The Ultimate Guide to Prints - a Buyer's Handbook

Taking you through the terms, techniques and traditions of printmaking

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If you're new to buying prints - it can be an exciting, but also confusing foray into the art world. However, armed with a basic knowledge, new buyers will find exploring the print market relatively straightforward. This guide on prints will take you through some of the terminology and techniques for making prints, hopefully making it much clearer what's what!


What is a print?

A print is any work of art made in multiple iterations, created through the transfer of an image from one surface to another.

Where did they originate from?

The printing press was invented in the mid 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany and revolutionised how information was shared and disseminated. This introduced a wave of mass communication that altered society drastically.

Artists adopted and developed the technology in many different ways to create fresh methods of artistic production which were more repeatable. Instead of having a single artwork, artworks could be produced as 'editions', making them more affordable to produce and also buy.


Johannes Gutenburg - Printing Press - Image Source - Publishistory

How are they made?

At its most basic, a print is an image that is not directly produced onto a canvas, but imprinted or transferred from one surface to another, usually onto thick paper. Prints can be either 'original' or reproductions'.

Original Prints vs Reproduction Prints

  • An original print is defined as 'an artwork which was originally conceived by the artist as a print'. i.e. the artwork was always intended to be produced as a print. Typically these are produced using traditional mechanical methods (discussed below) but they can also be produced digitally (e.g. C-Types).
  • A reproduction is a printed representation, facsimile or copy of an original artwork printed through digital means e.g. a giclée print of a watercolour painting.


Original Prints

Traditionally, up until about the 1980's - prints could only be manufactured using mechanical techniques. Artists would create an image on a physical template such as a metal plate or a woodblock, and then work with a skilled printer or printing studio to transfer the image to paper producing the editions. Only a limited number would ever be produced as the template began to deteriorate, thus original prints only came, and continue to come in 'limited editions'.

While all the editions come from the same template, they are not necessarily identical. For each edition, paint or ink is reapplied to the template before being pushed through the printing press, and so each comes out slightly differently. This makes them fundamentally unique. Each print is usually signed by the artist and also given an edition number, typically written as a fraction — for example, 12/40 - indicating this artwork is the 12th edition in a limited edition size of 40.

Some of the most famous artists of the 19th/20th Century used traditional printmaking techniques to produce their iconic artworks. Take for example Pablo Picasso's cubist portraits, Andy Warhol's screen-prints of Marilyn Monroe or even Edvard Munch's 'Scream'.


Andy Warhol - Collection of Marilyn Monroe Screenprints.

With the advancement of digital technology in the late 20th Century, artists began to produce artwork digitally - using computer programmes or blending photography. This meant that the resulting prints were also produced digitally through inkjet printers, rather than being hand-pulled. Because the intention of the artist was always to create a print - these are now also considered 'original prints'.


Example from Chuck Elliot - Quad Turquoise Aegis - Metallic Lambda photographic print on a laser cut circular metal mount.


Reproduction Prints

Reproduction prints are always produced digitally because they are in essence copies of original artworks. Using high resolution scanners and advanced inkjet printers, good-quality reproductions of original artworks can be produced in limited editions or unlimited editions - called 'open editions'.

You'll often find reproductions of famous works available to buy for very affordable prices because they are part of an open edition. Contemporary artists may also produce reproductions of their work - but will often limit production to 100 or 200 editions to maintain the value and exclusivity of the work. Depending on the mixture of print and paper quality, you'll find prices varying quite significantly.

A common printing method is Giclée (pronouced gclay) - a fine art printing process which combines pigment based inks with high quality paper, often cotton rag paper, bartya paper, or canvas. The combination of the paper and the printing process give the print a textured feel which gives it a feel much closer to an original. Giclée's are normally limited edition prints, rather than open edition prints.


Example from Iain Faulkner - A break in the Journey - Giclée print - Signed limited edition of 150.


Traditional Print Techniques

Now you know the difference between an original print and a reproduction it's now time to talk about the different types of original print! Traditional original prints can be made using a wide variety of techniques, but you'll likely encounter 5 main types.

