Traditional printmaking is an incredibly diverse area of the fine arts—and one that does not always get the attention it deserves. Traditional prints have a unique beauty that sets them apart from drawings and paintings—the graphic shapes and colors of woodcuts, the intricate tonal variations of etchings. Well-known artists throughout history, including Rembrandt and Hiroshige, Cassatt and Picasso, have created prints in addition to their other work, exploring the techniques and artistic effects only found in this medium.
Printmaking is a very process-oriented and time-consuming art form requiring strict attention to detail. Once you get a glimpse of the complex and fascinating techniques used to create prints, I believe you may have a deeper appreciation for this remarkable art form—and perhaps you’ll consider a print the next time you’re looking for new artwork!
The Essence of Printmaking
Printmaking, at its most basic, is an indirect method of creating a two-dimensional work of art—usually one that is reproducible. Rather than directly painting on paper, the artist creates his image on a plate of some kind, then transfers the image to paper or another substrate to create the final work of art.
There are many steps in the printmaking process: creating the block, preparing the paper, inking the block, running it through the press, allowing the print to dry. In this series, I will primarily focus on the techniques artists use to create their printing blocks or plates, because these techniques are largely what make different print disciplines unique.
Printing plates and blocks can be created from a wide variety of materials, including wood, linoleum, copper, or glass. Printing plates can be used many times, allowing the artist to create multiple prints. The ability to create multiples is an important component of printmaking, yet, as artist Midge Black explains, printmaking is not simply about reproduction:
“A fine art print is different than a copy; it is original art made from an array of materials. A single original print goes through many creative states until it satisfies the artist and is printed in final form.”
Different Kinds of Printmaking
There are many different printmaking techniques, but two of the most common disciplines are relief and intaglio. In this post, I will focus on relief printing. Stay tuned for the next two posts in this series, where I will discuss intaglio printing and a few other interesting techniques.
Relief prints are created by carving wood or linoleum blocks with hand tools, removing the areas that form the “negative space” of the image, that is, the areas that will not be inked.
The challenge (and often, the appeal) of relief prints is that they result in images with only positive and negative space—there is no shading. But that doesn’t mean that these prints are simplistic—far from it! This piece by Midge Black showcases the intricate marks and dramatic visual texture possible with a single-color relief print.
Artists can also create multicolor relief prints. One way to do this is to use multiple blocks carved with different parts of the image and inked with different colors. This 7-color print by Penny Feder, for example, is created using several pine and plywood blocks (note how she uses wood grain as a design element).
It is also possible to create complex, multicolored images using a single block. This technique is called reduction, because it involves successively carving away (or “reducing”) the block for each new color.
Reduction techniques require careful planning. The artist begins by printing the color that covers the broadest area, and continues carving and printing until he finishes with the color that covers the smallest area. The end results are intricate and richly detailed, as can be seen in the development of this print by William Hays.