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An Introduction to Prints
Whale Print - by David Thauberger, 1979 silkscreen

An Introduction to Prints

Learn about different types, markings and more


A print is an artwork on paper often produced in multiples. When speaking of original prints, it is understood that the artist created the artwork as a print, rather than it being a mechanical reproduction of an artwork that existed previously (such as an oil painting or watercolour) and that the artist created the image on the plate or other ink-transfer matrix, and participated in or at least supervised the pulling of the individual prints.

There are four basic categories of printed artworks, which are grouped by their method of creation: RELIEF, INTAGLIO, PLANOGRAPHIC and STENCIL.

Below is a description of these four different types of printmaking (with some examples to help you identify the process which was used to create a print). Following that, there is an explanation of the markings and inscriptions commonly found on fine art prints.


With relief prints, ink is applied to the raised portion of the matrix for transfer to paper which is then pressed against it.

WOODCUTS - Tools are used to gouge indentations in planks or blocks of wood. Ink is then applied to the remaining raised portions of the surface, and transferred to dry paper. So the cut away areas do not receive ink, but the raised surface of the plank receives ink to transfer to the paper. In this way the artist CUTS AWAY from the areas that they want to print rather than cutting IN the lines which are to be printed. Note that the term “Wood Engraving” specifically refers to a woodcut that is created on an end-grained wood block instead of a plank, allowing for finer, more fluid lines.

LINOCUT - A linocut employs the same techniques as woodcuts, applied instead to a piece of linoleum, which is easier to carve.

STONECUT - A stonecut, popular among Inuit artists since the 1960s, uses a stone slate as the printing plate, with a stonecutter cutting away areas which will not appear in the final print.


With all intaglio processes, lines are cut into a hard plate. Ink is then applied to the plate and pushed down into the cut lines. Excess ink is wiped off the surface, leaving only the ink which has sunk down into the grooves. Then damp paper is put in contact with the plate, and pressed firmly against it (often with a roller or press) so that the paper presses slightly into the grooves in the plate and the ink transfers from the grooves to the paper. In this way, the artist digs in the lines that they want to print.

ENGRAVING - A metal tool is used by the artist to gouge grooves into a metal plate (often copper).

DRYPOINT - Very like engraving, but the gouging tool is pulled across the metal plate, resulting in rolled up burrs along the edge of the line (creating lines which are softer, rougher and less fine).

MEZZOTINT - Mezzotints are created with a rocker, a textured tool that is used to create many small marks in the plate which are then buffed away to create lighter tones.

ETCHING - Acid is used to create the grooves in the metal plate. To create an etching, an acid resistant coating is applied to the metal plate, and the artist uses a stylus to draw into the coating. Then the plate with lines dug into the coating is submerged in an acid which reacts to the plate wherever it reaches it (the lines). Then the coating is removed entirely, and ink is applied to the plate and pushed into the fine lines that the acid has etched into the plate.

AQUATINT - With aquatints a porous acid resistant coating is applied to the metal plate, and then the entire plate is submerged briefly in the acid. This is done repeatedly, with further areas of the plate protected by the stop element (either painted on or sprayed on) so that the areas that are exposed most often to the acid result in deeper indentations (which attract more ink to transfer to damp paper).


Planographic printmaking does not involve gouging into a medium to transfer the ink, but simply utilizes the matrix’s surface.

LITHOGRAPH - Lithography is based on the principle that water and oil repel one another. To create a lithograph, and artist draws directly onto a plate or stone with a greasy pencil or crayon. Then water is applied to the surface, which does no adhere to the greasy areas. Next a particularly oily ink is put on the plate and adheres only to the areas of greasy pencil. Then a dry paper is pressed against the plate and soaks up the ink that had adhered to the greasy markings.

MONOTYPE - To make a monotype the artist paints the ink directly onto a plate or block, and simply presses paper against that surface to transfer the image. Very little ink will remain on the original surface, so the image must be re-painted to create a subsequent print. Consequently, even though monotypes use a printmaking transfer technique, each image exists as a unique single or as very few vastly different variations. An interesting effect of this technique is that images tend to exhibit both the texture of brushstrokes and the smudge softness of the paper having been pressed against the inked surface.


For stencil printing, ink is pressed through open spaces in the stencil to the paper beneath.

SILKSCREEN - The most common type of stencil printing is the silkscreen (also called Serigraph or Screenprint) whereby parts of a screen are made to block ink from passing through to a paper beneath. The screen is usually silk or a synthetic fabric stretched on a frame. The stencil can be made by cutting out from a waxy film or paper, or a glue-like substance can be brushed right onto the silk. Ink is then squeezed or squeegeed through the silk while it is in contact with dry paper.

A modern type of serigraph printing is the Photo Silkscreen, whereby a light sensitive emulsion is spread directly onto the screen. After drying partially, a design on a clear plastic sheet can be overlaid and the silkscreen exposed to bright light which hardens all areas which are not obscured by the opaque areas of the design. The protected areas of the emulsion layer remain soft and can be washed away so that ink can be pressed through these areas.


