it was. A publisher brings together artist and printer (assuming the artist does not do his own printing). The printer may also himself be a publisher. This is not a new idea. There were print publishers already in the sixteenth century and the great majority of original prints made in the nineteenth century were commissioned and brought to market by publishers.


The listings below describe the principal techniques in traditional and contemporary printmaking. Each of the various methods of printmaking yields a distinctive appearance, and an artist will choose a technique in order to achieve a specific, desired effect. Artists may, and do, combine different techniques. Since some modern techniques are quite complicated, some artists collaborate with a master printer to help create the final work.

There are variants of these techniques (for example, crayon-manner engraving, stipple engraving, soft-ground etching) and combinations of techniques (etching and aquatint, lithography with pochoir coloring). There are also additional techniques, such as embossing, gypsography, sulfur tint and roulette, which have been used at specific times and places or in combination with other techniques. Finally, there are photo-reproductive techniques, such as heliogravure, gillotage, collotype, photo-lithography or photo-etching, the products of which are generally not considered to be original prints, but which may on occasion have been used in combination with other techniques to produce an original work.

Relief Printing

In this technique, the artist sketches a composition on a block of material and then cuts away pieces from the surface, leaving a raised area which will receive the ink. A roller is then used to apply ink to this raised surface and the image transferred to paper with a press or by hand burnishing or rubbing. Since the recessed, cut-away areas do not receive ink, they appear white on the printed image. Relief prints are characterized by bold dark-light contrasts and an impress into the paper of the inked lines. They primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut.

Woodcut is the earliest and most enduring, in that it is still practiced, of all print techniques. While woodcuts were first seen in ninth-century China, Western artists have made woodcut prints since the fourteenth century. They were originally conceived as religions icons and sold as souvenirs of a pilgrimage to some holy site. Woodcut soon became a popular medium for the mass distribution of religious and instructive imagery in Europe, not least through books since, with the invention of movable type, the woodblock matrix could be set in the same press with the text and both text and image printed together. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, woodcuts were developed in Japan to an exceptional level of artistic achievement, what is known as the ukiyo-e period or style.

Wood Engravings are made from the end-grain surface of very hard wood, usually boxwood, as opposed to woodcuts, which are made from side-grain planks of wood neither so hard nor so expensive. Rather than cutting away non-printing areas with a knife, wood engravings are made with fine engraving tools which are used to engrave the non-printing areas with incredible precision and detail. As in woodcuts, it is the surface that takes the ink and prints.

Chiaroscuro Woodcuts involve the use of several blocks, often one for each color to be used and sometimes one to outline the composition of the image. The print is made by printing a sheet of paper with each of the blocks in turn, using some method of registration to avoid misplacement or overlapping. Where a non-printing area has been cut out of all the blocks, the natural white of the paper shows through in the finished print, giving the reason for the name Chiaroscuro (Light-Dark). Usually no more than three or four locks are used and the purpose of the technique is to imitate the appearance of a wash drawing, not to attempt to capture reality.

Color Woodcuts, a product of the nineteenth century in the West, use the same techniques as chiaroscuro but often carried to enormous complexity of multiple blocks and over-lapping, and they commonly employ more realistic colors. The greater the complexity, the greater the rate of failed or imperfect impressions, so impressions of many color woodcuts are both rare and expensive. In Japan the color woodcut had much earlier become the dominant print technique and the complexities and subtleties of the greatest masterpieces have probably never been equaled elsewhere.

White Line Woodcut. This is a technique developed in America that allows a color woodcut print to be produced from a single block. The outline of the design is cut away (so that it will not print) and the desired colors are painted on the block, always separated by the cut-away outline. When printed, the image shows a white line delimiting each area of color.

Linocuts are printed from a linoleum block, usually backed with wood for reinforcement. The linoleum is handled in exactly the same way as a wood block but, since it does not have a wood grain, the surface of the resulting print will have less texture. Color linocuts are produced by the same method as color woodcuts. The material takes all types of lines but is most suited to large designs with contrasting tints.

