formerly the Archives and Collections Society  

Art Print Terminology

and other graphics terms.

Aquatint. This is a form of etching which enables a wide variety of tones to be created. Powdered resin is dusted onto the metal plate and acts as an acid resist. The grains can be applied in a variety of thicknesses and the grain size varied; using controlled acid strength and immersion times a wide range of textures can be created. When inked these textures enable subtle tonal areas to be printed. This technique is often used with line etching and other etching methods (see also sugar lift).

Artist's Proof. One of a small group of prints set aside from an open edition for the artist's use; a number of printer's proofs are sometimes also done for the printer's use.

These prints are produced by artists, either in their own studios or within a specialist printmaking workshop. To qualify as a Limited Edition, the prints must limited and the edition number written on the image, 4/75 refers to the fourth edition out of a series of 75; in practice the lower the edition number the cleaner the impression. Original artists' prints are also signed and sometimes dated. After the limited edition is completed the remaining plate is usually destroyed or defaced thus ensuring the rarity of the edition.

Book Illustrations

Many antique prints started out as book illustrations, the book is disassembled to separate the illustrations from the text and sold separately; in the trade they are therefore refered to as 'breakers'. By hand colouring and framing these prints, decorative images are created and these are often sold under subject categories.

Book illustration is an interesting area in its own right and reflects innovations in print technology. The most commonly used book print techniques are:

Woodcut or wood engraving, where blocks of wood, traditionally from the box tree are engraved and printed. These were the original early illustrations and date from 1460.

Steel engraving, the steel plate is incised with cuts which when inked print as lines.

Aquatint, a form of etching using fine particles to create areas of tone.In good quality early 19th century books these were originally hand coloured. Later the plates were printed using coloured inks either with more than one colour on a single plate or using several plates, one for each colour.

Mezzotint, the plate is finely textured to print black when inked. The plates are then burnished to hold less ink creating tonal areas, smooth areas printing white.

Chop. The impression made by the artist's or the printer's seal on the paper.

Collograph. A print made from an image built up with glue and sometimes other materials. The inked image is transferred from plate to paper and is simultaneously embossed. The name derives from "collage."

Edition. A set of identical prints, sometimes numbered and signed, pulled by, or under the supervision of the artist.

Open Edition. An unlimited number of impressions.

Limited Edition. Has a known number of impressions, usually fewer then 200, that are numbered and signed.

Giclée. Giclée printing (from the French gicler, to spray or squirt) is a technical, computer controlled reproduction method somewhat comparable to ink-jet printing - the same process used by the ink-jet printers for home and office computers. However, the direct comparison stops there, as the machines and the inks (or paints) used are not the same, and while a giclée can be printed on the same paper as an offset print, it is more often on canvas, or on high quality or hand-made art paper.

Iris was the first manufacturer of these high quality printing machines (and are still among the industry leaders) which can cost upwards of $45,000. Other manufacturers have entered the arena (Roland, Colorspan, Hewlett-Packard, Epson etc) with more affordable products, however standards may vary, particularly with the archival quality of [pigmented] inks, the number of print heads and inks used, drum speed, etc. It should also be noted that the quality of the photography and scanning of the original painting and/or any "computer enhancement" of an image obviously affects the quality of reproduction.

Technically, a giclée printer can produce an apparent resolution of several thousand dots per inch on the selected substrate without the use of screens, which is higher than a tradional lithographic print, and has a wider color gamut than serigraphy. The precision of the printing and the depth of color range make this type of printing attractive for many types of original - watercolor, oil or acrylic.

Giclée prints are a fairly recent innovation, and their longevity has been questioned; as with all printing techniques, the quality of the inks can vary widely, and while laboratory simulations of aging can give some indication of expected life, good care and hanging of any reproduction is always important - ultra-violet light, and changing humidity and temperature can cause premature ageing.

Intaglio. In Italian Intaglio means engraved or "cut in". A method of printing in which the image is carved into a flat surface, usually copper, so that the areas to be inked are recessed beneath the surface of the printing plate. Damp paper is placed on the plate and run through a press under great pressure forcing the paper into the engraved areas and thus transferring the image.

Intaglio prints differ from relief prints in that the engraved lines print as the ink colour, as opposed to the relief printing where the raised areas are printed. Usually the engraved or etched plate is slightly warmed to make the ink less viscous so it flows into the indentations. The plate is then wiped to remove ink from the surface but still remaining in the grooves, when printed under pressure these print as the ink colour.

