Printmaking Glossary

Printmaking is the method by which pieces of art are created by a process of printing an image onto paper. Generally, the term applies to the creation of original images through the actual process of printing, rather than just photographic copies of an illustration. Although many methods of printmaking allow an image to be reproduced multiple times, each print is considered an original in itself, since the printing process can introduce variations into each individual print. Such prints are known as impressions. Printmaking interests artists because of the visual effects that the actual method of printing introduces to an illustration. There are many different processes of creating prints, each with a distinctive visual appeal. The following is a glossary of the most common printmaking terms.

Aquatint – A form of intaglio printmaking, related to etching. Aquatint involves the application of acid to a metal plate to create marks capable of holding ink. The metal plate is then pressed against a sheet of paper to form a print.


Chiaroscuro Woodcut – A form of printing using two or more wooden blocks. Each block is painted with a different color. One block may contain the lines of a drawing, while another holds flat swathes of color. They are then used together to print a color illustration.


Chromolithograph – A process that creates multicolored prints, and can be very time consuming. Chromolithography involves creating individual plates for each section of color in an illustration and then passing a sheet of paper through a press repeatedly, once for each different color.


Drypoint – Related to etching, drypoint involves incising an image into a metal or plastic plate with a metal or diamond tipped needle. The method creates a burr on the edges of the incisions, which collects a lot of ink, producing a print with soft and dense lines.


Engraving – The process of forming an image through incisions on a flat plate. In printmaking, copper or another metal is commonly preferred to form the printing plate. Ink collects in the grooves created on the plate, and is transferred to a sheet of paper by a printing press.


Etching – The method of using an acid or other chemical to form an illustration on a plate. The plate is first prepared with an acid resistant coating, which the artist scratches away to create his image, exposing the unprotected metal. The plate is then dipped into an acid bath to “bite” the image into the metal.


Giclee– The process of using ink-jet printing to create a high quality fine art print onto a variety of substrates. Giclee often involves the use of archival quality inks, allowing for better color accuracy.


Gillotage – A process for turning a lithographic illustrated plate into a relief block. After an image is inscribed on a zinc plate, it is dusted in a resin or rolled in wax which adheres to the image, creating the relief effect.


Heliogravure – One of the oldest processes for making photographic prints. The photographic image is chemically etched into a copper plate, and then printed using specialist inks onto damp paper. It is thus related to aquatint, engraving, and etching.


Inkjet Print – A process that recreates a digital image by the propulsion of droplets of ink, varying in size, onto a piece of paper. The actual process was first invented in the 19th century, but it was not until the 1950s that practical applications became possible. Inkjet printers are the most popular type of computer printer, though the quantity of ink involved can make the procedure expensive.


Intaglio – The overall term for printmaking processes that involve the incising of an image onto the surface of a plate or some other flat object. Ink is then applied to the resultant plate, collecting in the incisions. Then the pressure of a printing press transfers an image onto paper. Aquatint, drypoint, engraving, etching, and mezzotint are all forms of intaglio printmaking.


Iris Print – A computer-based printing technique. A digital image is transferred to a sheet of paper using vegetable-based dyes rather than standard inks. The process uses expensive equipment and can take over an hour per print, but the final image is of very high quality.


Letterpress – The technique of relief printing of type and illustrations, invented by Gutenberg in the 15th century. A raised surface holding the desired image or text in reverse is covered in ink, and then pressed against a sheet of paper. The resultant print is then the correct way around. The term is occasionally used for any form of printing involving the pressing of paper against an inked surface.


Lift-ground Aquatint – A form of intaglio printmaking. The artist uses a sugar solution to draw his image onto a varnish-covered plate. The solution swells when the plate is dipped in warm water, removing the varnish. Aquatint techniques are then used to incise the image into the metal of the plate.


Linoleum Cut – Related to woodcut techniques, this printmaking process involves cutting and scratching a mirror image into a piece of linoleum. The sheet of linoleum is then rollered with ink, and pressed to a sheet of paper. The uncut areas are those which will show through on the printed illustration.


