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A Guide and Glossary to Hand Printing Techniques

Posted on May 13 2015

A Guide and Glossary to Hand Printing Techniques


Lithography works on the principle of grease repelling water and adhering to ink. Thus the materials that the artists use to make their image with are "greasy" and these are the areas that will pick up the ink from the roller. The rest of the plate or stone surface is covered with a thin film of water, which repels the ink during printing so that the drawn area of the print is what is transferred to paper. It is very similar to drawing and painting as one uses pencils and brushes which are prepared specifically for lithography. The artist works directly onto the grained limestone, grained film or aluminium plate. Various abrasives are used in the graining process so that a variety of either smooth or rougher surfaces can be worked on. Each colour used on a lithograph requires a separate plate/film or stone to be used.


This is a printing technique that embeds the artwork into the paper. The softer the paper, the deeper the inked plates sink the image into the surface, creating a textured, 3 dimensional design. The technique of letterpress printing began in the mid 1400s with the invention of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. For centuries, letterpress was the only method of printing used for reproduction. It is a very labour-intensive process, the press operator handsets and hand inks the metal plates that are used to imprint the designs and lettering onto the paper. Today, after centuries of change and technological advances in printing methods, the processes and craft of letterpress printing have remained virtually unchanged.


This is based on the idea of layering a number of "stencilled" areas onto a surface. It was initially a commercial process used for making posters and for printing onto fabric. Today artists use silk-screening to create work which is often bright and quite hard-edged. The technique involves exposing an image onto treated nylon mesh (it used to be silk). The areas that will accept the ink are then washed out and a squeegee used to press the ink through the nylon. Each successive colour requires its own screen.

Animal Chart

Relief Printing

The artist outlines their image on a wood block or other surface and then cuts away pieces from the surface, leaving only the image raised. Ink is then applied to the surface with a roller and transferred onto paper with a press or by hand burnishing or rubbing. Since the recessed, cutaway areas do not receive ink they appear white on the printed image. Relief prints are characterised by bold dark-light contrasts. The primary relief techniques are woodcut, wood engraving, and linocut. For relief printing a press is not essential as the paper can be placed onto the block and the image transferred by rubbing it with something as simple as a metal spoon. However, using a press ensures that consistent quality is maintained throughout the print run.


Woodcut is the earliest and most enduring print technique. While woodcuts were first seen in ninth-century China, Western artists have made woodcut prints for hundreds of years. The beautiful grain of the wood is sometimes seen in such prints and is used by the artists to give their work an added dimension.

Wood Engraving

This is made from the end-grain surface of blocks. This surface has no grain and can afford great precision and detail. Wood engravings are usually so fine and detailed that they do not accommodate many colours.


A linocut is printed from linoleum. The printed surface has less texture than in a woodcut because of the supple nature of linoleum. The lino takes all types of lines, but is most suited to bold designs with contrasting tints. Reduction lino prints are coloured lino prints where the artist cuts the block further which each colour printed so that the final image is built up of colour overlays.

Intaglio Printing

In intaglio printing, an image is incised with a pointed tool or "bitten" with acid into a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. The plate is covered with ink, and then cleaned so that only the incised grooves contain ink. The plate and dampened paper are run through a press to create the print. Usually, the plate is smaller than the paper so that the impression of the plate remains on the paper, creating the embossed look that many people associate with fine prints. The intaglio family of printmaking techniques includes engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching, and aquatint.


A process in which a plate is marked or incised with a tool called a burin. As the burin moves across the plate, copper shavings, called burr, are forced to either side of the lines being created, and are usually cleaned from the plate before printing. An engraved line has a sharp and clean appearance.


Scratching a drawing on the plate with a needle creates drypoint prints. The incised lines of a drypoint are shallower than those in an etching, and in this technique the burr is not scraped away before printing. The result is characterised by heavier, softer-looking lines than those in an engraving. As the plate wears down quite quickly as a result of the scratching being relatively shallow drypoint editions tend to be small in number.


Collagraphs use a variety of materials to create the print or collage block. Lace, string, paperclips, keys, feathers. Almost anything can be used as long as the pressure on the press is not too high as this can result in the blankets and rollers getting damaged. Collagraphs are usually quite textured prints as the harder objects get embossed into the paper.


These have soft tonalities ranging from grey to black. In this method, the entire surface of the plate is roughened by a spiked tool called a rocker so that, if inked, the entire plate would print in solid black. The artist then works from "black" to "white" by scraping (or burnishing) out areas so that they do not hold ink, yielding the mezzotint's soft modulated tones.



An etching begins with a metal plate (usually copper) that has been coated with a waxy substance called a "ground." The artist creates a composition by drawing through the ground to expose the metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath, which chemically dissolves the exposed lines. For printing, the ground is removed, ink is introduced into the incised lines, and the plate is wiped clean. The plate is covered with dampened paper and run through a press under great pressure in order to force the paper into the lines, resulting in the raised characteristic of etching.


This is an etching process in which the artist is concerned with tone rather than line. For this technique, a plate is covered with particles of acid-resistant material such as resin and heated to make the particles stick. The treated plate is then placed in an acid bath, which bites into the copper that is exposed between grains of resin, yielding a composition marked by texture and tone.


This is an intaglio platemaking process in which an image is photo-mechanically transferred from the plate onto an intermediary, such as a roller, and then onto paper, resulting in a final printed image that is not reversed.

Chine Colle

Chine colle is a method of applying thin, paper onto paper that then has the image printed on top of it. Chin colle allows for added colour or tonal definition in the print. All of these printing techniques can be used in isolation or combination with each other.