The main intaglio processes:

Engraving Copper and later steel plates are engraved using a burin which is a hard V shaped tool used to gouge out the metal. The distinctive quality of the engraving show lines which taper at each end, the depth of cut can be varied to vary the width of the printed line. Darker areas are created by cross hatching or shading by engraving parallel fine lines. Initially copper was the prominent plate material, but being a fairly soft metal the print quality diminished with later impressions.The first engravings appearing in the Renaissance period the most famous being made by Marcantonio Raimondi of paintings by Raphael. After 1820 steel was the predominant plate metal; because it is harder greater numbers of impressions could be made without diminishment in quality. In general the steel engraving is characterised by the closeness of finely engraved lines in the areas of dark shading. With the advent of metal plating, after 1860 copper could be engraved and then plated with steel to produce the required hard surface for larger print runs. In general the steel engraving is used for mass production, often in the form of V ictorian book plates. The earlier copper engravings are the most highly sought after and prized.

Line Engraving. The image is produced by cutting or gouging a metal plate directly with a sharp tool.

Stipple Engraving. Instead of lines the stipple engraver uses a fine series of dots to produce the outline and shading of the print. Initially the outline drawing is stippled in with a series of dots, then the shading is worked up using needles and a tool which incorporated a rotating spiked wheel called a roulette. The plate is then inked and wiped, the ink resting in the indentations which then prints as a series of dots. The ink colour is usually black or sepia and are often hand coloured; a more complex method of colouring known as 'a la poupee' uses two or more coloured inks in the printing, these are particularly collectable. The most famous stipple engraver is Francesco Bartolozzi who worked in England in the mid 18th Century.

Drypoint. Drawing on the metal plate with a hard steel "pencil" (in French 'burin') that produces a burr by displacing, rather than removing metal, causing the printed line to be somewhat fuzzy thus adding a richness to the image. Because this wears during printing, editions are usually limited to 50 or fewer prints. This is the simplest of intaglio techniques of drawing into the copper with a needle. The line created has a distinctive fuzziness due to the burr. The editions of drypoint are limited because the plate soon loses the crispness of line. Drypoint is often used in addition to etching to create rich velvety line.

Etching. A metal plate is first covered with an acid-resistant ground, then worked with an etching needle. The metal exposed by the needle is "eaten" in an acid bath, creating the recessed image.

In the Renaissance it was found that by coating a copper etching plate with a wax/bitumen mixture (called the ground), then drawing through to the copper and placing in an acid bath, an intaglio image was created by the action of acid on the exposed copper (in French 'eau forte'). By applying more varnish to areas of the plate and re immersing in the acid varied thickness of line are created, this method is called 'stopping out'. Later in the 17th century softer grounds were created which allowed for a freedom in drawing technique. The line created has a remarkable vitality and is more akin to an ink drawing than the stiffness of the manually engraved image. The undoubted master of etching is Rembrandt, he developed the technique of varying the tonal range of the print by wiping out the ink more in some areas than in others and thus subtly manipulating the light and shade.

Plates are often reworked by stopping out and re-etching, these are called 'states'. Usually the artist keeps the original early prints known as proofs, artists proofs are often sought after as they are rarer than the main editions and show insight into the working method. Early prints from the editions are clearer, well defined and therefore more desirable.

Mezzotint. A tonal, rather linear, engraving process made by first roughening the surface of the plate with a mesh of small burred dots and then producing the picture by flattening and burnishing selected areas which print as highlights. It is rarely practiced now since photographic methods have superseded it.

The plate is first textured using a rocker leaving an even series of dotted lines and burrs which hold the ink. In the 18th century copper was used but in the 1820s these were superseded by steel plates. The resulting plate should have an even velvet texture which when printed will print black. A burnisher is then used to rub away areas creating tonal contrast, if white is wanted then the plate is burnished to a totally smooth surface. The distinctive quality of mezzotints are the range of velvety textures and the design is usually highlighted against a black background. The method was used particularly for creating portraits with chiaroscuro lighting effects, the finest examples being early editions of late 18th century portraits.

Aquatint. Another tonal process where a porous ground allows acid to penetrate to form a network of small dots. Any pure whites are stopped out entirely before etching begins, then the palest tints are bitten and stopped out, and so on as in etching. This process is repeated 20 to 30 times until the darkest tones (deepest recesses in the plate) are reached.