1) Relief Prints

How they're made

The most common relief processes are woodcuts or linocut. In this process, artists will carve a design into a wooden or linoleum panel and then roll ink onto the surface. The canvas or paper is then placed on top of the panel, and pressure is applied. The image that transfers comes from the raised parts of the design on the panel, and not the gauged parts.


The Malignant Moon of the Palouse by Patrick Siler, Woodcut.


Born in the Soviet Union by Peeter Allik, Linocut. Photo credit: Studija


This form of printmaking is one of the true originals and oldest forms of printmaking. Originating in China after the invention of paper around 105 AD, relief printing didn’t appear in Europe until the 15th century, coinciding with the importation of paper. One of the first widespread uses of relief printing in Europe was actually through typewriters, where embossed letters rolled in ink created stamp marks on paper.

Famous Examples

Despite being one of the simplest and oldest techniques, woodcut is still very popular with contemporary artists today such as Robert Mangold, Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler. Below are some further examples of linocut and woodcut prints we represent, if you would like to see the full collection, click here.

Some Contemporary Relief Prints


2) Intaglio Prints

How they're made

Intaglio prints are in essence the opposite to relief prints. An image is cut into a surface and ink is then washed over. The areas that were cut will retain the ink, whereas the untouched surface (the most raised part of the surface) will be clean. Paper is then placed on top of the plate, and together they are squeezed through a printing press. The ink that was trapped in the incised areas will be pushed onto the paper, creating an image in reverse.

The different forms of intaglio printing all use this same basic technique but with subtle differences.

  • Engravings e.g. Drypoint - a sharp tool called a burin or a graver, made from steel, is used directly on a softer metal plate such as copper to scratch the surface. The deeper it penetrates into the metal, the wider the line.
  • Drypoint - Drypoint is made by scratching lines into metal plates with steel- or diamond-point needles. Whereas engraving is precise; drypoint is more irregular. In this method the penetration into the plate is negligible; but the metal which is raised at either edge of the cut line (the burr) is what holds the ink, resulting in softer more blurred effects.
  • Mezzotint - in this technique the entire metal plate is roughened to create a burr of metal across the surface. When inked this creates an entirely black background. Using scrapers and burnishers the artist then works backwards to create cleaner area - lighter areas of detail.
  • Etchings - here the metal plate is first covered in an acid resistant coating (ground). The desired design is then made on this coating, revealing areas of metal. When the plate is covered in acid, it eats away at the parts of the plate that no longer have the ground on it. Artists can play around with how long they leave the acid on the plate: the longer it is left, the more it will eat away at the metal and the lines will be darker.
  • Aquatint - a slight variation on etching. As etching creates lines, the aquatint technique is more tonal based. Similarly to etching, a ground is applied - but in this case it is slightly porous. Artists often us a fine powder of rosin - which is fused to the plate through heating. By applying different thicknesses of rosin and by incising or sanding away the fused layer before it is immersed in acid it creates different tones on the metal plate. The process is called aquatint because finished prints often resemble watercolour drawings or wash drawings.
  • Collagraphy - unlike the other techniques, a collage of different materials is actually glued on top of the plate - which may more often than not be card rather than metal.


The Soldier and his Wife by Daniel Hopfer, Intaglio. Photo credit: History Wars


Transmigration by Ralph Slatton, Intaglio. Photo credit: Ralph Slatton


Intaglio printmaking emerged in Europe considerably later than other forms of print such as woodcut. One of the earliest known examples of this print is a design for playing cards in Germany. Using drypoint technique, these were probably created around the late 1430s. In modern day, intaglio is still used as a printmaking technique in niche commercial areas. For example, some currencies feature this method of printing in their bank notes. The lengthy process and unique outcome acts as a ploy to make them harder to duplicate.

Famous Examples

The most famous artists to use intaglio printing were Rembrandt, Dürer and Brueghel the Elder. Later, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, amongst others, experimented with the medium. Contemporary artists continue to create prints in this manner, the most famous being Wayne Thiebaud. Check out a selection of the available intaglio prints below, if you would like to see more, click here.

