What is print?

A print is an image created on one surface, and transferred to another, in a process which is repeatable, thereby enabling the production of multiple impressions. The number of good impressions it is possible to produce will be limited by the process and the materials used, but may also be artificially limited (as in artists' editions) for commercial reasons. The original work of art is the print itself, rather than the block or plate from which it is printed.

Printmaking processes can be divided into three main categories: relief (woodcut, linocut), intaglio (engraving, etching, aquatint, mezzotint) and planographic processes (screenprint, lithography). More recently, various digital techniques have been introduced. In traditional printmaking processes, a surface is usually coated with ink and pressure is applied to bring it into contact with the paper. The block, plate or screen can be used to make a number of almost identical images.

Relief printing processes:

Relief prints are created by cutting away the areas of the block around the desired image leaving the image itself raised. Alternatively, but less commonly, these raised areas can be built up on the surface of the block. Ink is then applied to the raised area and this surface is transferred to a second surface – typically paper. Woodcut, linocut and wood-engraving are the most common relief printing processes. Woodcuts are made from a wooden block cut lengthwise, like a plank, so that the grain runs along the surface. Wood-engraving is a variant of woodcut in which the image is cut on the dense end-grain of the block.

Woodcut printing

In Europe woodcut, or wood block, printing was first applied to textiles, but in the early 15th century it was adopted for printing images on paper, and was used to print pages in books such as missals (book containing the instructions and text for celebrating mass throughout the year) and bibles and objects such as playing cards.

Manuscript from the Würzburg Missal (Missale Herbipolense), woodcut type printed on vellum, Georg Reyser, about 1484, Würzburg. Museum no. 243:1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Manuscript from the Würzburg Missal (Missale Herbipolense), woodcut type printed on vellum, Georg Reyser, about 1484, Würzburg. Museum no. 243:1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Artists also worked with woodcut printing. In the 16th century the German artist Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) was one of the first to exploit the narrative and expressive potential of printmaking, and made a number of woodcut prints, including a set illustrating scenes from the Passion of Christ.

The Last Supper, from the Large Passion series, woodcut on paper, Albrecht Dürer, 1510, Nuremberg. Museum no. E.703-1940. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Last Supper, from the Large Passion series, woodcut on paper, Albrecht Dürer, 1510, Nuremberg. Museum no. E.703-1940. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The print entitled Nu de profil sur une chaise longue (Le Grand Bois) was made by Henri Matisse in 1906 and is the largest and most impressive of three woodcuts he completed in the same period. It translates the vigour of his colourful Fauve-period paintings into black and white. The block from which the image was printed consists of two thick, joined planks of fruit-wood. Matisse cut away the unwanted wood around the design with knives, chisels and gouges, leaving the lines, dashes and dots standing in relief.

(Left) Nu de profil sur une chaise longue (Le Grand Bois), woodcut on laid van Gelder paper, Henri Matisse, 1906. Museum no. E.276-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Matisse Foundation. (Right) Woodblock for Nu de profil sur une chaise longue (Le Grand Bois), incised fruit-wood, Henri Matisse, 1906. Museum no. E.609-1975. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Matisse Foundation
(Left) Nu de profil sur une chaise longue (Le Grand Bois), woodcut on laid van Gelder paper, Henri Matisse, 1906. Museum no. E.276-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Matisse Foundation. (Right) Woodblock for Nu de profil sur une chaise longue (Le Grand Bois), incised fruit-wood, Henri Matisse, 1906. Museum no. E.609-1975. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Matisse Foundation

Colour woodblock prints were popular in Japan from their development in the 1760s until the closing decades of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). The earliest examples of woodblock printing were simple black and white prints taken from a single block. Sometimes these prints were coloured by hand, but this process was expensive. In the 1740s, additional woodblocks were used to print the colours pink and green, but by 1765 the technique of using multiple colour woodblocks was perfected. The leading artists working with the medium were Katsushika Hokusai (1760 –1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858), two hugely successful landscape painters whose transition into ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) saw the creation of world-famous masterpieces such as Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Hiroshige's series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō.

