Printmaking Terminology

Definition of an original print

  • The artist alone must create the master image on stone, or whatever material is used to make the print.
  • The print -if not printed by the artist- should be hand printed by someone under the artist's direct supervision.
  • Each impression should be approved and signed by the artist and the master image (the matrix) destroyed or cancelled. The original print is not a copy of anything else, not a copy of a painting or another print. If an artist chooses to copy his own work, originally done in another medium, it would be a print done after an oil (or other medium). An original print is a creative endeavor by the artist and, therefore, is as valid an expression as is any other form of visual art - whether it be a painting or a sculpture. The original print is a work of art in its own right.

History of the Print

Many of the most famous images in art are, in fact, prints. Take for example, one of Durer's most famous works "Apocalypse" which is a woodcut and, therefore, a multiple original. There are three "generalities" of printmaking: intaglio methods, relief methods and planographic methods.

The following information will help to clarify some of the terminology that is associated with print collecting, which may be somewhat intimidating. 

Since the beginning of history, men scratched and incised lines into stone, skin or bark. The technique was continued by Greek designers and by the Etruscans and Romans. It was brought to great refinement by the artisan-engraver and the artist, collaborating to produce a multiple image: the print.

We do not know who first thought of the idea of rubbing ink into the lines incised in metal by an engraver, and then coaxing it out by pressing a dampened sheet of paper against the metal surface. But the practice seems to have begun near the beginning of the 16th century. 

The areas to be printed are incised by cutting, scratching, or etching below the printing surface to hold ink in the now recessed areas. The paper is placed on top of the plate and together they are pulled through the press. The pressure required to pick up the ink leaves a visable plate mark within the margin of the sheet of paper.  

Intaglio Methods



The design is cut into the surface of the matrix (commonly a copper plate) by a tool called a burin. After inking, the plate surface is wiped clean and the ink remains in the incised lines.




The image is drawn onto the plate with a steel needle. The incising leaves a ridge called a "burr", much like a plow leaves furrows of dirt to either side as it cuts through the ground. When the plate is printed, the burr holds some ink, and produces a soft velvety line, characteristic of the drypoint.




The artist coats the surface of the metal plate (usually copper) with an acid-resistant ground. Then, with a needle, the artist draws the image into the ground exposing the copper below. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath which cuts lines ("bites") into the plate. After the plate is bitten to the artist's satisfaction, it is cleaned, inked and printed.


Soft Ground Etching


The artist prepares the plate in much the same way as an etching, using a different kind of ground. This ground allows the artist, after laying a piece of paper on top, to draw the image with a pencil. The coating under the pressure of the pencil adheres to the paper which is then lifted off, exposing the copper underneath. The plate is then bitten in the same way as an etching.




The plate surface is pitted with a tool called a raker. The plate is eventually covered with thousands of tiny "pits" which hold ink and would print a deep velvety black if not further worked. The artist then scrapes and burnishes areas of the plate he wishes to print less darkly, so the effect is of tone rather than line. The artist essentially draws light areas into the image.




This technique is used to create tone and texture in a print. The plate is sprinkled with a powdered resin, heated so the resin melts and clings, then given an acid bath to bite the areas not covered by the resin, creating a porus ground. Aquatint is rarely employed by itself, but rather in combination with other intaglio methods.


Relief Prints





The technique for making woodcuts by the relief process was discovered by the Chinese. It is the oldest form of printmaking, and appeared in China about a thousand years before the first prints ever appeared in Europe. Most artists in the 13th and 14th century who made woodcuts remain anonymous. The first major artist to use the medium was Albrecht Durer. The principal of the woodcut is similar to the workings of a rubber stamp. The artist cuts away the areas on the woodblock that he does not want to print, leaving raised (or in relief) the image that is to be printed.


Linoleum Cut


This method is done in much the same way as the woodcut, except a linoleum block is used. (The most important linoleum cuts were executed by Picasso, who invented a new "reduction" method.)


Planographic Methods






The artist draws the image directly on a highly polished limestone using a grease-based crayon, or grease-based liquid called tusche, similar to paint. The stone is then prepared for printing by applying a chemical solution of gum arabic and nitric acid to make it more receptive to water. In order to make the print, the stone is dampened with water, which will not adhere to the drawn image because of the natural antipathy of grease to water. When ink is rolled over the stone, it will only adhere to the grease-based image. Then the paper is pressed against the stone, and only the ink on the greasy image is transferred. The create a color lithograph, a separate stone for each color is used and must be printed separately.




The artist prepares a screen of silk, or synthetic, in which all areas other then the one that is to be printed are blocked out. Paper is placed under the stencil and ink is forced through. For each color a separate screen in prepared.


Common Print Terms


Impressions for the use of the artist outside of the regular edition. (Artist Proof)

à la poupée 

A process by which all colors are applied to the plate and printed simultaneously, creating varying impressions.

bon à tire

Meaning "right to print", this impression serves as a guide for the rest of the edition.

Cancelled Plate

The plate is holed or scratched over in order to prevent further printing.


Catalogue Raisonné 

A catalog containing a description of all the work done by an artist.


Counter Proof

The artist places a piece of paper over a print while the ink is still wet, and pulls another impression from the print itself.

Edition or Edition Size


A completed run of prints is usually limited. There appears to be no minimum or maximum number used. Editions of 100 or less are considered small. Original prints have been executed to accompany written texts and such editions may number in the thousands.

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