what is a print?

Table of Contents

types of prints

In the most general terms, a print is a piece of paper on which a design has been imprinted from a matrix made of some selected medium, usually stone, wood, or metal. In an original print the matrix is made by hand, as opposed to a reproduction, which is made by a photomechanical method. Any print issued prior to 1900 is considered to be an antique print, though non-mechanically made prints published before World War II are sometimes considered to be antiques.

Prints fall into three general categories depending on their method of production: reliefintaglio, and planographic.

In a relief print the image is printed from a raised surface on the matrix, so that the printmaker creates the matrix by cutting away that part which he does not want to show in the image. To create a relief print the ink is applied to the raised surface of the matrix, which is then pressed onto a sheet of paper. Examples of relief prints are woodcuts and wood engravings.

In an intaglio print the image is printed from a recessed design in the matrix, so that the printmaker creates the matrix by cutting into it the design he wishes to imprint on the paper. To create an intaglio print the ink is pressed into the design cut in the matrix, the surface is wiped, and the ink is then transferred to the paper under pressure. This process creates the platemark which is the hallmark of an intaglio print. Examples of intaglio prints include engravings, etchings, aquatints, stipples, and mezzotints.

In a planographic print the image is printed from a flat matrix, where the image was created on the surface by use of a grease crayon or with greasy ink. To create a planographic print, water (which is repulsed by the greasy image) is washed onto the surface, and then ink (which is held by the greasy image) is applied to the surface. A press is then used to transfer the image to the paper. Lithographs are planographic prints.

woodcut & wood Engraving

Both woodcuts and wood engravings entail creating a relief image on a block of wood by cutting away the parts that are not to hold ink. The design is usually drawn directly onto the block and then all other parts are cut away. In a woodcut the image is cut from the block parallel to the grain using a knife or a pointed tool called a graver. In a wood engraving the image is cut using a graver on the end of the grain. A chromoxylograph is an image printed in color from a wood block. Because these processes print in relief, they were often used to illustrate relief typeface books and newspapers.

Woodcuts were introduced to Europe in the early fifteenth century (the earliest European woodcut is the “Brussels Madonna” of 1418), but were executed in the Orient as early as the ninth century. The use of woodcuts was spread by the inventions of moveable type and of the printing press in the 1450s. Wood engraving was developed in England in the early eighteenth century, firmly established in Europe by Thomas Bewick at the end of that century, and popularized in America during the Civil War.



An engraving (also called a line engraving) is made by incising a design into a metal plate by applying pressure to the plate with a pointed tool called a graver or burin. Engraving is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark.

The term “engraving” is often used to refer in general to all intaglio prints, with the term “line engraving” used to refer to engravings per se. Strong lines and sharp definition are characteristic of engravings. The earliest known line engravings were issued in the fifteenth century. A method of engraving in a steel plate, which allows for finer detail and many more impressions than does copper, was developed by Thomas Lupton in 1822.


An etching (also called a line etching) is created by covering a metal plate with an acid-resistant layer of wax called a ground and drawing a design through the ground using an etching needle. The plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the exposed lines, thus etching the design into the plate. After dipping the plate in acid, sections of the design can be stopped out with varnish and the plate immersed in the acid again. This creates a deeper bite, and thus darker lines, for those areas not stopped out.

Etching is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. Etching allows for a freer artistic hand than does engraving. The etching process was invented around the fourteenth century as a method of making decorations on armor. The earliest known printed etching was by Urs Graf and is dated 1513. The technique was perfected in the middle of the seventeenth century by Rembrandt.


An aquatint is created by etching sections, rather than lines, of a plate in order to create areas of uniform tone. An aquatint is prepared by applying resin or a similar ground to a metal plate, which is then heated, thus adhering the ground to the metal. This gives a roughness or grain to the plate which adds texture to the image.

The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which bites or etches the plate and creates areas which will hold the ink. The design is created with gradations of tone achieved through repeated acid baths combined with varnish used to stop out areas of lighter tone. Aquatint is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. Aquatinting, with its areas of tone, was often used to duplicate the feel of a watercolor. Some etching was frequently used in an aquatint print to create linear elements in the image. Aquatints were invented by Jean Baptiste Le Prince around 1768, but became especially popular among British printmakers in the first part of the nineteenth century.


A stipple print is created from a metal plate upon which the design has been produced using different sized small dots grouped more or less closely together in order to create areas of tone. A stipple etching is made in the same manner as a line etching, except that the design is composed in the waxy ground with dots created by an etching needle or some other tool. A stipple engraving is created in the same manner as a line engraving, except the design is engraved into the plate using dots made with a stippling burin. Stipple is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. Stipple was used occasionally as early as the fifteenth century, but became popular in the last decade of the eighteenth century.


Mezzotint can be thought of as the inverse of the other intaglio processes, for a mezzotint design is created working from black to white, rather than vice versa. In a mezzotint the metal plate is worked using a rocker, which roughens the entire surface of the plate with tiny holes and burrs. If the plate were printed at this time the image would be completely velvet black. Areas that are to appear in lighter tones or in white are smoothed out on the surface so that they will hold less ink. Mezzotint is an intaglio process, so prints made in this manner will have a platemark. The mezzotint process makes a very richly textured image and was used particularly for portraits. Mezzotint was invented by a German soldier named Ludwig von Siegen around 1642 but was refined later in that century by Abraham Blooteling. Used primarily in the eighteenth century, it was especially popular in England and was often called la manière anglaise. Mezzotinting was relatively unknown in the United States until it was brought to prominence by John Sartain.


A lithograph is created by drawing an image onto a stone (lithography = “stone-drawing”) or metal plate using a grease crayon or a greasy ink called tusche. The process is based on the principle that grease and water do not mix. To create a lithograph, the stone or plate is washed with water –which is repelled by the crayon– and then with ink –which is absorbed by the crayon. The image is printed onto the paper from the stone or plate, which can be re-inked many times without wear. A chromolithograph is a colored lithograph, with at least three colors, in which each color is printed from a separate stone and where the image is composed from those colors. A tinted lithograph is a lithograph whose image is printed from one stone and which has wash color for tinting applied from one or two other stones. Lithography is a planographic process and so no platemark is created when a lithograph is printed.

Lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798 but didn’t come into general use until the 1820s. After that time lithography quickly replaced intaglio processes for most illustrative and commercial applications, for the design was easier to apply to the stone or plate, it was much easier to rework or correct a design, and many more images could be produced without loss of quality than in any of the intaglio processes.


Photomechanical Methods

A photomechanical or process print is created from a matrix upon which the image has been photographically transferred from an original source. There is no direct hand work involved in creating the matrix and thus a photomechanical print is considered to be a reproduction rather than an original print.

Photomechanical methods were developed in the late nineteenth century. A common characteristic of many photomechanical prints is their use of half tone screens which produce an image through the use of small dots. Photomechanical prints include line blocks, half tones, photogravures, photolithographs and collotypes.

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