GUIDE TO PRINTS
Dr. R K de Silva
Prints may be broadly divided into three principle groups.
Relief Prints e.g. woodcuts, metal cuts and wood engravings
In wood cuts, a design is left in relief by chiselling or cutting away from small
blocks of wood. The print is made by applying ink to the surface and pressing the
block down on to the paper. Wood cuts and wood engravings, which can achieve very
finely detailed lines are usually printed in black and white. This is the oldest
method of printing and was a popular way of illustrating books.
Intaglio Prints e.g. engravings, etchings, mezzotints and aquatints
In an engraving, the design is cut directly into a metal plate with a sharp pointed
tool called a graver. In etchings, the design is drawn (with an etching needle) on
the metal, through a thin layer of wax. The plate is next immersed in acid, which
'bites' only where the metal is exposed; it is then inked and wiped so that the ink which
remains in the incisions or 'bitten' areas is forced out on printing under pressure.
In mezzotints, the metal plate is first pitted or roughened all over with a tool called
the rocker which has a curved, serrated edge. Each pit will hold ink, producing an
even, velvety, black surface which is then rubbed down in varying degrees, to diminish the
amount of ink held, in order to achieve the lightness of tone required.
Characteristic of the process is that the engraver works from dark to light, so that the
design emerges from the black background. It is used chiefly for the reproduction of
In aquatints, powdered resin is sprinkled on to a metal plate and 'fixed' on to it by
heating. When etched, the acid bites around the tiny resinous particles. On
printing, usually in two, or at most three, colours, a fine crazy-paved effect is
obtained. Gradations of tone are achieved by different thickness of resin.
The drawing is made on stone (or more commonly a zinc plate) with greasy crayons.
The surface is then dampened with water, which, due to the repellent effects of the
grease, settles in the undrawn areas. Next the plate is rolled over with greasy,
coloured printing ink; this adheres only to the greasy drawings, the water repelling the
ink from the rest of the surface. One plate is required for each colour printed.
The ink is then transferred by laying the sheet of paper face down on the inked
stone and rubbing its back.
Lithography superseded aquatinting about the 1840s. Unlike relief or intaglio
prints, lithographs do not have a plate impression.