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Printmaking Techniques
by the Digital Art Practices & Terminology Task Force (DAPTTF)

2005 Digital Art Practices & Terminology Task Force (DAPTTF)

This analysis of printmaking techniques and technologies is divided into two parts: (1) Traditional Printmaking Techniques and (2) Digital Printmaking Technologies.

Note: Reproduction is encouraged, however any reproduction should be accompanied by an appropriate credit, noting that it is published by the Digital Art Practices & Terminology Task Force (DAPTTF), 2005. Questions about reproduction, permissions, or other comments should be addressed to either Harald Johnson (johnson.harald@gmail.com), or to John S. Shaw (john@printhead.net).

Traditional Printmaking Techniques

From the time of Dürer, indeed from the time of ancient China, artists have used a variety of processes to create a repeatable image on paper. These various methods of creating a fine print (a print in the fine arts tradition) have been used and developed through the centuries, adapted for new applications, and continuously evolving. For example, the serigraphic works of Leroy Nieman or Jasper Johns are printed with techniques first used by Chinese artists roughly 2,000 years B.C.

Whereas in this section we are simply describing the range of traditional methods by which printmakers created their works of art, it must be kept in mind that these traditional techniques have been used and adapted by current artists in a variety of ways, today using digital technology to enhance and further the capabilities of these techniques; one example would be monoprints, which today are usually digital prints that are subsequently over-worked individually in the manner of monotypes. (see "Monotypes")

Traditional printmaking techniques fall into four categories: relief printing where the image is created by carving from a flat plane those areas which will not be part of the image, and applying ink to the raised area (e.g., woodblock); intaglio, where the image is created by removing surface and forcing ink into the negative spaces (e.g., etching); stenciling where the negative image is affixed to a fine mesh screen and ink then force through the screen (screenprinting or serigraphy); and planographic printing where the image and negative area are both on the same plane (e.g., lithography).


The woodcut is the art of engraving on wood by hollowing out with chisels areas of a plank of usually cherry wood, pear, apple or boxwood, leaving a design on the surface. The transfer of this design onto paper is achieved by inking the surface with typographic ink and applying pressure with a press. The woodcut technique was used for decorating textiles in China as early as the 5th century AD and by the 15th century it was applied to religious images and playing cards in Europe. The finest exponents of the woodcut in 16th-century Europe were the Germans: Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach.

By the early 19th century woodcuts were largely supplanted in commercial work by the technique of wood engraving (a more exact process where the design is incised on the end of a hardwood block) and it wasn't till the latter part of that century when artists rediscovered woodcuts as a medium of artistic expression. Among these were Edvard Munch, who used softwoods, and Paul Gauguin who achieved interesting effects by sanding the wood. The Japanese, traditional masters of the woodcut, must be acknowledged as important forerunners of much of the work done by westerners throughout the 20th century.

The linocut is a printmaking technique similar to that of the woodcut, the difference being that the image is engraved on linoleum instead of wood. Since linoleum offers an easier surface for working, linocuts offer more precision and a greater variety of effects than woodcuts. Long disparaged by serious artists as not challenging enough, the linocut came into its own after artists like Picasso and Matisse began to work in that technique.


Etching is a method of making prints from a metal plate, usually copper or zinc, which has been bitten with acid. The plate is first coated with an acid-resistant substance (etching ground or varnish) through which the design is drawn with a sharp tool (burin or other). The acid eats the plate through the exposed lines; the more time the plate is left in the acid, the coarser the lines. When the plate is inked and its surface rubbed clean, and it is covered with paper and passed (between the cylinders of an etching press under high pressure) under a cylindrical press, the ink captured in the lines is transferred to the paper.

The first etching on record was that of the Swiss artist, Urs Graf, who printed from iron plates. Albrecht Dürer, though a consummate engraver, made only five etchings, and never really dominated the technique. That was left to later artists like the Italian Parmigianino and, of course, Rembrandt, perhaps the greatest etcher of all time. Later adepts of acid etching were Tiepolo and Canaletto in Italy and, of course, Francisco Goya in Spain. The 20th century saw important bodies of work by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault.

Drypoint is an engraving method in which the design is scratched directly onto the (usually copper) plate with a sharp pointed instrument. Lines in a drypoint print are characterized by a soft fuzziness caused by ink printed from the burr, or rough metal edge lifted up on each side of the furrow made by the etching (drypoint) tool. Drypoint is most often used in combination with other etching techniques, frequently to insert dark areas in an almost-finished print.

