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What is printmaking?

Printmaking is an umbrella term used to describe many different methods of making prints in the art world. In the visual arts there are four main branches of printmaking that we commonly use, namely, Relief Printing, Intaglio Printing, Lithography and Serigraphy .

It all sounds very technical and can be a bit confusing, but we are here to help you see just how easy and vast the world of printmaking can be.

Relief Printing

Relief printing describes a process where you cut away at your image block and only what is left behind, the raised or relief bit, is what you will be printing. If you have done a potato-print or even made a stamp of any kind, congratulations, you have already done a relief print!

It is one of the oldest forms of printing and has been used for artistic and commercial applications. In the visual arts most commonly we would see Lino– and Woodcut.

Here you use a brayer, or a hard roller to apply a tacky ink to the relief of your wood block or lino, taking care to not get any ink in the recess, or cut away areas.

Relief printing relies on inking your design and then transferring that design using pressure, either through the help of a baren, printing press or by hand in the case of stamps.

This style of printing is easy to teach and suitable for younger students and pro artists alike. It is also one of the most affordable and versatile printing methods practiced today.

Hokusai’s The Wave is arguably one of the most well known examples of relief printing in the history of art.

Intaglio Printing

In direct contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing is a method where you etch or scratch into your image plate and the recess, or valleys will be what you print. This is usually made on metals like Zinc , Steel or Copper sheets.

You use different inks for intaglio than relief printing and generally ink your image in a very different manner. Where relief printing requires you to keep the recess clean, intaglio requires you get the ink in all the marks and valleys you created.

It is a very messy process and requires that you wipe or buff the image plate clean, usually with mull or scrim, to avoid printing the areas you did not mark.

Intaglio also relies on transferring your image with pressure, but in this case more pressure is required than that of relief printing and you will need a special etching press to get good results.

The most common type of intaglio printing is done with metal plate etching, and this can be achieved with special chemicals like resists and acids or with sharp tools like Etching needles, Mezzotint Rockers or Dotted Roulette Wheels to scratch into your plates.

Examples of etching techniques are Dry Point, Aquatint, Hard Ground, Soft Ground, Mezzotint and Relief etching.


In essence this method of printing relies on stenciling. Here the artist makes use of an impenetrable material or substance to apply colour by masking out areas. So it’s really very simple!

There is one type of serigraph we undoubtedly see every day because of its commercial application, and that is screen printing.

Here we use a mesh screen and block out where we don’t want to print. Once the screen has been prepared with a design, either using photo chemicals, or manually blocking using drawing fluids, we pull ink through the mesh using a squeegee.

Only the areas of the mesh that have not been blocked will let the ink through.

Similarly, when using stencils, like graffiti artists in urban areas, the paint or colour gets blocked by the design substrate and only lets the colour through where it is open.

In art history, Warhol’s silkscreen portrait of Marylin Monroe and the stencil works of urban artist Banksy are great examples of Serigraphy.


Lithography, litho meaning stone and graphy being writing, is the process of making prints using a greasy substance to design on a flat stone or metal plate. The greasy areas will adhere to oil based ink and the other areas are made to repel this ink. The process relies on the mutual repulsion of oil and water.

Printing using limestone, although not feasible for commercial use, reveals the basic principles of of how the lithographic process works.

Using an oil based substance, like a lithographic crayon or tusche, you can draw your design on your limestone. Using a mixture of nitric acid and gum arabic, you then chemically etch the image into your stone.

After washing your stone to clean it from your gum arabic, the stone is kept damp. The image etched onto the stone will now repel water but accept ink. The negative space of the porous stone, now wet, will repel ink and accept water. See where this is going?

Now you can roll oil based ink over your stone and the ink will only adhere to the image you have previously created. The stone is now primed with ink and you use a special printing press to transfer your design onto paper.

Modern lithography, works on this same principle but with a more complex process. Today lithography is the most used process to print commercially around the world.

As always, we love to see your creative projects so please tag us on social media using @thedeckleedge and hashtag #creativityawaits! For more tips and tricks, sign up to our email newsletter with the ‘Sign Me Up’ button at the bottom of the page.

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