Some Contemporary Intaglio Prints


3) Lithographic Prints

How they're made

Rather than carving into a physical medium such as a metal plate as with relief prints and intaglio prints, lithography is more similar to traditional drawing or painting processes. With this technique, an artist draws onto a stone (or also now aluminium) with a grease-based medium such as lithographic crayons or a greasy ink known as tusche. The stone is then treated with a chemical solution which ensures the areas which have been drawn upon attract printing ink, whilst the blank areas repel ink and instead attract water. The stone surface is then covered in a solvent that ‘fixes’ the image. When an oil-based ink is applied to the wet stone with a roller, the ink adheres only to the drawn image. As with the other printing techniques the paper and stone are placed in a press to transfer the image in reverse - here damp paper is used.

Offset lithography is similar to the traditional lithographic process, but involves further steps which preserve the quality of the plate. It involves printing the image onto an intermediate surface before the final sheet. The process is ‘offset’ because the plate does not come in direct contact with the paper. With offset lithography, the image is reversed twice, and appears on the final sheet the same way round as on the stone or plate.


Bulls by Pablo Picasso, Lithograph. Photo credit: Artyfactory


Afternoon Swimming by David Hockney, Lithograph. Photo credit: ARCHEUS / POST-MODERN


Lithography was invented in 1796 by German actor and author Alois Senefelder, initially using Bavarian limestone as the printing surface. Its original purpose was to cheaply publish theatrical works. The transferred ink onto the blank paper easily created a printed page. It was quickly adopted because it was possible to print a much wider range of marks and areas of tone than was possible with the earlier printmaking methods of relief or intaglio discussed above. It also made colour printing easier: areas of different colours can be applied to separate stones and overprinted onto the same sheet to create more complex results with more interesting results.

Lithography opened up printmaking to artists otherwise reluctant to learn the technical skills needed to create woodcuts or etchings, since many of the same tools, such as brushes and pencils, can be used.

Famous Examples

Lithography was first made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 19th century, but has been embraced by many of the major artists of the Post-War period, including Pablo Picasso, March Chagall, David Hockney, Pierre Bonnard, Jasper Johns and Joan Miró.

Below are some wonderful lithographs, view the full collection here.

Some Contemporary Lithographic Prints


4) Screenprints

How they're made

Screenprinting is form of stencilling. An image is cut into a sheet of paper or plastic film, creating a stencil. The stencil is then placed on the paper and a meshed screen is placed over both. Paint is pushed through the porous fabric mesh onto the paper below using a rubber tool called a squeegee. The artist covers areas of the paper which they don't want to be covered with paint with the stencil whilst the exposed areas are painted with a desired design.

In addition to stencils, a photographic image can also be reproduced on the screen using light-sensitive gelatins. This innovation became the backbone of the work of Andy Warhol and other members of the Pop generation, who would appropriate commercial photographs and popular images and adapt and alter them with the technique.

Artists typically use paint rather than ink with this technique leading to more colourful results. It can be repeated over and over to achieve differing layers and colours to the work making it quite versatile and popular with many artists still to this day.

Big Electric Chair by Andy Warhol, Screen Print. Photo credit: Lets Explore Art


The Oval Office by Roy Litchenstein, Screenprint. Photo credit: Sothebys


Along with woodcut, this is one of the oldest printmaking techniques. This particular form of printing can be dated back to China in 221-618 AD where stencils were mainly used for the reproduction of images of Buddha. The Japanese developed this type of printing into an art form, refining the entire process they chose to stretch silk over a frame to serve as a hand cut stencil. This is why the phrase silkscreen is used interchangeably with screenprint, especially in America. In wasn't till the 15th century that the process made its way to the West however, and not till the 1950's that it became widely adopted and popularised by various pop art legends.

Famous Examples

Artists who used this process include some of the most famous pop artists – Andy Warhol and Roy Litchenstein. In more recent times the process has been adopted by other Royal Academicians such as Barbara Rae and Bruce McLean. It is also favoured by textiles surface designers as the process works well when printing onto different materials.

Below you'll find a selection of contemporary screenprints, to browse the full collection click here.

Some Contemporary Screenprints


5) Monotype Prints

Unlike most prints, this technique produces unique copies each and every time. It is favoured by artists because of the organic results and also offers unique textural quailties unlike other printing techniques. A downside is that is it only yields one print per prepared screen, making it a lengthy process.

