History of Printmaking Materials & Techniques

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  • 0:05 What Is Printmaking?
  • 1:11 Woodblock Printing
  • 1:47 Intaglio Printing
  • 3:24 Lithography
  • 4:09 Screen Printing
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of art-making method results in multiple works of art? Have you ever tried to create a print? In this lesson, explore the history of different printmaking materials and techniques.

What Is Printmaking?

Some artists use creative processes to make multiple, almost identical two-dimensional images. These processes, which involve different materials and techniques, are called printmaking.

Printmaking is a way of making art by first creating an image on a prepared surface called a matrix or printing plate. When the matrix is inked and exposed to or pressed into paper, it produces a copy of the image. Each looks almost the same, although they might have subtle differences. Each is also considered a unique work of art.

Printmaking developed in China and other parts of the East thousands of years ago. In the West, it appeared around the 15th century after the introduction of reliable paper manufacturing. In both parts of the world, printmaking began as a means to communicate words.

Printmaking methods have changed over time, and some artists used more than one method to create their work. It's a long and fascinating list, but we can't discuss them all. In this lesson, we'll focus on a series of processes that marked important turning points in printmaking in Western art.

Woodblock Printing

Woodblock printing, the earliest known printing method, developed in China around the 5th century CE before coming to Europe. Woodblock printing became important during the German Renaissance, roughly between 1430 and 1580. It used sharp tools like knives and chisels to cut an image into a wood block, which was then inked and printed.

Woodblock is a type of relief printing, where the surfaces that aren't to be printed are cut away, leaving the lines to be printed as a raised surface. You can recognize woodblock prints by their very linear quality and their dark, blocky lines.

Intaglio Printing

Around the mid-16th century, another printing method supplanted woodblocks. That method, intaglio printing, used metal instead of wood as its matrix. In intaglio printing, an image was cut into a metal plate, which was then was inked. After the ink was applied, it was rubbed off the surface but remained in the cut grooves. When the plate was run through a printing press, ink was forced into paper, leaving an impression of the image.

The two main methods of intaglio printing were engraving and etching. Engraving was done on a soft metal plate, often copper. Using a sharp-tipped metal tool called a burin, the artist carefully scratched an image directly into the surface of the plate. The plate was then inked and printed. Sometimes engraving is also referred to as drypoint.

In etching, the artist coated a metal plate with an acid-resistant substance. They used a sharp tool to draw an image on the plate, called an etching point. In etching, the artist didn't have to scratch the image into the metal. Instead, the drawing exposed the metal below the treated surface. When the metal plate was finished, it was dipped in acid. The acid ate into the drawn lines and created deep grooves. When finished, the plate was removed from the acid, cleaned, inked, and printed, leaving the impression of the drawn lines in the print.

In general, engravings and etchings look similar, but there are subtle differences. Engraved images have more of a drawn quality with fine, delicate lines. Etchings have slightly darker, fuzzier lines. Sometimes artists like Rembrandt used both processes, even in the same image.

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