The Four Basic Methods of Fine Art Printing: Refief, Intaglio, Planographic and Screen Printing

Fine art printing is about printing images using artistic tools that have a long tradition behind them and therefore excludes the new digital printing technologies such as the giclee print which is a fancy ink-jet print. Fine art prints include those by the great masters of the last five centuries as well as a multitude of talented artists whose work is less known.

The four basic methods at the disposal of fine art artists are relief, intaglio, planographic and screenprinting.

Relief printing is the oldest of the four. The artist uses sharp tools to cut away at the surface of a material they want to use to print with. At first artists used wood and created the woodcut. They would gouge out slivers of wood out of a woodblock using their knives to leave only raised edges. These raised portions could receive ink which with a laid piece of paper on them could transfer an image on to the paper, creating a print. To get an even pressure on the wood to transfer the ink a press would be used. One could also use a spoon or rounded tool to put pressure on the paper to receive the inks. Centuries later linoleum would be used as well creating the linocut print.

Intaglio printing is pronounced “in-Tah-lee-oh”. It is essentially the opposite of relief printing as ink is in the grooves rather than on the raised relief of a woodcut. The prints made using intaglio printing are mainly engravings and etchings.

Engravers use sharp tools called burins to cut into a metal plate made of copper and later steel. By incising minuscule grooves in the metal the engraver creates an image that can be printed. Ink is rolled onto the metal plate, the ink penetrates the incisions and the excess wiped off. Paper is applied to the metal plate and under great pressure from a press an engraving is pulled.

An etching is another type of intaglio print in which the artist applies a varnish substance to a metal plate and then draws with needle-like tools on the metal plate. The tools expose the metal by removing the varnish, called ground. Acid is then applied to the metal plate and the acid cuts into the areas of the plate that have been exposed by the removed ground. The metal plate is then inked and an etching is pulled from a press.

Planographic prints is the domain of lithography, which uses a stone to apply the art work. The artist can draw immediately on a lithographic stone with oily pencils and crayons. A substance is then layered on top of the drawing that will allow the drawn area to accept inks. The stone is then inked and then a lithograph print is pulled. This method was discovered in 1796 by Alois Senefelder in Austria.

Screenprinting is the most recent addition to fine art printing, it is also known as a serigraph. It is much like a stencil in which the artist stomps out the area not to be printed on a screen with special glues. Screenprinting is often associated with commercial printing but American pop artists loved the ease it offered in creating art.