Monoprint - Any use of printmaking techniques to make a single unique artwork, often numbered 1/1 (one of one) to specify that it does not exist in multiple. Unlike “monotype” above (which is a specific printmaking technique) monoprints can be created using any printmaking process, but are limited to editions of only one print (often with additional hand-painting or colour wash).

Embossing — Wet paper is firmly pressed against an un-inked relief pattern resulting in a permanent raised image.

Paper Casting — Multiples layers of wet handmade paper are used to fill a cast or wrap over a mold. The result can be similar to embossing or much more three-dimensional.

Hand-painting — Sometimes artists apply watercolour or acrylic paints by hand to finished prints.

Watercolour wash — A watercolour wash is a large area of faint colour created with thinly diluted paint, and this technique can be applied to prints, often as part of a monoprint process.

Digital Fine Art Prints — In the 1970s it became possible to create images using computer software (and to manipulate photographic images with such software) and to print the resulting images using inkjet printers. Although using digital and mechanical means, such artworks can be understood not to be mechanical reproductions of pre-existing artworks but to be original prints created by the artist solely as prints (often as limited editions).

Reproductions - Reproductions depict a previously existing artwork (like a painting, watercolour, drawing or photograph) which is then mechanically reproduced. Most times a photograph is taken of the original artwork, then photolithographic or inkjet reproductions are made.

Tranquility - 1974 etching by Beatrice Harding

Tranquility - 1974 etching by Beatrice Harding



Often the artist’s signature is pencil-written immediately below the printed image, sometimes along with a date, a title and an edition number. Convention has the edition number on the bottom left and signature on the bottom right, but variations occur. If the image covers the entire surface of the paper, the edition and signature might be written within the image area, or on the reverse side of the paper. Generally pencil is used, because graphite does not fade with time whereas pen ink is less stable.


The edition for a print is the limited set of prints made from the same plate or screen. Each individual print within this set is assigned a number, and it is normally expressed as print-number/edition-size. So “3/20” would be the third print from a total of 20 prints made. An edition marking of 1/1 signifies that the work is a unique monoprint.

There is also a convention that small numbers of prints can exist outside of the edition. For instance, up to 10% additional prints can be simply marked as A/P, meaning Artist’s Proof (and originally these were intended to remain with the artist while the full edition would be handled by the artist’s agent).“E.A.” is the French equivalent, “épreuve d’artiste”. A still smaller number of prints might be designated as Printer Proofs to be kept by the printer, “P/P” or “E.I.” for épreuve d’imprimeur in French.

After the completion of creating the limited edition of prints, the plate or matrix is often cancelled so that it can no longer create impressions. It can be scratched and otherwise defaced, or recycled.

At the time of printing it’s common to create a certificate accounting for the number of limited edition prints and the number of prints which exist outside the main edition, but only occasionally does a copy of this document travel effectively along with the individual prints.


A Chop Mark is a small identifying embossing sometimes placed in the margin of a print. Often these represent the printer or workshop which made the print, but some artists also use chops (along with a written signature). Sometimes the chop mark is created with an inked rubber stamp rather than an embossing stamp.


Since the inception of wood block printing on silk in China around 1800 years ago, printmaking has been an expressive and increasingly individualized means of communication and decoration, as different types of printmaking processes offer artists many tools and forms and result in a wide range of appearances and visual effects.

The public’s embrace of print collecting accelerated in the 1800s as a middle class emerged in societies throughout much of the world with a desire for decoration and art but unable to afford paintings or sculptures. Prints done on paper and in multiples became a popular inexpensive means of home decoration.

In the late 1800s as the collection of prints increased and ideas coalesced around valuing originality and authorship, many printmakers began the practice of hand-signing their works and numbering them to specify the edition size (the total number of prints made).

Many familiar international masters have worked extensively in prints: Hokusai, Degas, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Warhol. In fact, the highest price ever paid for an American artwork was for a silkscreen, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, which sold for $195 million USD at an auction in May 2022.

And it’s worth noting that one of the world’s most renowned printmakers is the British-Canadian Sybil Andrews, who worked mostly in linocuts, and whose prints have on several occasions achieved over $100,000 at auction.

Of course if you’re looking for prints by Saskatchewan artists, there is no shortage of big names who achieved mastery of the art form. Joe Fafard, David Thauberger, Victor Cicansky, Wilf Perreault, Ted Godwin, William Perehudoff, Russell Yuristy, Brian Fisher, Illingworth Kerr, Ernest Lindner, Ivan Eyre, Ruth Pawson, Dorothy Martin, Charles Ringness, Nik Semenoff, Jack Cowin, Beatrice Harding, Leslie Saunders, Stanley Francis Turner, Frank Nulf, Greg Murdock, McGregor Hone, Alex Mullie and Ada Marigold Cribb all devoted significant effort to sharing their vision through printmaking, and their works appear regularly at art auctions, including those hosted by the Saskatchewan Network for Art Collecting. -


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