Iris Print. A new process using advanced technology to create prints - see giclée

Monoprint. One of a series in which each print has some differences of color, design, texture, etc. applied to an underlying common image.

Monotype. A one-of-a-kind print made by painting on a smooth metal, glass or stone plate and then printing on paper. The pressure of printing creates a texture not possible when painting directly on paper.

A monoprint is one of a series - therefore, not wholly unique. A monoprint begins with an etched plate, a serigraph, lithograph or collograph. This underlying image remains the same and is common to each print in a given series. Other means of adding pigment or design are then employed to make each print in the series slightly different. The series of monoprints has a limited number of prints and each is numbered.

A monotype is one of a kind, a unique piece of artwork. It is the simplest form of printmaking, requiring only pigments, a surface on which to apply them, paper and some form of press.

Photogravure. A photomechanical process invented in 1879 for fine printing. An image is transferred to a copper plate which is chemically etched. For each print the plate is hand-inked.

Photo etching: A Metal plate, usually copper, is coated with a light sensitive emulsion. This is then put into contact with a photographic negative and exposed to light, which hardens the clear parts of the design. When processed the hardened parts of the coating act as an acid resist and the plate is then etched often with the addition of aquatint to create tonal contrasts.

Lithograph. The process of printing from a small stone or metal plate on which the image to be printed is ink-receptive and the blank area is ink repellent. The artist, or other print maker under the artist's supervision, then covers the plate with a sheet of paper and runs both through a press under light pressure. The resultant "original print" is of considerably greater intrinsic worth than the commercially reproduced poster which is mechanically printed on an offset press (see "limited edition" above).

The following are descriptions of types of lithographs.

Original Stone Lithographs. Hand drawn by the artist on limestone or marble. Each stone is used to print one color. (The best stones, which are Bavarian limestone, are gray in color and have a clear complexion free of fossils and other flaws. These stones are becoming increasingly rare.) After the edition (the number of impressions made) is hand-printed, each impression is signed and numbered by the artist, and the mark, or chop, of the printer is embossed on each print. Imperfect impressions are destroyed, the stones and plates are effaced, and each edition is carefully documented. This is the oldest lithographic technique, and still the best.

Original Plate Lithographs. Hand drawn by the artist on aluminum plates. Plates are cheaper than stones, readily available and easier to transport. These factors make plate lithography a popular alternative to stone lithography for the creation of original prints.

Mylar Plate Lithographs. The artist draws on a mylar sheet. The information is transferred to a photosensitive lithographic plate. The plate is printed in a manner similar to original plate lithography.

Lithographic Reproductions. The artist produces an original artwork in any medium. The original artwork is photographed. A color separation is produced from the photograph. The information from the color separation is transferred to photosensitive lithographic plates. Each plate is printed individually. Reproduction prints are usually called posters.

Offset Print. Any lithograph mechanically printed using an offset press. With an offset press, the ink from the plate is transferred to a rubber blanket, and from that blanket onto paper. However, with a direct or hand press, the ink is transferred directly from the plate or stone onto the paper.

Chromolithography. A process using several stones or plates--one for each color, printed in register. The result is color prints, to be distinguished from colored prints that have the color hand-applied after printing.

Photographic print

Although this may seems an obvious category and hardly worth consideration as a print, it is worth bearing in mind when trying to discover the origin of a reproduction. We have been to many auctions were there appears to be a very beautiful pencil or charcoal drawing framed and glazed. The lot is categorised by the auctioneer as a drawing and the bidding attracts much attention - but further inspection reveals a deception. The glazing makes it hard to see the paper surface which is smooth and shiny and without the key needed to create the grain of the pencil or charcoal. The picture is nothing more than a carefully mounted and framed photograph. The term Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) particularly applies to buying at auction.

The PhotoLithograph

The lithographic process is described in the artists' print section, although like so many of the processes it has been used for commercial reproduction for many years. The basis of lithography is the incompatibility of ink and water and was discovered by Aloys Senefelder in 1798. It was found in about the 1880s that hardened gelatin used to carry the photographic image had a similar property to the lithographic crayon; it was receptive to ink, the surrounding area repelled ink.This type of print is known as the cellotype.

