Skip to main content

Original Prints

In a world where digital reproductive techniques are commonplace the ‘print’ is sometimes regarded as a cheap reproduction of an ‘original’ piece of art.

Original Printmaking however is the process of creating by hand multiple versions of an original piece of art from a plate created for the sole purpose of printmaking. The plate is the original and there will be a number of prints  that will differ slightly as they are printed individually. 

We hope that by increasing awareness of the time, technical skill and ingenuity required to produce original prints we will be able to share with visitors our love and appreciation of these most fascinating works of art.

We now show the work of over forty original printmakers in the gallery, framed and unframed, using the following techniques

The first important distinction is the difference between two types of prints: 

Relief vs Intaglio

A relief print results from an inked surface being pressed against the paper. The rest of the surface is carved away leaving the image proud. The printing surface can be of a variety of materials. Most of us are familiar with the potato prints we did at school but also in this category are wood engraving, woodcut and linocut. They require a relatively light degree of pressure to imprint the ink on the paper so this may be done by hand using a baren or even the back of a spoon or by using a mechanical press. 

The intaglio prints are those involving the incision of a design into a metal plate, intaglio is an Italian word meaning ‘engrave or incise’.

The metal used by the great printmakers of history such as Durer and Rembrandt was copper. Other metals used were iron, brass, bronze and steel. The most commonly used metal today is zinc.  The incision can be created in a variety of ways using specific tools or acid. The plate is then covered in ink which is pushed into the grooves on the plate. The surface is wiped clean leaving ink contained within the incised areas. The image is then printed onto paper which has been moistened to absorb the ink. The pressure required to ensure that the paper enters the grooves to pick up the ink is significant and requires a mechanical press. This degree of pressure marks the paper around the end of the plate creating what is known as a plate mark. All intaglio prints can be identified by the appearance of such a mark. 

Techniques of Printmaking 

Wood engraving was first developed at the end of the seventeenth century by Thomas Bewick who trained as a metal engraver. He found that cutting wood across the grain (as opposed to along the grain as in woodcuts) enable a much finer image to emerge. The prints are usually very detailed and are mostly black and white. 

Linocut prints first appeared in the twentieth century with artists finding the newly invented linoleum an easier material to carve than wood and much cheaper to buy than the metal plates required for etching.

Engraving has been used as a way of decorating objects – metal, glass and precious stones – for many centuries. In the fifteenth century in Germany engraved plates began to be used as a way of creating multiple versions of a printed image. A burin is the tool used to make the marks on the plate. This is a small steel rod with a sharp point and a handle. The handle is held firmly in the palm of the hand and the point is pushed at an angle across the plate removing a sliver of metal. Any rough edges raised are smoothed away. There are few artists creating original engravings these days as other techniques have become easier and more accessible.  

Dry point also involves the use of a sharp instrument to incise the metal but differs from etching in pushing excess metal to the side of the furrow rather than gouging it out. This metal is known as the burr which is the characteristic feature of a dry point print. As well as going in the groove the ink is also retained in the burr giving the edges of the printed line a soft blurred appearance. 

Etching uses acid rather than tools to mark the surface of the plate. Firstly an acid resistant substance called the ground is used to cover the plate. A needle or stylus is then used to remove small amounts of the ground with each mark. Removing the ground requires a lot less effort and time than engraving metal and the ground can be reapplied if a mistake is made. The creation of the design is more like drawing than engraving making it easy for artists to reproduce their own images multiple times. When the design is complete the plate is immersed in a container of acid which bites into the exposed areas leaving a groove. The plate is removed from the acid and the ground cleaned off. The plate is then ready for inking and printing as with an engraved plate. 

Mezzotint is a form of intaglio printing that was invented in the 17th century. It was enhanced and disseminated by Charles I’s nephew Prince Rupert. He invented a tool called a rocker with multiple small teeth that if ‘rocked’ over the surface of the plate in all directions gradually built up a surface covered in tiny dots. The more times the rocker moves across the surface the finer the haze of dots and the darker the prints. Scrapers and burnishing tools are used to create the design on the incised metal creating lighter areas which hold less or no ink during the printing process. This allows for a subtle variation and gradation of tone that approaches that achieved by drawing and painting. 

Collagraphy involves sticking different substances on to a board to create a variety of textures which when inked produce prints of endless variety. The word comes from the same stem ‘colla-’ meaning glue as in ‘collage’. The surface may be raised using glue, textiles, carborandum, sticky tape, plaster, animal or vegetable matter (eg feathers and leaves) and textured paper such as embossed wallpaper. The surface of the board may be incised to create dark areas of ink. This therefore is a technique that may combine relief and intaglio elements in the same print. 

Screen printing (also called silkscreen or serigraph) was originally developed as a technique for printing designs onto fabric using a template stencil. First used in China around 900 AD the technique was adapted in Japan to use human hair instead of silk. Dyes or paint would be pushed through the mesh using a firm brush with parts of the field blocked out to create the design. An extension of this method in the early 20th Century used silk and then synthetic materials for the mesh and a rubber squeegee (abit like a windscreen wiper). The squeegee pushes the ink through the mesh whilst wiping away any ink that the remains above it. These days most stencils are produced photographically using a UV light sensitive emulsion. The emulsion covers the mesh on a frame. An acetate image of the design – the ‘positive’-  is put under the mesh and then the mesh is exposed to UV light. This fixes and hardens the emulsion except where the light is blocked by the design. In these areas the still soft emulsion can be washed away creating the stencil of the design.  A print with multiple colours is built up using a series of meshes prepared and inked separately which superimpose the image. 

Lithography (‘litho’- Stone) was invented in 1798 in Munich by Alois Senefelder using limestone blocks from the Solnhofen region in Bavaria. This very smooth limestone is used as a drawing surface. The design is marked onto the stone using a greasy crayon or a crayon based ink wash called tusche. The image is fixed on the surface of the stone using a combination of gum arabic and nitric acid. The design is then washed off leaving a ghost like image on the surface of the stone. There remains sufficient grease from the design material within the stone that when an inked roller is passed over the wetted stone only the greasy areas attract the ink whilst the rest of the wet stone repels it. Paper is then laid on top of the stone and the press passed over it to create the print. Multiple colours are obtained from using two or more stones – one for each colour.