Mezzotint or "black manner" is the technique which, contrary to the other methods in use, works from black to white rather than white to black. This is achieved by laying down a texture on a plate by means of a pointed roulette wheel or a sharp rocker. The burrs thus created trap a large quantity of ink and give a rich black. The mezzotint artist then scrapes away the burr in areas he wants to be gray or white. The process produces soft, subtle gradations and is usually combined with etching or engraving which lends clean-lined definition. Historically the technique has been associated with England, and is often referred to as "the English method."

Soft Varnish
Soft varnish or "vernis mou" became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a method of drawing or transferring designs and textures directly onto a plate. When used for drawing, a paper is placed on top of a soft sticky ground and then drawn over. The resulting line is broad and soft, sometimes thought to resemble pencil or chalk drawings. When used to capture textures directly the subject (lace, leaves, flowers, etc.) is laid directly on the soft ground and then passed through the etching press with the resulting image being exposed to acid. Both effects can be interesting.

This technique is so called because its finished prints often resemble watercolors or wash drawings. It is a favorite method of printmakers to achieve a wide range of tonal values. The technique consists of exposing the plate to acid through a layer (or sometimes successive layers) of resin or sugar. The acid bites the plate only in the spaces between the resin particles, achieving a finely and evenly pitted surface that yields broad areas of tone when the grains are washed off and the plate is inked and printed. A great many tones can be achieved on a single plate by exposing different areas to different acid concentrations or different exposure times. Aquatint techniques are generally used in combination with etching or engraving to achieve linear definition. Aquatint was little favored by etchers until Francisco Goya used it to such great effect in his celebrated edition of 80 etchings entitled "Los Caprichos." After Goya the technique was used extensively by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

In sugar aquatint, also called "sugar lift," the artist uses a sugar-ink mixture to draw with pen or pencil on a surface treated with resin. When dry the drawing is covered with a layer of varnish and when dry introduced into a hot-water bath that exposes the drawing in the resin. The plate is then bitten in the acid bath and the resulting print has a soft, painterly look.

Carborundum is really the reverse of etching, wherein diverse materials (carbon powder, iron filings, etc.) are used in a glue medium to build a convex texture on the plate, which is then inked and put through the press. When used with other etching techniques this procedure produces varied and interesting effects of line, texture and relief.

Strictly speaking not an intaglio process, embossing is a process developed by Japanese printmakers, who first printed etching plates without ink, creating a relief, white-on-white image, a process that quickly found favor in the west. In Spain it is referred to as "golpe en blanco."


Silk Screen or Serigraphy
Silk screen, or "serigraphy" as it prefers to be known in fine-art circles, originated in China and found its way to the West in the 15th century. It's a stencil process based on the porosity of silk (nylon or other fabric) that allows ink to pass through the areas which are not "stopped" with glue or varnish. One or more layers of ink are applied with a squeegee, each one covering the open areas of succeeding screens until the final composite image is achieved. Photographic transfers, both in line and halftone, can also be fixed to the screen with a light-sensitive emulsion. Serigraphy took on the status of art in the late 1930s in the United States when a group of artists working with the Federal Art Project experimented with the technique and subsequently formed the National Serigraphic Society to promote its use.


This is the printmaking technique invented by Senefelder in Germany in 1796 that takes advantage of the repulsion between oil and water to transfer an image from a smooth limestone surface to a sheet of paper. It is considered one of the most authentic means of artistic reproduction as it prints directly the touch of the artist's hand. On the other hand, sheer production numbers detract somewhat from its appeal to collectors, as the method permits practically unlimited editions. The first artists who left their mark on the lithographic tradition were mainly French and go from the early Delacroix and Géricualt to Daumier, Degas, Manet, and especially Odilon Redon.

The advent of color lithography in the mid-19th century saw significant work by Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. The American expatriate, James McNeil Whistler, produced some remarkable views of the River Thames in England while his compatriots of the firm of Currier & Ives were papering the United States with their own characteristic lithographs. Other 20th-century practitioners have been Edvard Munch, the German Expressionists, and the Mexicans José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo.

One of the four major types of printmaking techniques (the others being relief printing, stencilling, and planographic printing) whose distinguishing feature is the fact that the ink forming the design is printed only from the recessed areas of the plate. Among intaglio techniques are engraving, etching, drypoint, aquatint, soft-ground etching and crayon-manner etching.


Monotype is a one-off technique in which a flat surface on copper, zinc or glass is painted with oil colors or ink and then passed through the etching press. The process permits only one copy; thus "monotype." Modern monotypes take advantage of a wide variety of materials including perspex, cardboard, etc., with artists creating veritable collages on the surface, then printing them for surprising results. The term monoprint is often used interchangeably, but in actual fact a monoprint is a unique image where part of the image is repeatable on a fixed matrix and part is not. Digital prints onto film transferred to a receptor paper are monoprints.