Lithograph – The process of printing using a smooth surface. The plate's surface is subtly roughened, creating some areas that will accept ink and some that repel it. An image is then drawn onto the surface with a greasy substance and the ink adheres to it. This is then transferred to paper using a press.


Metal Cut – A process related to woodcut, but involving a metal block. Areas that are not to receive ink are cut or punched out, and the finished print is often indistinguishable from a woodcut. A second metal cut technique, related to engraving, produces white areas on black rather than the other way around.


Mezzotint – A form of drypoint technique, mezzotint allows the creation of half-tones without hatching or stippling. Instead, a metal tool called a “rocker”, decorated with tiny teeth, is used to roughen the areas of tonality on the plate. The ink then adheres to these roughened sections, allowing very subtle tonal effects to be printed.


Monotype – the method of printmaking where an image is is drawn or painted onto a non-absorbent plate in ink and then pressed onto paper. A monotype can also be made by covering an entire surface with ink, and then wiping the ink away with either a brush or rag in areas the artist wishes to appear brighter. It thus generally produces one or at most two prints.


Photogravure – Another member of the intaglio printmaking family, photogravure involves the coating of a copper plate with a gelatin sensitive to light. This is then exposed to a film positive and etched, allowing intaglio prints with all the qualities of a detailed photograph.


Photomechanical Relief Print – Using similar light-sensitive gelatin to photogravure, a black line image is transferred to a relief block. The resultant prints have similar qualities to woodcuts and metal cuts.


Photomechanical Reproduction – An overall term for the methods of transferring photographic images onto printing plates. The actual method involved can be etching, lithography, or relief.


Pochoir – The French term for stencil, especially where no screen has been involved. A number of stencils are laid on paper in turn, one for each section of color. The artist then paints through the gaps in the stencil. Often in classic Pochoir the brush strokes are visible.


Proofs – Generally this term applies to print impressions made during the creation of an illustration to check the progress of the image on the plate. These may show the early stages of a work, and thus be very different than the final piece. A proof is sometimes a print done before a complete work is sent for a full print run.


Relief Print – An image printed on paper using a process whereby areas of a plate or block are removed where the paper should show through. Relief printmaking techniques include woodcut and metal cut. Relief is the opposite of intaglio printmaking.


Screen Print – A printmaking method where stencils are placed on a woven mesh. An ink roller is then run across the mesh as it presses against paper, with the stencils blocking the ink from permeating in those areas.


Serigraph – A form of screen printing. In a serigraph, stencils are placed on a very fine mesh or silk, and ink is squeegeed onto the paper underneath through the gaps in the stencils.


Silver Print – The most common means of making black and white photographic prints from a negative. The paper is covered with a film of gelatin containing light-sensitive silver salts. It is then exposed to light and an image created. The image is later developed and fixed through chemical processes.


Soft Ground – An etching method involving placing a sheet of paper over a plate prepared with a soft ground containing tallow. The artist draws an image on the paper, and where the pencil makes contact with the paper, the soft coating of the plate sticks to it, exposing the metal underneath. Chemicals such as acid can then be used to cut the image into the plate. Soft ground etchings have the visual characteristics of pencil or crayon drawings.


Sulphur Ground – A printmaking method involving applying sulphur or sulphur dust to an inked plate. The sulphur holds the ink in place, and can be used to create specific artistic effects.


Wood Engraving – A relief printmaking technique. Whereas in woodcut, the softer side grain is etched into, in wood engraving the end grain is the medium. This method can produce highly detailed prints.


Woodcut – A method for creating a relief illustration on a block of wood. Areas where the artist wishes the paper's surface to show through are etched or cut away. Ink adheres to the block's original surface areas, and is printed by pressing it against the sheet of paper.


Zincograph – A zinc plate that has an etching on its surface. This term can also refer to the resultant print made by this method.

Printmaking Resources

An Overview of Printmaking

Printmaking Techniques

Image Maps of Printmaking Techniques

Printmaking Web Links Resource

Traditional and Digital Printmaking Techniques

Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking

Printmaking Resources Collection

Georgetown University Printmakers A to Z

Printmaking Links

Printmakers Web Gallery