Suspension Bridge at Mount Gyôdô, woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai, about 1834, Japan. Museum no. E.3778-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Suspension Bridge at Mount Gyôdô, woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai, about 1834, Japan. Museum no. E.3778-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lino-cut printing

Lino-cutting is a 20th-century development of woodcut, with a sheet of linoleum (lino) substituted for a wood block. Lino is a soft material that is easy to cut through, but because it crumbles easily it cannot produce fine lines. Lino is inexpensive and easy to work, resulting in it being widely used to introduce amateurs and children to printmaking. It has also been used by many professional artists, including Pablo Picasso, whose designs demonstrate the typically bold character of lino-cut printing.

Toros Vallauris, colour lino-cut, Pablo Picasso, 1958. Museum no. E.1-1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Picasso Foundation
Toros Vallauris, colour lino-cut, Pablo Picasso, 1958. Museum no. E.1-1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Picasso Foundation

Intaglio printing:

Meaning 'to engrave or incise', the Intaglio printing process is the reverse of relief printing, as the image is cut, or 'bitten' (using acid), into the surface of a metal plate. When the plate is inked, the ink is pushed into the incised lines. The plate is then passed through a press with a sheet of dampened paper which pulls the ink out of the lines and transfers them to the paper. The pressure exerted by the press results in an outline of the metal plate itself being impressed into the paper. This is known as the plate-mark. Common examples of Intaglio printing include engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint and mezzotint.

Engraving

To make an engraving, lines are cut into the surface of a copper plate (or later, steel) using a sharp pointed tool called a burin. The technique was developed from the practice of decorating metal with engraved patterns and was first used for printing on paper in the second quarter of the 15th century. Engraving was a means of making original images but was also used for making duplicate copies of other artworks such as Old Master paintings. It is a laborious and time consuming technique requiring considerable skill and control.

Portrait of the goldsmith Louis Roupert, engraving by Louis Cossin after Pierre Rabon,1668, France. Museum no. 28787. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Portrait of the goldsmith Louis Roupert, engraving by Louis Cossin after Pierre Rabon,1668, France. Museum no. 28787. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Etching

The process of etching uses acid to bite the lines of an image into a metal plate. The metal plate, usually copper, is first coated with an acid-resistant substance called the ground. Using a sharp tool, the lines of the image are scratched through this ground, uncovering areas of the metal plate. The back and the edges of the plate are coated in varnish, and the plate is then immersed in acid, which etches or 'bites' into the metal where it has been exposed. The ground and the varnish are then removed and ink is applied to the plate, taking care to ensure that it is pressed into the etched lines. The plate is then wiped clean to remove all the ink on the surface before being passed through a printing press under pressure with a sheet of dampened paper. The pressure forces the ink out of the etched lines and onto the paper, resulting in a mirror image of the design on the plate.

Rembrandt was probably the most important and influential European artist to work with etching. Our print of Virgin and Child with the Cat and Snake is an early impression from the plate and exhibits features not visible in later etchings due to wear on the plate. To prolong its life, the plate was reworked several times over the period from 1654 when Rembrandt made it, until 1906, and further impressions were taken long after Rembrandt's death. Later etchings show lines added to the plate during reworking – particularly where the Virgin's arm cradles the back of infant Jesus – that aren't present in the early prints.

Virgin and Child with the Cat and Snake, etched copper printing plate and etching, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, The Netherlands. Museum no. E.655-1993 and CAI.646. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Virgin and Child with the Cat and Snake, etched copper printing plate and etching, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, The Netherlands. Museum no. E.655-1993 and CAI.646. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Drypoint

Drypoint is a similar process to etching, but the lines are cut directly into the metal plate, without the use of a ground or an acid bath. A sharp metal instrument is used to carve furrows into the plates, pushing the excess rough metal curls (known as burrs) to the edges. The burr is not polished away, but left on the plate when it is inked and as result the lines of a drypoint print have a soft blurred quality from the ink held by the burr.

The image of an owl by Salvador Dali shows the blurred effect of drypoint very clearly. The use of this technique is appropriate for the subject, as the soft lines suggest the featheriness of the bird.

Owl, colour drypoint on paper, Salvador Dalí, 1968. Museum no. E.230-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Dalí Foundation
Owl, colour drypoint on paper, Salvador Dalí, 1968. Museum no. E.230-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Dalí Foundation

Mezzotint

Like etching and drypoint, mezzotint begins with a metal plate – usually copper – which is then prepared by pitting recessed lines into the surface to hold the ink. However, mezzotint, meaning 'half-tone', allows a more subtle and nuanced range of tones. The plate is prepared so that it will print a deep even black. This is done by pitting its surface systematically by working over it with a serrated chisel-like tool known as a rocker. Then metal tools including a scraper and a burnisher are used to smooth and polish those areas to produce light and shade in the finished image. Smoother and more polished areas of the recess will hold less ink and so appear lighter in the print.