How they're made

Artists can either work positively or negatively. In the positive process - the artist paints or draws a design in ink or oil paint onto a flat polished surface such as glass or metal. The image is then transferred simply onto another material such as paper by pressing the two together by hand or through a printing press. In the negative process - the surface is entirely covered in ink and using cloths and rags ink is removed from desired areas, thus creates depth and differing tones in an image.

A monotype impression is typically features less vivid colours than other techniques of printing. However if a lighter impression is desired by the artist, maybe a more delicate image is their goal, then this technique is favoured.


Three Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas, Monotype. Photo credit: MoMA


More Ugly More Self by Tracey Emin, Monotype.


One of the earliest artists who explored this type of print was Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (c. 1610-65). He made monotypes from copper etched plates. In the 19th Century, artists such as William Blake and Edgar Degas also experimented with this technique, this is turn further increased its popularity. In more recent years, YBA Tracey Emin has experimented with this technique, propelling its position in contemporary printing styles.

Famous Examples

As mentioned above, Edgar Degas was one of the most famous proponents of this technique. Exploring themes such as ballet dancers, the monotype technique complimented his subjects leading to delicate outcomes. Also known for his monotype landscapes he embellished the prints with oil pastels to bring more colour and movement into the artworks. Jasper Johns, one of the greatest living print makers (87 at the time of writing this) also experimented with monotypes throughout his career enjoying their transient and almost painterly nature, instead focusing on everyday objects in still life-esque creations.

Below is a collection of contemporary monotypes, if you would like to view the full collection click here.

Some Contemporary Monotypes


Modern Printing Methods: Digital Pigment or Giclee Prints

In modern day society where our world has shifted from pen and paper to digital platforms, methods of creating art as well as producing it have changed. Prints can now be produced digitally, rather than only through hand-pulled techniques and the results are improving year on year.

How they're made

  • The most common type of digital print is a Glicée print. The name originates from the French verb gicler which means to squirt or spray as generally giclée prints are produced with an inkjet printer (where the ink ‘spurts’ through a nozzle). This technique results in a high quality print with vivid colours, created through the use of pigment based inks. This type of printing usually features a varying tonal range and great colour depth and is usually printed on quality papers such as cotton rag paper, bartya paper, or canvas. For artists, this media helps them to produce many prints on demand, which can be an appealing feature whilst the longevity of these prints without fading is good.
  • Under the heading of digital art also comes 'c-type prints,' also known as chromagenic prints. In essence, a digital C-print is the same as a conventional photographic print, in that sensitized paper is exposed to light and then chemically processed. It only differs in that instead of using a traditional and length dark room process, LEDs or lasers rather than a bulb are used to control the intensity and focus of light on the medium to develop the photography. C-type prints are less expensive than glicée prints because they are dye-based and thus are more susceptible to deterioration than inkjet pigment prints when exposed to light, heat and humidity, even when framed behind glass.


La Vida Sigue by Emilio Zurtuche, Digital. Photo credit: ArtsHaus


Wave (XL) by Dan Hillier, Digital. Photo credit: ArtsHaus


Digital printing has a relatively short history compared to other traditional techniques of printmaking. The first digital printing presses came onto the market in the early 1990s alongside the more widespread use of computers. They developed from a model of printing press which enabled mass production, created by german businessman Johannes Gutengerg in 1439.

With many artists adopting this method of production, it has raised issues regarding what is considered original prints. With the ease of printing multiple copies there has been much discussion as to whether these prints should be considered originals, especially given they can be printed en masse without much human intervention.

Famous Examples

Contemporary artists such as Dan Hillier or Bonnie and Clyde create digital photo montages from clippings and cutouts which are then printed using digital techniques. Here the original artwork is created digitally before being printed digitally also and so they are regarded as original works.

In contrast, the famous duo known as The Connor Brothers produce original paintings which are then reproduced digitally using glicée printing. These prints cannot be given the title of 'originals' as they are reproductions of an original painting, however, given the scarcity and rareness of the originals, the prints have become a more affordable way of collecting their works. Given their production is limited to an edition of 100 or 200 works, they still retain their value and are signed by the artist for authenticity.

View the full collection digital prints here.

Contemporary Giclée / Digital Prints


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