Skip to content
Back to top

Prints & Posters


This intaglio printmaking technique is often used to create gradations of wash-like tones. First, heat is used to adhere a powdered resin ground to the surface of a metal printing plate. The plate is then placed in an acid bath that eats away at the areas around each resin particle, creating a pitted, grainy surface. When the plate is inked and wiped, these tiny depressions retain ink, producing a subtle granular tone in the finished print. The resin particles can be of varying fineness: large particles result in a granular texture visible to the eye, while small ones produce a film of tone that closely resembles an ink or watercolor wash. The areas of tone can also vary in darkness according to how deeply the surface is bitten by the acid; the deeper the depressions the more ink they will hold.

In this intaglio technique, the image is scratched into a metal plate with a hard, sharp metal or diamond point. As the drypoint needle is pulled across the surface of the plate, tiny bits of metal (called "burr") are displaced and thrown up on either side of the incised line. When the drypoint plate is inked for printing, these tiny bits of metal retain ink so that the incised lines print with velvety or blurred rather than clean, crisp edges. However, the fragile burr becomes compressed fairly quickly after several runs through the printing press. As it flattens, the burr becomes less pronounced, so that the initial rich, velvety line is lost to a sharper one. Thus drypoints are usually printed in small editions.

Engraving is an intaglio method of printmaking in which lines are incised into a hard flat surface (usually a metal plate) with a sharp tool called a burin. The burin creates a deep, v-shaped groove in the plate, and the curls of metal displaced on either side of the groove are cleared away with a scraper, so that lines print with clean, sharp edges. Cross-hatching or parallel hatching lines are typically used for shading. The burin can also be maneuvered to create wider or narrower lines that hold more or less ink and thus appear heavy and dark or fine and light when printed. Engraving was first used for embellishing armor and decorative objects and was later developed for printmaking in Germany in the early 15th century.

In etching, a metal plate usually made of copper, zinc, or steel is coated with a varnish-like substance (known as the "ground") that is impervious to acid. The artist creates an image by drawing through the ground with an etching needle, exposing the bare metal underneath. The plate is then immersed in acid, which eats into the exposed metal areas, producing grooves that will hold the ink (the longer the plate is immersed in acid, the deeper the lines will be and the more ink they will hold). The ground is removed; and the plate is ready to be inked and printed. Etched lines are typically blunt at the ends, since they are created by the acid's biting into the surface of the plate, while engraved lines taper at the ends, reflecting the v-shape of the burin tool..

Giclée Print
Various terms have been used for prints made using digital technologies: Giclée, Iris, ink-jet, laser, etc. Typically, a stream of archival dye-based ink is sprayed onto art paper or canvas. Under magnification, the effect has a similar appearance to an airbrush technique, but produces a much finer level of detail. Exact calculations of hue, value and density are programmed into the printer by an artist or computer operator, thus producing a dynamic range of colors.

This is a general category of printing technique where the image is incised into a surface, usually a metal plate made of copper or zinc. Incisions may be created by etching, engraving, drypoint, or mezzotint techniques. Sometimes, these processes are combined on a single plate to achieve a desired effect. To print an intaglio plate, the surface is covered in thick ink and rubbed with tarlatan cloth or newspaper, leaving ink only in the incised lines. A dampened sheet of paper is placed on top of the plate, which is then run through a printing press to transfer the ink from the recesses of the plate to the paper.

Invented in the late 18th century, this method prints from a smooth surface, traditionally limestone. Since the printing surface is flat, there are no lines that may wear down (as in intaglio processes) or break off (as in woodcut) during repeated runs through the press. Therefore, lithography is often used to print very large editions. The technique is based on the principle that oil and water repel each other. A design is drawn on stone or certain types of specially made plates with oily materials like pencils, crayons, or tusche. (Sometimes a photochemical transfer process is used.) The surface is then dampened, and water adheres only to the stone or plate, not to the greasy image. Printing ink is then applied to the stone/plate with a roller. The oily image attracts and holds the ink, but ink does not adhere to the undrawn, water-covered areas. The image can now be printed through a press. In color lithography, a different stone is often prepared for each color and printed successively in register so that the colors are aligned in the final image.

This intaglio process was most popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In it, the entire surface of a metal plate is systematically roughened with a spiked tool (called a "rocker") to make it receptive to ink. If inked at this stage, the plate will print nearly solid black. To produce a design, the artist smoothes out areas of the roughened plate with a scraper or burnishing tool, creating graduated highlights. Working from dark to light, the artist scrapes down the plate in proportion to the lightness of tone required (the more burnished an area is, the less ink it will hold, and the lighter the printed image will be). When the plate is printed, the design emerges from a richly toned background (usually black). Mezzotint is known for its luxurious quality and fine gradations among various tones.

An artist approaches this type of printmaking by drawing or painting with inks or oils on a smooth, non-absorbent surface like glass, plexiglass, or metal. He or she then transfers the image onto a sheet of paper by applying pressure by hand to the back of the plate or by using a printing press. There are two main approaches to monotype: the additive and the subtractive. In the additive method, the artist draws the image directly on the plate in inks or oils. In the subtractive method, the plate is entirely covered with ink or oil, and the artist creates the image by working from dark to light: removing areas of pigment with brushes, rags, fingers, or other implements. Since the image is not "fixed" in a matrix that can be inked and repeatedly printed, each monotype is unique. Occasionally, it is possible to re-use the plate to print a second, much fainter image that an artist sometimes embellishes with drawing by hand.

A relief technique first developed in 9th century China, woodcut is one of the oldest forms of printmaking. The artist draws an image directly on a flat block of wood and then cuts away the areas surrounding every line of the design with a gouge or sharp knife. The remaining lines stand out in relief, and are then ready to be inked and printed. The cuts are made along the wood grain, distinctive from wood engraving, which is cut along the end-grain.

* Our gratitude to Shelley R. Langdale, Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who has contributed greatly to this glossary.