By separating a coloured photograph into its constituent primary colours of Cyan, Yellow and Magenta together with black to give depth to the shadow areas, four plates are created one for each colour. These plates are exposed to light through a screen which gives a characteristic dot pattern. The finer the screen the more dots per square inch (DPI) and the more detailed the reproduction .The paper in modern photolithography is usually inked by means of an intermediate rubber roller and known as offset printing. Commercial colour lithographs are called chromolithographs

Chromolithographs vary in quality from some newspaper printing to high quality prints using a fine mesh, good quality inks and paper. These high quality reproductions are used extensively to reproduce artists' work and are often (mistakenly in our view) termed as artists' prints. This confusion in terminology has been further reinforced by limiting the editions of the reproduction and the artist signing under the image; they constitute the most commonly available prints and some such as those produced by William Russell Flint are highly collectable.

Relief Prints

Relief printing is the oldest form of printmaking. A surface is created which stands proud of the surrounding area, when inked and pressed on paper the a mirror image of the relief is printed. The most common relief prints used by artists are the woodcut, the wood engraving and the Linocut.


A relief is simply created by gouging out the areas into a wooden block. When inked the surface left in relief will print, the gouged out areas staying as the paper colour. In a simple monoprint of black printed on a white paper the gouged areas stay white, the relief prints as black. Woodcut blocks have the grain running parallel to the surface of the block as opposed to wood engraving which uses the end grain. Typical examples of woodcuts are Albrecht Durer's series of prints using fine lines carved with great precision, In this century the direct expressive quality of cutting into wood was used to powerful effect by the German Expressionists.
Multi coloured prints can be produced by cutting wore than one block, one for each colour and by careful registration print one colour over another. The most skilled practitioners of the multi coloured woodblock being the Japanese, the most famous practitioners being Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro.

Wood engraving

Thomas Bewick in the 18th Century found that by using the end grain of a hard wood (the most commonly used being the boxwood) and incising using the tools of a copper engraver fine lines are created. The fineness of the lines enables the carver to produce blocks of finest detail and tones of grey are produced by cross hatching. The technique developed by Bewick was initially used as book illustration and was extensively used into the 19th century. The craft was revived in the 20th century by artists including Charles Ricketts, Charles Hazelwood Shannon and Eric Gill.

Lino cuts

The soft pliable nature of linoleum was recognised by many artist as a particularly good substitute for wood to create relief prints. The cut is easier to incise and the line has a characteristic freeness of expression, lino however does not take the fine detail present in wood engravings. Picasso and Matisse produced series of lino cuts. In England the technique was explored by Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews, they produced flowing dynamic multicoloured images which utilises fully the freedom of the medium.

Screenprints and Stencils


The simplest technique of Screenprinting can be thought of as a development of stencilling. Instead of stippling through a cut out stencil by hand, the stencil is placed on a mesh ( initially Silk ) where it is fixed. A thick ink is then pushed through the stencil to create an image. Several screens are prepared and overlayed to create multiple tones and colours.

Other techniques in screenprinting include the use of an impenetrable paint which is painted on the screen to form the negative. This has been developed into a photographic technique where a light sensitive substance is applied to the mesh; as the light is exposed,the substance hardens. The darker area remains unaffected and are then washed off.

Another technique uses the inability of water and oil to mix (see lithography). The image is drawn on the screen using an oil based paint. The screen is then totally covered with a water based substance which dries to an impenetrable film. However due to to incompatibility of the waterbased substance to adhere to the oily paint the original drawing remain unaffected. When the screen is washed with solvents the oily drawing dissolves leaving a negative of the original ready to be printed.

Screenprinting was originally used for the commercial production of posters, however it was used particularly by artists in the 1960s who were attracted to its graphic quality of hard edges and flat colour.

Serigraph. A form of print making utilizing stencils attached to porous screens that support delicate areas of the cut design. Most often issued in signed and numbered editions.


Stencilling can be thought of as a form of printmaking. Where the image is cut away, a negative is formed of the image which then can be painted or stippled through using a stencil brush. A positive shape can also be used as a stencil which will create the reversal of the image. Many stencils can be overlaid to create variance in tone and colour, this technique was used extensively in the 1930's producing distinctive hard edge designs known as pochoir prints.

Sugar lift aquatint uses a mixture of sugar and ink which is painted directly onto the plate. The plate is then varnished and when dry immersed in water. The water penetrates the varnish and melts away the sugar particles leaving the metal plate exposed. This prints as an aquatint texture. Because the plate is worked on directly, the resulting print has a free and paint like quality.



Revised: 31 March 2012