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Printmaking is a process for making multiples. This does not mean reproductions or copies, rather it means creation of artworks that incorporate the possibilities inherent in making more than one of something. Just as the recording of music allows mixing of tracks and the editing of elements, so printmaking deals with visual arts.
There are many variations within print media. Most are extensions of drawing, but some are sculptural in nature and others are closer to collage or stencil.
Etching and Engraving:
When etching or engraving artists can make lines with wide variations through simple techniques. Both are intaglio techniques meaning that a plate is developed with textures, recessed lines, or embossment that is inked and then wiped clean. Each, edge or change of surface captures ink when the plate is wiped and smooth areas produce white areas. Moist paper is forced into the plate and extracts the image areas from textures or recessed areas. The ink on a printed engraving or etching stands up, embossed, by the printing process.
Look closely at a dollar bill and you will see that the ink has thickness. Bills are engraved on steel so there is very little depth but it is all recorded on paper. Students work on copper which is much softer than steel and allows deeper engraving and great richness in the resulting prints.
Woodcut or Relief Printmaking:
Relief printing is the opposite of intaglio. Rather than print the lower parts of the surface, the image is determined by carving away the white (non-printing areas.) The top surface of the printing element is rolled with ink and the lower portions are left clean. Usually the resulting print has crisp edges and clean whites.
Like other print media there are variations in relief printing. Japanese techniques require that the ink be spread on the block with brushes rather than rollers. The handling of paper and moisture content of every working surface are critical to success in this traditional process.
In contrast to both intaglio and relief printmaking, lithography is a chemical printing process. The image is determined by the inability of water and oil to mix.
Originally invented with a limestone printing base, the process has evolved to include printing from aluminum, mylar, and even silicone. New products enable prints to be made directly from laser printed mylar surfaces.
Stone lithography is the easiest to understand. Limestone can absorb both grease (oil) and water. But looking at a driveway after a rainstorm will show you that oil repels water. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. Thus, an artist can draw on limestone with grease based crayons and, after moistening the surface, grease based ink can be rolled onto the drawing. This ink can then be transferred under pressure to paper.
Many years ago the Japanese invented a stencil process in which ink was forced through holes cut in paper. Stencils require a strategy for retaining the “center of a doughnut.” That is, shapes within shapes need to be held in place while the artwork is inked. The first solution to this was human hair glued across the various loose shapes. Elegant stencils incorporating paper and hair were eventually replaced by woven silk mesh and paper or other stencil materials that allow the artist to create complex shapes.
Silkscreen has evolved into a process used both commercially and artistically. It allows printing on a variety of surfaces and is an economical way of putting rich layers of color onto paper. New water-based inks and stencil processes make the medium one of the safest ways to make multiples.