The print A Heath is from one of the most important series of mezzotints ever published. Towards the end of his life, John Constable began a project to supervise and publish a series of mezzotints based on a selection of his oil sketches and finished paintings. Known as English Landscape, it consisted of 22 landscape subjects executed in mezzotint by David Lucas. Lucas translated the painter's original works into a new graphic language, conveying the tactile quality of Constable's brushstrokes, as well as his sharp contrasts of light and dark and subtle tonal gradations.

A Heath, from the English Landscape series, mezzotint, painted and published by John Constable, engraved by David Lucas, 1831, England. Museum no. E.927-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A Heath, from the English Landscape series, mezzotint, painted and published by John Constable, engraved by David Lucas, 1831, England. Museum no. E.927-2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Planographic printing:

Unlike the traditional relief and intaglio processes, planographic processes involve printing from a flat surface. The most widely used are lithography and screenprinting.

Lithography

The term 'lithography' comes from the Greek meaning 'drawing on stone'. To make a lithograph the artist draws or paints directly onto the printing surface. This was traditionally a block of stone but is now more often a metal plate – zinc or aluminium. The image is drawn or painted on the stone or metal plate with a greasy ink (tusche). The plate is then washed with a mixture of gum arabic (naturally occuring gum from the hardened sap of acacia trees) and weak acid to make the blank areas receptive to water. It is then washed with water which is repelled by the greasy ink but adheres to the blank surfaces. The plate is then inked. The ink adheres only to the greasy areas. The plate and paper are then put through a press to create the print. The process can be repeated to add further colours.

Arbeiterfrau (Working-Class Woman), colour lithograph, Käthe Kollwitz, 1903, Germany. Museum no. E.6208-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Arbeiterfrau (Working-Class Woman), colour lithograph, Käthe Kollwitz, 1903, Germany. Museum no. E.6208-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Screenprinting

Screenprinting, or silkscreen printing, is a technique suited to creating large, flat areas of colour. Originally a commercial technique, it was widely adopted in the 1960s and 1970s for fine art prints and posters.

A screen is created by attaching a fine silk or synthetic mesh to a wooden frame, keeping the fabric taught and flat. An image is then created on the screen. Like a stencil, parts of the image are made impermeable to ink by blocking the holes in the fabric (using glue, lacquer, film can be used), while others are permeable and allow the ink to pass through. The screen is then placed on top of the paper, and a thick ink is pulled across the screen with a rubber blade called a squeegee, so that ink passes through the screen wherever the mesh has not been blocked. Separate screens are usually used for different colours, as can be seen in Andy Warhol's pop art portrait of Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe, screenprint, Andy Warhol, printed by Aetna Silkscreen Products Inc./ Du-Art Displays, published by Factory Additions, 1973, US. Museum no. CIRC.121-1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS, London 2001
Marilyn Monroe, screenprint, Andy Warhol, printed by Aetna Silkscreen Products Inc./ Du-Art Displays, published by Factory Additions, 1973, US. Museum no. CIRC.121-1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, NY and DACS, London 2001

Digital printing

A digital print is created with the aid of a computer program. The most common type of digital printing is inkjet printing. An inkjet printer transfers ink to paper (or some other material) by spraying ink under high pressure through a number of nozzels. Impact or dot matrix printers fire pin heads out of a mechanism at speed (as in a typewriter) which make an impression on an inked ribbon, thereby transferring the ink from the ribbon to paper or other material.

Northwest D6 by Catherine Yass was created from a small detail in a photograph taken in Tokyo, showing a street scene at night. Using a computer, the detail was repeated in positive and negative, enlarged, and layered to produce the final image. This process of manipulation distorts the original to the point that it becomes hard to read, but it effectively recreates the sensation of sensory overload in a hectic neon-lit city.

Northwest D6 from the Invisible City series, digital inkjet print, Catherine Yass, 2001. Museum no. 1100-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Catherine Yass
Northwest D6 from the Invisible City series, digital inkjet print, Catherine Yass, 2001. Museum no. 1100-2002. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Catherine Yass
Background image: Owl, colour drypoint on paper, Salvador Dalí, 1968. Museum no. E.230-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Dalí Foundation