Galerie St. Etienne Guide to Print Collecting

Printmaking Methods


All printmaking processes that print from the raised portions of the carved block


Woodcut The term woodcut refers both to the technique of printing an image from a carved block of wood and to the resulting print. A design is drawn on a smooth block of wood, and the parts that will be white in the print are cut away with knives and gouges, leaving the design standing up in relief. The wood is then inked and pressed against a sheet of paper. Though it dates back to the 5th century when it was employed in the Middle East for fabric printing, woodcut as we know it first appeared in Europe in the early 15th century. The technique reached its peak in the early 16th century with Dürer’s mastery but then lost ground to line engraving which could produce subtler effects. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Gauguin and Munch fueled a revival of the woodcut technique that was continued by the German Expressionists.


Wood Engraving Employs the same technique as woodcut with one exception. In wood engraving the design is carved on the end-grain or cross-section of the wood where much finer detail can be produced; whereas, woodcuts are carved in the plank and work with the grain as much as possible.


Linocut Introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, linocutting is essentially the same as woodcut except the wood is replaced with a piece of thick linoleum. Linoleum is much easier to work though because of its soft and grainless consistency. The material enables the artist to cut rapidly and spontaneously and in the case of color printing, eliminates undue expense when using multiple blocks.


Any method which prints from the depressed (whether incised or abraded) portion of the plate. Because the metals (usually zinc or copper) used are soft, plates are often electroplated with steel before longer editions are printed.


Engraving The oldest form of intaglio, engraving seems to have developed from the metalworking techniques of goldsmiths and armorers. When paper became relatively plentiful around 1400, they began to take impressions of the designs they were engraving on metal by rubbing the lines with lampblack and pressing paper over them. The more evolved process of engraving involves cutting into the polished surface of a metal plate with a burin (a sharp cutting tool). A burin cannot be used as freely as gouges and knives can with woodcut. The burin is held steady, parallel to the body, and is pushed along the metal surface. On either side of the engraved line metal accumulates, called burr, which the artist carefully scrapes away. To sharpen and clean up the image, the artist also burnishes any undesired scratches left on the plate. Ink is then pressed onto the plate so that it fills the incised lines and then the surface is wiped clean. The ink in the lines prints onto a sheet of paper pressed hard against the metal plate. The resulting engraved image appears more precise than either woodcut or wood engraving.


Etching The technique of using acid on metal was first used to decorate armor and other metal wares before it became a popular printmaking medium. The earliest etchings were made in Germany in the early 1500s and were found to be a quick and easy substitute for metal engraving. At that time they were made on iron, which tended to produce a ragged , fuzzy line. Eventually printmakers discarded the iron plates for copper ones and employed slow-acting acids, a combination which produced a cleaner more reliable image. In the etching process, the metal plate is coated with an acid-resistant varnish. Because the varnish dries hard but not brittle, the artist is able to draw through the coating with a sharp needle to expose the metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which eats into the exposed metal. By controlling the timing of the acid, the printmaker can manipulate the depth and thickness of the lines. Once the varnish is removed, the plate can be printed in the same manner as an engraving, but the result is more closely controlled by the artist. Because the basic etching technique does not produce gradation of tones, it is often combined with other techniques (see below) to produce more nuanced images.


Mezzotint Invented in the Netherlands in the middle of the 17th century by Ludwig von Siegen, mezzotint was once extremely popular for reproducing paintings, especially portraits. Very few artists have used this laborious method of engraving for creative productions, and as photographic methods of reproduction were developed in the later nineteenth century, mezzotint became virtually extinct. A mezzotint is characterized by tonal areas rather than lines, as in regular engraving. In mezzotint, the copper plate is first uniformly roughened by the use of rockers that press points into the copper, raising a ‘burr’. The design is formed by scraping away the burr where light tones are required and by polishing the metal smooth to create highlights. When the plate is inked and wiped, the ink is retained in the rough areas which print a rich black, varied by the degree of abrasion. Like drypoint, mezzotint can only yield a limited number of prints before the burr wears down.

Drypoint Dating to the last quarter of the 15th century and similar to engraving, drypoint uses a sharp needle to scratch lines into a metal plate. Whereas in engraving the burin is held parallel to the body and throws equal amounts of burr on both sides of the line, in drypoint the needle is held as a slight slant, like a pen, and throws up metal mostly to one side creating a rough upturned edge. It is this edge that holds the ink; thus, under magnification, drypoint lines are white with ink on both sides, producing a richness of line not possible with etching or engraving. Drypoint lines are shallower than engraved lines; also, the burr (which creates a soft halo around the line) is considered intrinsic to the charm of this technique and is not cut off (as it is in engraving). A drypoint plate, though, has an abbreviated life span as compared with other intaglio methods. Because the burr is fragile only a few prints–a dozen or fewer–can be made before it flattens and loses its character. Very often drypoint is used in combination with the other forms of intaglio printmaking.


Aquatint Like mezzotint, aquatint produces prints by varying tones instead of by lines. It was invented in the middle of the 18th century and was commonly used in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries for reproducing watercolors. In aquatint, a metal plate is sprinkled with acid-resistant varnish, usually rosin, which is fused to the plate by heating. The plate is then immersed in acid which eats at the metal around the rosin to produce an evenly granulated surface. The design is created by alternately drawing on the plate with acid-resistant varnish and immersing it in acid creating a variety of tones. Goya, a master of aquatint, usually employed only two or three tones. Even more than drypoint, aquatint is almost always used in combination with other printing processes.


