Printmaking is one of the most important concepts in our society. It is, at its most basic, the mass production of ideas. Printmaking has done more to shape our society than any other technology. Early man used embossing to stamp portraits and numbers on metal, creating coinage. Without trade we would never have made it to the dark ages. Printmaking then pulled us out of the dark ages by providing books and images to educate the population. Widespread literacy is a direct result of the print. Science would be stagnant if every scientist had to reproduce experiments because there were no journals to publish results in. Literature would be non-existent if there were no books to read. Manufactured goods would be impossible to distribute without the printed package to put it in or instructions on how to use and assemble the product. Travel would be impossible without maps. Democracy impossible without ballots, laws, and newspapers for everyone to read.
Prints are created by using a matrix, or plate, to control ink. Paper (or other material) is usually then pressed against the plate to receive the image. There are three main divisions in the way prints are made, Intaglio, Planographic, and Serigraphy.
Serigraphy is the process of printing through a surface. Holes are created to control the flow of ink onto a surface. Silkscreen, stencil, pochoir, and photography are examples of this masking technique. The images produced by these methods usually consist of broad areas of color. Fine lines are hard to produce in all but intaglio methods.
Planographic methods include woodcut, lithography, and stamps. The surface is used to control the placement of ink. Either material is removed to leave a higher surface or the surface is treated to hold or repel ink. Again, broad areas of color predominates images produced by these methods.
Lithography, however, uses the principle that oil and water repel each other. Grease is used to draw an image. Broad strokes or fine lines can be used. The surface is then wet. While the grease repels water, it attracts ink. The water, in turn, repels ink, protecting the rest of the surface.
Intaglio is the most widely used method of printmaking in the fine arts. It uses a line cut into a plate to hold ink. There are two main ways to create these lines, chemically and mechanically. Etching is the term used to describe chemically cut lines. Aquatint is the method of producing tone, chemically. Engraving, drypoint and mezzotint are the mechanical methods of producing an image.
Etchings are produced by covering a metal plate with an acid resistant coating. The artist can then scratch the soft coating, leaving bare metal exposed. The plate is then immersed in acid, which then removes the metal below the scratch. This allows for fine flowing lines. Tone is created by thousands of tiny pits in the surface. The deeper the acid is allowed to cut the darker the mark will be.
Engraving uses only lines to create an image. Material is cut and removed from a plate, creating hard, sharp lines. Our paper money is an example of engraving.
For a softer line, drypoint is used. It is a method where the artist scratches a lines in a plate. Since the material displaced from the line is not removed, it builds up a burr along the edge of the line which holds a small amount of ink. Drypoint images are softer, but because you need to actually push metal away, the lines are not as flowing as an etching.
Mezzotint produces tone in the same way aquatint does, by creating many small dots in the plate. Mezzotint does this mechanically, and also produces the same burr as drypoint. Mezzotint is the only subtractive printmaking method (monotypes may also be subtractive). The plate is rocked to black. Then using a burnisher, you rub out the dots, creating lighter areas. Mezzotints are dark and moody; much softer than aquatint.
All these printmaking techniques use a different plate for each color. To produce an image with multiple colors, more than one plate is used. Silkscreen and lithography are the easiest methods to register or line-up, intaglio the hardest. That is why etchings are usually only one color, while the others may have more colors.
All these methods are used to reproduce the same image over and over to produce an edition. There is another type of printmaking called monotype. It can only be an edition of one. Painting directly onto a plate, the image is not permanent. This method allows the freest method of expression for the artist. Multiple colors can be used at the same time and since there is no time spent in preparing a plate, the results are very immediate. The monotype is nicknamed the painterly print.