How much do you know about printmaking? If you’re like most people who didn’t study art, the answer is probably not much. It’s a family of art-making techniques that are quite unique and beautiful but that aren’t well understood outside the art world, despite having been around for thousands of years - since the invention of paper.
Since I love working in printmaking, and keep running into confusion when I talk about it, I thought I would share a little of what it’s all about and my experience with it.
Printmaking is the act of transferring an image from a block or plate to a piece of paper, usually with the intention of making multiple identical copies. Over the centuries, these blocks and plates have been made with wood, copper, limestone, zinc, steel, linoleum, silk, and many other substances.
I learned a few different printmaking techniques in high school and fell deeply in love with it. It can be quite a process to translate an image from a drawing to a plate (or a screen) and then creating multiple impressions from that plate. But it’s worth it, because lifting up the paper for the first time and seeing the printed image always feels like magic. If you’ve ever played with stamps and gotten a kick out of being able to make the same image over and over again - that’s what printmaking is like but bigger and more complex.
After high school I left printmaking behind since I believed that you need serious equipment - like a heavy-duty press - to do it. Thankfully, a friend brought over some linocut supplies one night and showed me how to make prints with a wooden spoon. I’ve been making prints in my home ever since.
While there are tons of different methods, I thought I would share the ones that I’ve worked with personally: linocut, woodcut, collograph, etching, and silkscreen.
Technique: A design is carved into a piece of linoleum or rubber, and ink is rolled over the plate. A piece of paper is laid on the block and you can either use a mechanical press to press the paper onto the plate, or burnish the paper with your hand, a barren, or a wooden spoon. The image you get will be a negative of what you carved on the block, since whatever you carve away will be left white and whatever you leave behind will pick up the ink and transfer it to the paper.
This is also often called 'block printing' - though technically that term applies to any sort of printmaking where parts of the surface are carved away, including wood, lino and rubber.
I gravitate towards linocut in my current practice because I find it’s the most accessible. It’s easy to buy the supplies, they don’t cost very much, you can easily print at home, and there is a lot you can do with it - including printing on fabric. See some more examples of my work here and check out these artists:
Technique: This is the predecessor of linocut so the process is similar. Carve out a wooden plate, ink it up, and either press paper down on it, or use it like a stamp on fabric.
I’ve tried woodcut twice, and both were memorable experiences. For the first time, I took a class at SNAP where the entire group worked on one giant piece of wood - drawing and carving their own character in a group scene. Once it was finished, they laid it out on the street, inked it up, and used an industrial rolling machine to press the paper onto it. I watched the whole process and it was pretty cool!
The second time was when I was in Turkey and I learned how they make the stamps they use to decorate fabric. I tried a simpler version of a very old technique, using styrofoam instead of wood. Maybe one day I’ll try the real thing!
Technique: This is the most complex form of printmaking I’ve tried. Though there are many different ways to create an etching, the basic process involves covering a copper plate in an acid-resistant ground, then drawing on the plate. Next, the plate is soaked in an acid bath and wherever the ground was removed by drawing, the acid eats away the copper, which “etches” the design into the plate.
Unlike lino and woodcuts, this process makes a positive image: whatever you draw on the plate will show up just as you see it on the paper. This is because ink is pushed into the lines that were etched and then wiped away from the surface. Once the paper is pressed onto the plate, the ink in the lines is transferred.
This has long been my favourite type of printmaking to look at and in the past couple years I’ve started working on adding it to my repertoire. I love how the images often seem to have a weathered, ghostly look to them that fits wonderfully with my aesthetic. It’s not something I can do at home (acid and solvents aren’t welcome in my studio) but I’m lucky enough to have a great print shop nearby where I can learn and experiment!
Here are a couple of etching artists you should check out:
Technique: This involves glueing objects to a plate, (anything sturdy, like mat board, will work) covering them with a glossy medium, and then applying ink and wiping it off. Similar to etching, the ink stays in the dips created by the textured objects and then shows up once the paper is pressed onto the plate. This technique is great for creating texture, though you can also use it to translate drawings.
One of my teachers at SNAP uses gesso to paint on her collagraph boards, which leads to these beautiful prints.
Technique: Use a stencil or photo emulsion to block out parts of a mesh screen. Whatever you block will be left white and whatever is not blocked will allow ink to pass through. This technique doesn’t require pressing or burnishing: the screen lays down on the paper or fabric and ink is pulled across the screen with a squeegee.
I haven’t tried this since high school, but I remember it being a lot of fun. This is how a lot of t-shirts, posters, and tote bags are made.
P.S. I teach block printing classes! If you're in Edmonton or surrounding area, check my upcoming classes for the next one, OR book a home party for you and your friends. You can also sign up for my newsletter to always know when the next classes are happening.