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The Printmaking Process - What is an Intaglio, Anyway?


Printmaking is any process by which multiple works of art are mechanically produced from a master template. All printing processes used by artists were at one time, or still may be currently used also for commercial mass printing. Some, like relief printing, survive in the form of rubber stamps. Etching is still practiced on a commercial scale for its intrinsic look of ceremonial seriousness, as in formal event invitations and fine stationery; letterpress enjoys a similar status, with an added element of fashion. Silk screening is still used for textile printing, and lithography survives as offset printing, by which process most commercial printing is still done today. All these processes have the potential to carry the evidence of the artist’s hand, and are therefore considered worthy media for fine art if practiced on a smaller scale and, if not actually executed by the artist, at least closely supervised by the creator of the images.

Relief Printing

Certainly the oldest printmaking process, relief printmaking probably began the first time a dirty hand was used to make a print on a wall. In relief printing, raised areas on a block of wood, stone or other material are created by carving away any areas not intended to print. Ink rolled across the raised areas will mark when pressed on a surface such as paper, cloth or leather.


Intaglio involves grooves being dug with a needle or burned with acid into a metal plate. Ink is rubbed into the crevices, the surface wiped clean, and under great pressure paper is forced into cuts and pits on the plate, transferring the ink. Coatings can be applied to the plate which, when scratched or washed away will allow contact with an acid bath. Anywhere the coating was scratched away, a line or mark is bitten by the acid.


Originally created using stone slabs, but now also done with aluminum plates, marks are drawn with grease crayons and greasy inks and chemically fixed to the stone with a gum Arabic/ acid solution. Water is sponged on the stone, and beads up where grease was present; ink rolled over the wet surface will only stick to the grease-marked areas. Paper is pressed against the stone to produce a print. The original lithographic limestone is extinct, with only a single source in Germany, and is nearly gone from the planet.


A stencil is created on thin cloth stretched across a frame by painting out areas, adhering films, or photographically dissolving an emulsion. When the screen is pressed against a printable surface, ink is dragged through with a squeegee. Anywhere the screen is not blocked, a mark is left.


A relief-style printing which uses old-fashioned moveable block type; still in use for handmade books


Giclee is a modern, computer-generated printing technique executed with sophisticated machines which can print on canvas, paper and a variety of other materials. An inkjet process, Giclee printing is popular as a way to make high-quality reproductions of originals. However, some artists create digital images expressly for printing in this process.

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