Photo Etching Photo etchings are photo-mechanically produced reproductions of works in another medium (usually drawings or paintings). Whereas in original etchings the image is hand-drawn on the printing plate by the artist, in photo etching the image is transferred photographically. Although the plate itself resembles that used for the original etching, the image reveals halftone dots common to most photo-mechanically printed reproductions.


Planographic or Surface Method

Any printmaking process which occurs only on one plane, all design being printed from the surface of the stone.


Lithography Invented by the Bavarian Aloys Senefelder in 1796, lithography, which involved printing from a flat surface, was the first wholly new printing process to be developed since the 15th century. Senefelder was a strolling player who wished to publicize his talents by printing and circulating his own plays among critics. While experimenting with cheaper methods of etching upon stone, he developed lithography. The process is founded on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. With this technique the artist is allowed the most freedom as he draws the image onto the stone with a greasy crayon. The grease lines are fixed chemically onto the surface of the stone (originally Bavarian limestone, though later zinc and aluminum were substituted). The stone’s surface is wiped with water, then with an oil-based ink is applied with a roller. The ink adheres only to the greasy parts and is repelled by the damp parts. A sheet of paper is pressed to the inked stone, usually through a flatbed press, and the design is transferred directly.


Paper Types


Wove Paper with an even textured surface. Velin is a type of wove paper with an especially smooth surface.


Laid Laid paper is characterized by the ingrained pattern of parallel lines visible when held to light. Laid paper is often referred to as Bütten in German.


Japan A delicate handmade paper, sometimes including ingredients such as bamboo, rice and mulberry bark, Japan has a smooth surface and rough edges.


Acid-Free All paper types may or may not contain wood-pulp, which produces acid as it breaks down over time. Acid can cause paper to become brittle and to discolor. Acid-free paper, which has 100% rag content, does not break down over time.


Chine Collé In general, the thinner the paper, the more delicate the impression. Chine collé is a technique (used with both etching and lithography) in which a very fine China paper (too thin to print on by itself) is coated with glue and then laid, glue side up, on the inked plate or stone. A heavier sheet is then placed on top, and when the plate or stone is run through the press, the two sheets are laminated together.


Glossary of Common Terms

State Every time a substantive change is made to the master (plate, stone, block, etc.) used to produce a print, a new state is designated. There are two basic types of states: proof states and edition states.


Impression Each individual print pulled from the master is termed an impression.


Proof A proof is an impression pulled while the artist is still developing the image. Proofs therefore frequently show the image at varying stages of completion, and may contain hand-drawn corrections indicating how the artist intends to further modify the image. Such working proofs, typically done only for the artist's own use, are extremely rare (sometimes only one or two impressions will be pulled of each preliminary state). The rarity of working proofs usually ensures that they command premium prices, yet such prints are often of interest only to the most dedicated collectors. Since the image in a working proof can be incomplete, the average collector may well find an impression from the final state more satisfying. Proofs may also be pulled after the image has been finalized, but prior to printing an edition, in order to test various inks and papers. Sometimes an artist will reserve a small portion of an edition for his or her personal use, and designate the impressions as "artist's proofs" (routinely inscribed "a.p."); these are not truly proofs in the strictest sense of the term.


Edition After the image has been finalized, the artist will typically authorize one or more editions to be printed. Sometimes several editions are pulled simultaneously on different types of paper. Sometimes multiple editions are pulled over a period of many years. Editions may or may not be numbered. While numbering became fairly ubiquitous in the postwar period, it was not previously all that common. Furthermore, earlier, unnumbered editions may actually be rarer than more recent, numbered ones, since the art market in the earlier period was smaller than it is today. Collectors should be aware that there may be several editions of the same image available. In this case, the total quantity of extant impressions may number in the hundreds, even though the size of any single designated edition appears relatively small.


Catalogue Raisonné A catalogue raisonné is a complete catalogue documenting an artist's work in a particular medium or mediums. A good print catalogue raisonné gives a detailed history of each image, describing the characteristics (such as changes in the image, paper and/or ink color) that distinguish each proof state and each edition.


Rarity, Quality and Value


Since prints are multiples, comparisons of relative value are more easily made than is the case with unique works of art. The quality of a given impression and its condition have a significant influence on its worth, and prices for seemingly similar prints can vary widely. Unless you have seen numerous impressions of a particular image, it is a good idea to get advice from someone who has.


Rarity often enhances the value of a print, but collectors must determine whether they really want or need to pay the premium price exacted for rarity. Among the rarest prints are working proofs (as discussed above) and prints of which there were no editions pulled, or only a single, small edition. If an impression is extremely rare, the collector may have to make compromises in terms of condition that would be less acceptable with a more common print.


When several editions exist of a given print, the earlier editions will tend to be of higher quality than the later ones, because the master often deteriorates with repeated use. Sometimes an etching plate will be steel-faced (electroplated with a steel coating) prior to printing a larger edition; this prolongs the life of the plate, but can impair its delicacy of detail. The burr which characterizes early drypoint impressions and is highly prized by collectors also tends to wear down over time. However, quality within a single edition is usually fairly consistent; it should make little difference if an impression is numbered 1/100 or 100/100.


Most collectors prefer to buy prints that are hand-signed (almost invariably in pencil) by the artist. Not only does the signature have its own independent autograph value, but it implicitly certifies that the artist has approved the impression. It may, however, be difficult or impossible to find signed impressions of some images. Certain prints exist in only posthumous, unsigned editions.


Print values are extremely relative, and depend both on what is characteristic of a given artist, and on the history of the specific print in question. A good dealer and a good catalogue raisonné are the keys to understanding the print market.