Intaglio Printing

Intaglio comes from the Italian word intagliare, meaning, “to incise.” In intaglio printing, an image is incised with a pointed tool or “bitten” with acid into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. The plate is covered with ink and then wiped so that only the incised grooves contain ink. The plate and a dampened sheet of paper are then run through a press which applies pressure to create the print. Usually the paper sheet is larger than the plate so that the physical impress of the plate edges, or the platemark, shows on the paper. The ink on the print tends to be slightly raised above the surface of the paper.

The intaglio family of printmaking techniques includes engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, aquatint, and spitbite aquatint.

Engraving is a process in which a plate is marked or incised with a tool called a burin. A burn works on a copper plate like a plow on a field. As it is moved across the plate, copper shavings, called burr, are forced to either side of the lines being created and these are usually cleaned from the plate before inking. An engraved line may be deep or fine, has a sharp and clean appearance and tapers to an end. The process is slow and painstaking and generally produces formal-looking results.

Drypoint prints are created by scratching a drawing into a metal plate with a needle or other sharp tool. This technique allows the greatest freedom of line, from the most delicate hairline to the heaviest gash. In drypoint the burr is not scraped away from the surface but stays on the surface of the plate to print a velvety cloud of ink until it is worn away by repeated printings. Drypoint plates (particularly the burr on them) wear more quickly than etched or engraved plates and therefore allow for fewer satisfactory impressions and show far greater differences from first impression to last.

Mezzotint is a technique of engraving areas of tone rather than lines. In this method, the entire surface of the plate is roughed by a spiked tool called a rocker so that, if inked, at that point, the entire plate would print in solid black. The artist then works “from black to white” by scraping or burnishing areas so that they will hold less or no ink, yielding modulated tones. Because of its capabilities for producing almost infinite gradations of tone and tonal areas, mezzotint has been the most successful technique for the black-and-white adaptation of oil-painted images to the print medium.

Etching has been a favorite technique for artists for centuries, largely because the method of inscribing the image is so similar to drawing with a pencil or pen. An etching begins with a metal plate (originally iron but now usually copper) that has been coated with a waxy substance called a “ground.” The artist creates the composition by drawing through the ground with a stylus to expose the metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath which “bites” or chemically dissolves the metal in the exposed lines. For printing the ground is removed, the plate is inked and then wiped clean. It is then covered with a sheet of dampened paper and run through a press, which not only transfers the ink but forces the paper into the lines, resulting in the raised character of the lines on the impression. Etched lines usually have blunt rather than tapering ends.

Aquatint is an etching process concerned with areas of tone rather than line. For this technique, the plate is covered with a ground or resin that is granular rather than solid (as in etching) and bitten, like etching, with acid. The acid bites between the granules. The design, wholly in tonal areas not line, is produced by protecting certain areas of the plate from the acid with an impervious varnish, by multiple bitings to produce different degrees of darkness, and by the use of several different resins with different grains.

Spitbite Aquatint involves painting strong acid directly onto the aquatint ground of a prepared plate. Depending upon the time the acid is left on the plate, light to dark tones can be achieved. To control the acid application, saliva, ethylene glycol or Kodak Photoflo solution can by used. Traditionally, a clean brush was coated with saliva, dipped into nitric acid and brushed onto the ground, hence the term “spitbite.” An earlier but related technique, usually called lavis, involved painting the plate directly with acid, essentially drawing with acid rather than ink, and then washing it off when the desired effect had been achieved. Used usually – and only by certain artists- in conjunction with etching, there are few known works of pure lavis work.

Planographic printing. As suggested by the name, planographic printing includes all those techniques in which the ink is neither pressed down onto the paper nor raised above the surface of the paper, but lies in a flat plane on the surface. In planographic techniques the pressure of the press, if indeed there is a press at all, is generally much lighter than with relief or intaglio printing.

Lithography. Invented in 1798, lithography is perhaps best known from the prints of the 1890s by artists like Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. The process is based on the mutual antipathy of oil and water. To make a lithograph, the artist uses and oily or greasy medium such as a crayon or tusche (an oily liquid wash) to draw a composition on a flat, ground stone. The surface of the stone is then flooded with water, which is repelled by the greasy areas and stays only where the drawing isn’t. Printer’s ink (oily) is applied to the stone with a roller and it, in turn, sticks only to the greasy sections, as the water repels it elsewhere. The stone is then covered with a sheet of paper and run through the press to create the print. Though lithography literally means “stone drawing,” in modern times the expensive and unwieldy limestone block has often been replaced by a grained metal plate, in which case the print is sometimes called a zincograph. The stone or plate, it should be noted, is not etched or engraved in any way but simply acts as a solid surface for the antipathetic actions of oil and water. A transfer lithograph, in French parlance, an autographie, is one in which the original design was drawn on a paper made especially for the process and then mechanically (not photographically) transferred to the stone or plate.

