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Relief Printing - An Introduction

In a relief print the design which is to receive the printing ink is left in relief, protruding from the block, while the rest of the surface of the block is cut away around it. Wood blocks or lino blocks (or for school children the simple potato) are the usual materials from which the matrix for a relief print is composed).

Firm, vertical pressure applied evenly from above is required to print the image.

The earliest woodcuts (and more recent ones) were printed just with hand-pressure. After inking the block is either inverted and pressed down onto the paper, like a stamp, or the paper is laid face down on top of the inked block and the sheet rubbed from the back with a spoon or similar tool.

With the invention of movable type, about 1450, and the establishment of printing houses, printmakers adopted the letterpress-printer’s screw or lever press (the platen press) for printing their pictorial blocks.

Thick, sticky ink, which will not run into the hollows, is applied by means of dabbers (leather-covered wooden balls with handles for manipulating them) to the parts of the block left in relief.

The block is positioned on the bed of the press (the flat movable base), dampened paper placed over the block and the bed slid into position under the platen.

Descending pressure is applied from above by the platen (plate) which is lowered in a kissing action by means of a screw mechanism worked by the printer pulling the lever arm towards him.

A Printing Shop. Woodcut, 1568, by Jost Amman

The example above is “The Printer” from Jost Amman’s illustrations to Hartmann Schopper’s book of trades “Aller Standen auf Erden”. Jost Amman’s woodcut (1568) shows a letterpress printer at work. The same press was used to print 16th century woodcut images. The double tympanum press is open while ink is being dabbed onto the type face. A printed sheet is being removed to be replaced by a fresh sheet. For printing the hinged frisket will be folded over the paper, thus protecting the margins of the sheet, and the whole folded into position on top of the matrix holding the typeface. The screw mechanism with its lever arm and the platen beneath which it operates can be seen clearly.

Though this is a 16th century press, the principle of a platen descending to press onto the paper laid on the inked block is the same in a modern press, and the design itself has changed very little.

Anton Lock’s The Print Connoisseur

Anton Lock’s "The Print Connoisseur", woodcut



The images below show details of various examples of the different relief techniques – click a thumbnail to open an enlargement of the that feature in a new window (and close the window to return here), or select the
" text link to page > " below the italic caption to explore a description of that technique.

Detail from Anton Lock’s The Print Connoisseur  

Detail from Anton Lock’s "The Print Connoisseur", showing the expressive marks of the gouge.
View Woodcut Page >

Detail from Augsberg School portrait of the Franciscan monk Pelbartus studying in a Garden   'WHITE LINE WOODCUT'
Detail from the corner of the Augsberg School portrait of the Franciscan monk "Pelbartus studying in a Garden".
View White Line Woodcut Page >
Detail from Hendrik Goltzius' "Hercules & Cacus". Chiaroscuro woodcut.   'CHIAROSCURO WOODCUT'
Detail from Hendrik Goltzius' "Hercules & Cacus". 
View Chiaroscuro Woodcut Page >
Colour woodcut   'COLOURED WOODCUT'
Detail from an early woodcut, "The Evangelist St. Mark", hand-coloured with water based pigment, c1488.
View Coloured Woodcut Page >
Modern colour woodcut   'MODERN COLOUR
Detail from “Alpine Landscape” by Engelbert Lap. All the colour is printed, using different coloured inks printed from multiple
View Modern Colour Woodcut Page>

Detail from Mary Fairclough's
"Neptune in a Seahorse-drawn Chariot".
View Linocut Page >

Colour linocut   'COLOUR LINOCUT'
Detail from Enid Mitchell’s "At the Fair", showing the inky ‘edge’ typical of linocut.
View Colour Linocut Page >
Detail from Agnes Miller Parker’s The Challenge   'WOOD ENGRAVING'
Detail from Agnes Miller Parker’s "The Challenge", demonstrating the fine detail possible when engraving into boxwood.
View Wood Engraving >
Colour wood engraving   'COLOUR
Detail from Lucien Pissarro's "Les Lavandières" showing how each colour is applied using a different block of wood.
View Colour Wood Engraving >

To investigate more about a particular technique, use the embedded links above, or select from the list below. There are cross-links on every page to make navigation as straightforward as possible.

RELIEF PRINTING - An Introduction

Wood Engraving
Hand-coloured Woodcut
Chiaroscuro Woodcut
Modern Colour Woodcut
Colour Linocut
Colour Wood Engraving




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