Historic Images in Print: Printing Techniques of the Past

A print is a graphic image that is created by pressing a positive or negative impression coated in ink onto a surface, usually paper. The main components of every print are the printing surface, the matrix or plate, ink and pressure. Paper is the most common surface to print onto, but fabrics such as silk, linen and wallpaper have been printed onto. The plate or matrix is the surface that the image impression is created on, by cutting into the surface, eroding with chemicals or even drawing onto the surface with a chemical that acts as a resist. Depending on the technique the material used for the matrix varies and it can be wood, metal, stone or even plastic. Throughout the years different substances have been utilized to make ink, from bone to vine and more recently synthetic compounds have been used.

Throughout history different societies have had different reasons for making prints and developed various ways of making a print from ancient styles such as woodblock to our modern computerized processes. Some of the reasons for making prints were for recording information, information dissemination and works of art. In traditional and artistic printing processes the print is not considered a reproduction of the image on the plate, but rather the plate is a means of creating the marks on the paper.

Woodblock

Woodblock printing (or less commonly referred to as xylography) is one of the oldest methods of transferring images and words to an object. Woodblock-printing technique is believed to have originated in China prior to 220 AD. In that region woodblocks were carved from local trees, including the Eucommia, a small tree which currently approaches threatened status in the wild. In addition to printing images, the Chinese used woodblock-printing techniques to create texts, many of which were Buddhist scriptures. The concept of woodblock-printing spread to other regions and was especially popular in Japan and Europe.

Woodblock printers carve an image or text-based characters using the relief technique; artists remove the area of the block designated to show no color into the wood using various tools. The result is a mirrored image. This process presents a challenge when creating text-based printings, requiring the print maker to write the text backwards. Creating prints that features multiple colors requires multiple blocks, each painted with a different color, although placing two colors on the same block can produce interesting effects.

The Art of Chinese Traditional Woodblock Printing – Chinese block printmaking techniques, a history and examples.

The Production of Japanese Woodblock Prints - This page explores the production of woodblock prints and includes detailed images of the process.

The Printed Image in the West: Woodcut – An overview of European woodblock printing history.

Intaglio

Intaglio refers to the process of making marks into a soft metal matrix, usually zinc or copper, although steel has also been used. Intaglio has become an umbrella term referring to distinct techniques that can be combined on a single plate or practiced separately: etching, engraving, mezzotint, aquatint and drypoint. Intaglio is believed to have been invented in 15th century Germany, possibly from goldsmiths who transferred engravings onto paper to record their work. Later Intaglio was widely used to create wallpapers, periodic publications, and official documents.

Intaglio - This page offers a detailed description and brief history of the process.

Intaglio Process (Visual) - This link offers a visual image of the intaglio process.

Intaglio Glossary – Definitions of printmaking terms.

Woodcut, engraving, or what? - This page offers a close look at the differences between woodcut and intaglio by examining prints created from the different techniques.

Drypoint – (PDF) An overview of drypoint engraving.

Etching Technique – (.DOC) A comprehensive guide to the etching technique.

Aquatint – The delicate and artful technique of Aquatint is demystified and explained.

Photo Gravure Guide – Photo Gravure or Heliogravure, is a more modern printing technique which utilizes the aquatint process to render photos onto a matrix.

Mezzotint Step by Step – Mezzotint is a technique that is employed when the desired print is very rich and dark.

Lithography

The lithographic printmaking method was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1796. He was motivated by an interest to publish theatrical work, although the method is now widely used for other applications. In the past, people etched an image into wax that was applied to a stone or plate, now images are transferred to paper on rubber blankets. The lithographic process is used today to create a range of images and text, including posters, painting reproductions, maps and books. The mass production of text uses the offset lithography method, which transfers an image or text to the page using a rubber blanket.

The History of Lithography (PDF) – This document provides a detailed historical overview of lithography.

The Lithograph - This page provides a brief overview of the lithograph and the process required to make one.

Photo Offset - The page offers information about the photo offset lithography process including images.

The processes described above, once stood at the precipice of technology, but today for the most part, they are practiced as a means of creating fine art and preserving history. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer institutions are offering printmaking courses but you can still find some classes in the catalogues of art colleges and community art classes. From Rembrandt to Picasso, beautiful and significant works have been created and they line the walls of galleries and prestigious museums around the world. Today some artists even blend the old and the new, mixing computer technologies with historic techniques. Printmaking’s developments have helped changed the shape of the world. It has allowed knowledge to be shared through the generations and across distant locations, which has led to humanities’ ability to reach the technologically advanced state that we currently enjoy.

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