Definition Of Print Terminology

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Print Terminology

The three main printing techniques are: 1. Relief; 2. Intaglio; 3. Planographic.

  1. Relief

A relief image is one where the area to be printed is left to stand above the matrix [ wood-block, lino or metal plate ], the rest is cut away. Printing is effected by pressure on a piece of paper placed on the inked surface of the block, usually using a printing press.

The artist draws a design directly onto the block of wood. Using a sharp instrument the wood around the lines is cut away. The lines which are to be printed stand up above the rest of the wood. A Chiaroscuro woodcut is a colour or tonal one and uses several different blocks; one for each colour.

  1. Intaglio

This process is based on a groove, dip, incision, or other hole being produced in the surface of a matrix [metal plate, piece of wood, often Boxwood, or lino ].

Ink is then applied to the whole area of the plate and the excess wiped off. Paper [slightly damp] and plate are put together through the press and considerable pressure is used so the paper is forced into the grooves and ‘sucks’ out the ink. The plate has to be cleaned and re-inked for the next print to be made. The plate is smaller than the paper. The depression caused by the pressure of the plate on the paper is called the platemark.


A metal plate [copper or zinc] is covered with a protective coating, usually varnish. The artist then draws through the varnish with a sharp point, so the metal is exposed. The plate, when put in an acid batch, is etched in the unprotected areas. Longer in the acid creates a heavier, darker line. The etcher ‘stops out’ areas with new varnish to keep a lighter line.

Soft-Ground Etching
An 18th C. technique pre-dating Lithography but achieving similar effects. It allows an artist to draw on a thin piece of paper stretched over a plate covered in a ‘ground’, usually a mixture of wax and another substance. The ground adheres to the paper and when etched the plate produces a print that looks like a drawing.

An expensive and time consuming technique favoured for English sporting and topographical prints. It is tonal and has to be combined with pure etched line. A plate is covered in a fine resinous dust which is ‘melted’ by heat or solvent. When etched, the acid bites into the tiny areas around each tiny crystal of resin. The tiny, irregular pattern can be stopped out or left to produce darker areas of tone.

A Burin or graver has a ‘v’ shaped end which cuts a groove in a metal plate. An engraved line is sharp and clean, tapering in at the ends.

Copper plates were used but expensive from early on. In the early 19th C. the plates were first faced with steel and then made entirely of steel. The prints last longer but the prints have little of the charm of pure copper engravings.

Stipple Engraving
Used extensively in the late 18th C. to achieve a tonal effect quickly and cheaply. A tool is used to make multiple dots – tiny indents in the plate. A higher density creates a darker image.

The plate is scratched with fine pointed, hard instrument. The line created has a burr i.e. the metal is turned over and will hold the ink. This produces a rich, ‘velvety’ impression. Few such good impressions can be produced.

No acid is used.


A pure tonal technique; all form is created by darker or lighter tones. This technique was mastered in the 18th C. by the English and known as ‘Maniérè Anglaise’.
A Rocker, with a fine toothed wheel is used to roughen a copper plate. If inked, the plate would print completely black at this stage. The design is drawn on the plate in chalk. Areas of lightness are burnished i.e. polished smoother so they hold less or no ink when printed.

  1. Planographic Techniques

The print technique is dependant on oil and water repelling each other. The ‘plate’ was originally a stone [limestone] but subsequently zinc or aluminium. No incision or cutting is made to the surface of the plate.

The lithographer draws directly on the plate using a special greasy crayon or ink. When the stone has been treated it is wetted, and inked. The ink adheres uniquely to the area drawn upon, not to the bare stone. Little pressure is required to transfer the image to paper and many examples can be printed. The cheapness of the method ensured it’s rapid success.

Chromolithography uses several stones, one for each colour used.

Many other techniques exist; specialist reference books exist in all libraries.

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