A photo-lithograph is generally a reproduction and not an original print. Color lithographs are made through the use of several stones or plates to separate the colors and printing the same sheet of paper with each one of them in turn. A lithotint, in traditional usage and as made by J.A.M. Whistler, is a lithograph in which the image is created on the stone with a brush and oil-based ink in the manner of a wash drawing. It is otherwise handled and printed exactly like a crayon lithograph.

Screenprinting (serigraphy, silk screen) is a versatile printing process based on the stencil principle. It was made famous in the 1960s when artists such as Andy Warhol exploited its bold, commercial look to make Pop icons. To make a screenprint, a fine woven fabric is tightly stretched and attached to a metal or sturdy wood frame to form the printing screen. A stencil is created on the screen by applying a “blockout” (glue, paper, hand-cut film, or photosensitive emulsion or gelatin film) to all non-image areas. Ink is then applied to the entire screen using a squeegee which forces the ink to pass through the open area of the stencil onto paper or other material. For works with more than one color, a separate screen is required for each color.

Cliché-Verre, or glass print, is different from every other print technique in that the image on the paper is not produced with ink but with light-sensitive chemicals. The basic cliché-verre is made by coating a clear glass plate with collodion or printer’s ink and drawing a design through that coating with a stylus. A sheet of photosensitized paper is then placed under it and the assemblage exposed to light (usually sunlight). The image will be received onto the photo paper, exactly in the way that a photographic print is made from a negative, and the image is then chemically fixed. A more sophisticated technique involves painting the design on the glass, the varying densities of the ink or paint appearing on the final print as varying shades of white to black. The technique is proto-photographic, but not reproductive since there is no camera involved. It was especially popular with Corot, Daubigny and other Barbizon artists.

Digital Prints. Artists who create their works digitally or use digital manipulation in order to create a print may print them from a computer using a large-scale ink jet printer. The ink is dispersed by a sophisticated print head in a fine mist of minute droplets in order to deliver a continuous tone image. “Iris” prints are made using an ink jet printer manufactured by IRIS. These prints can be made using highly-saturated, archival, water-based inks. The Epson process is often used in projects that involve a combination of printing techniques.

Monotype/Monoprint. As their names imply, monotypes and monoprints (the words are often used interchangeably but shouldn’t be) are prints that have an edition of one, though sometimes a second, weaker impression can be taken from the matrix. A monotype is made by drawing a design in printing ink on any smooth surface, then covering that matrix with a sheet of paper and passing it through a press. The resulting image will be an exact reverse of the original drawing, but relatively flatter because of the pressure of the press.

A monoprint is made by taking an already etched and inked plate and adding to the composition by manipulating additional ink on the surface of the plate. This produces an impression different in appearance from a conventionally printed impression from the same plate. Since it is virtually impossible to manipulate the additional ink twice the same way, every monoprint impression will be different from every other one. Degas made monotypes; Whistler made monoprints.

Pochoir is a direct method of hand coloring through a stencil. The stencil itself is usually knife cut from thin-coated paper, paperboard, plastic or metal and the ink or paint is applied with a brush through the stencil to the paper beneath. Multi-colored pochoirs are produced with multiple stencils, and the technique has often been used to add colors to black and white lithographs.

Other Techniques

Collagraph takes its name from the French colle, meaning glue, and the Greek graphos, meaning drawing. An image is composed from a variety of textured materials glued onto a solid base such as cardboard or wood. This is the matrix. The plate may be printed as a relief by rolling ink onto the surface or, alternatively, it may be printed as an intaglio by spreading the ink over the entire matrix and then wiping it off the raised surface. Paper is placed over the inked plate and it is run through a press or printed with hand pressure to transfer the ink. Essentially, it is a print from a collage.

A Counterproof is made by placing a dampened sheet of paper on top of a pastel or charcoal drawing and applying pressure to transfer the image to the dampened paper.