Note: Much of this Traditional Printmaking Techniques material was developed by Miguel Booth and his colleagues at the World Printmakers website (www.worldprintmakers.com) and is used gratefully with permission of the publishers.

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Digital Printmaking Technologies

Common technologies used to produce digital prints include inkjet, electrophotography (dry toner and liquid toner), thermal transfer (mass transfer and dye sublimation transfer), and laser imaging (digital photo printing) on photographic paper.


Inkjet is a popular technology based upon the ejection of small drops of fluid by an actuator that is controlled by a digital computer system. Once ejected from a printhead orifice (nozzle), the droplets pass through the air to a printing medium, typically paper, on which they form spots or dots. By controlling both the actuator and the relative position of the medium, an array of spots is produced on the medium to form a pattern. With the appropriate ink droplet sizes, ink colors, and ink-receiving medium, an image is created. Today, image quality and permanence can be produced in commercially available inkjet systems with performance exceeding traditional photographic technology.

Piezo, Thermal, and Continuous-Flow Inkjet Technologies
These three are the most common inkjet technologies employed. For the digital printmaker they are usually combined with water-based (acqueous) inks, either pigmented or dye-based. The differences among them are the actuator technologies:

Piezo [or piezoelectric crystal actuator based on-demand inkjet technology, in the full term] uses a small crystal that bends when current is applied to it to produce the actuation effect. This "piezo effect" is based on a very small movement of the crystal and subsequent compression of the ink in an ink chamber. The result is the ejection of a very small droplet of ink from a small orifice in the inkjet printhead. When properly designed, this system can generate very small, reproducible droplets of ink that can produce outstanding results when the droplets are properly positioned on well-designed inkjet media. Since the actuating pulses can be varied, resulting in more or less bending, a variety of droplet volumes can be produced. This leads to the ability to achieve a digital gray scale and to further improve the image-quality capability of the technology.

Thermal [thermally activated actuator based inkjet technology, in the full term] uses heat to create a very small bubble of superheated vapor to push a small droplet of ink from an inkjet printhead orifice. This is the most widely used inkjet technology in the world and can provide very good print quality when properly implemented. It is a more robust technology than piezo since the energy used to eject the droplet makes thermal less susceptible to clogging of the orifice. Also, bubble formation in the ink is not encouraged by the process as it is in piezo; a very small bubble will cause a piezo printer to fail to eject a droplet.

In the early days, the heating and shock experienced in the actuation process limited the ink formulation latitude for thermal. New advances in this technology allow water-based ink designers the freedom to develop inks that do not limit the image quality or durability of the print output. As with piezo technology, final drop volume may be varied to provide grayscale rendering.

Continuous [or Continuous Flow inkjet printing technology, in the full term] is used for digital printmaking exclusively with the IRIS/IXIA inkjet printers (the IXIA has replaced the IRIS). It produces a stream of droplets all identical in size, and the electronics of the system chooses which ones will hit the medium and make a spot and which ones will not. Continous flow has provided excellent image quality but at a very high cost in both initial investment, reliability, and speed, as well as image permanence. Pigmented inks cannot be used with this technology. It is no longer a preferred technology.


Electrophotography is based upon the deposition of either dry powder or liquid toner onto a photoreceptive surface on which a charge is produced, usually by light from a laser or other similar point light source. The toner is subsequently transferred either to a blanket then to paper or directly to the paper and then fused to form the desired image. Dry toner technology is limited in the size of the particles that can be used. Since these particles are relatively large, this technology generally suffers from insufficiently good image quality to satisfy the digital printmaker. Liquid toner, however, can use very fine particles that allow for production of near-photographic quality output. Today, liquid toner image quality and permanence can meet the needs of some digital printmaking applications. Liquid electrophotography's advantage is higher printing speed as compared to inkjet printing or thermal transfer printing but at a very steep price.


Thermal transfer is based upon using heat to transfer either a colored coating containing a binder and colorant or dye molecules (by sublimation or diffusion) from a thin carrier film to a receiver sheet that contains a receptive surface coating. The heat may be provided by an array of nibs (similar to those in a thermal fax machine) that are activated by a computer when a color spot is desired, or by a laser that heats the carrier film causing the transfer to occur. Good-quality color prints can be produced by this technology, which is frequently used in photo kiosks for printing either digital or scanned photo reproduction prints.


Digital Photo Printing (laser imaging) is based on traditional photographic silver-halide photographic print paper that is imaged by a laser or similar point light source to provide a full-color photographic image. This technology is gaining popularity in both wide-format photo printing and for digital photo finishing, both in minilabs and in production labs. Laser imaging produces true photographic prints and can be very productive in larger volume applications, however it requires photo paper as a receptor, which limits its media flexibility.

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2005 Digital Art Practices & Terminology Task Force (DAPTTF)