Methods of printing

In July, I attended a continuing education workshop at Simmons College called Print Methods for the Collector and Conservator. Taught by Sarah Smith of Montserrat College of Art and Olfactory Press, this workshop covered some of the most common print methods, attempting to teach attendees how to identify prints in our collections. We even had the opportunity to try out the basics of some of these techniques (i.e., woodcut, drypoint, engraving, and mezzotint—minus the printing process itself) ourselves. It was a great experience, although the biggest things I walked away with were (1) how wonderful it would be to truly learn and practice these printing processes and (2) the sheer vastness of everything there is to know and how little of that I truly grasped at the end of the workshop. In writing about these processes, I hope to both clarify their characteristics in my own mind and to provide some information to others. Note, though, that because of the inherent complexity of the art—and artists’ tendency to mix and fake both techniques and media—figuring out the process(es) used to make a print is far from straightforward, and the descriptions and examples I offer here barely scratch the surface.

Note: Images are all from Wikimedia Commons (and they link there, as well—as always, click for larger versions). I’ve tried to select images that exemplify, as much as possible, the prime characteristics of each print method, but the final tenor of each image owes at least as much to the artist him/herself as it does to the technique(s) used to achieve it.


Essentially the earliest form of printing, relief involves a printing surface in which the negative space of the image has been carved away (so, the original surface is what gets inked). Only low pressure is required to print (compare to intaglio printing below).

Graphic of the relief-printing process.


In woodcut, the block of wood is cut along the grain. There is usually lots of negative space in woodcuts, and there is less detail than in wood engravings. Woodcuts are generally high-contrast images.


Wood engraving

Unlike with woodcus, in wood engraving, the block of wood is cut end-grain. There is increased detail and decreased contrast versus woodcuts, and the illusion of shading is possible, or at least far more realistic than it is in woodcuts. Wood engraving has often been used for technical images.

Wood engraving.


Contrary to relief printing, in intaglio, the ink is applied to the cut-out portions of the plate (more specifically, it is applied to the whole plate, which is then wiped down, leaving the collected ink in the grooves left by the artist). The grooves become the positive space (i.e., the lines). Generally, damp paper is printed, to ensure that it is flexible enough to push down into the grooves. Sometimes, a bit of ink is left on the flat surface of the plate (i.e., not in the groves), intentionally or otherwise, creating a gray effect  in the print. Intaglio printing requires higher pressure than relief.

Graphic of the intaglio-printing process.


In drypoint, the metal plate is scratched with a needle. This process creates a burr of metal along the edges of the line, resulting in fuzzy lines (because the burrs collect some of the ink). The angle of the needle determines where the burr forms–one side of the line, the other, or both. The look is quite distinctive, and in fact this was one of my favorite techniques that we explored.



For engravings, the metal of the plate is pushed out of the way and eventually removed. This process creates a clean line with tapered ends. Engraving takes a lot of strength, but fluid lines are still possible. The harder the metal of the plate being used, the more detail is possible.



In etching, the metal plate is given a waxy coating (ground), and this coating is what’s drawn into. This technique doesn’t take as much strength as engraving, and even more-fluid lines are possible. Once the drawing is ready, the plate is left in acid, which bores into the exposed metal; the longer the plate is left in the acid, the thicker the lines will be.



In mezzotint, the plate’s surface is roughed up and textured with rockers and/or roulettes (specific tools), creating dots on the plate. These dots are then burnished away, creating shiny areas. In mezzotint prints, patterns are visible, but usually not lines.



For aquatint, a ground-coated plate is put into a rosin box, and powder settles on the plate. The plate is then heated, and the powder melts and sticks. Finally, the plate is put into an acid bath, and the acid eats around the rosin, leaving shaded areas. Unlike mezzotint, the effect is more or less random, rather than patterned.



Both relief and intaglio are, in essence, physical methods of printing; lithography, however, is very different in that it is a chemical process. Lithography is planographic printing, which means that it involves a flat surface (rather than a raised or incised surface, as in relief or intaglio printing, respectively). Its chemistry is based on the behavior of hydrophobic versus hydrophilic substances—essentially, the idea that oil and water don’t mix. In lithography, a huge range of grays can be achieved, and lithographic prints often have a crayon-like quality.

Lithography stone, with a related print.

Screen printing

Screen printing involves a woven mesh screen and a stencil that blocks the ink; a roller is used to distribute ink through the mesh and onto the printing surface. Screen prints can be identified by their lack of sheen and dense, flat color. Additionally, the registration is almost always at least slightly off. They sometimes have a somewhat moiré look, as well.

Graphic of the screen-printing process.

Further reading




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