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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeThe History & Techniques of Printmaking - Main Introduction

The History and Techniques of Printmaking
An Introduction

Artists’ printmaking has a continuous history going back over six centuries. Some of the world’s greatest artists have been enthusiastic printmakers, among them Dürer, Rembrandt, Claude, Canaletto, Goya, Whistler, Pissarro, Gauguin and the German Expressionists.

In parallel, other artists, less emphasized in the canons of general art history, have found their primary artistic expression in graphic art and are equally among the masters of printmaking, including Callot, della Bella, Piranesi, Meryon, Goeneutte, Kollwitz, Shannon, Cameron and Bone.

Although the origins of printmaking lie in the popular demand for duplications of holy images and playing cards, artists soon recognized not only the commercial potential of multiple impressions of a single image but the aesthetic potential of the very specific qualities of line and surface that only the various printmaking processes can achieve.

The very act of printing, the physical transfer of ink from the design on the matrix to the image on paper, seems to stamp the printed image with an enhanced significance. A reality born out both by photocopying a casual doodle and by the very existence of the monotype – a print whose process determines a single impression only.

The matrix selected largely determines the printmaking process to be employed. Traditionally wood blocks are used to create relief prints (woodcuts and wood engravings) while metal plates, usually sheets of copper, are employed for intaglio prints (etchings and engravings-line, mezzotint, stipple etc).

From the end of the 18th century onwards, new planographic techniques were invented, principally lithography which utilised limestone blocks. Other various ‘planographic’ processes include monotypes (printed from glass or metal plates), clichés verres as well as other photographic techniques exploiting light sensitive papers, and screenprints (created though collaged elements used in conjunction with a silkscreen). Today, zinc, plastic and cardboard sheets equally serve as matrices in quite a variety of processes.

The terminology and technology of printmaking can initially seem baffling to the uninitiated. I hope the descriptions of the different techniques and their history that I have included here on my website will open access. However, as in a conjuror’s performance it is best not to get too bogged down in how it is done but to enjoy the result.

The artist’s work on the matrix is not an end in itself but the means of creating the resulting printed image. Each impression printed is an original (if not a unique) work of art.



To discover more about the history and techniques of printmaking, use the Contents listing below. Select the main heading for each group to access a general introduction to that particular technique, or click on one of the sub-headings to find detailed information about a specific process. There are cross-links within each section to make navigation easier.

RELIEF PRINTING - An Introduction

Wood Engraving

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

INTAGLIO PRINTS - An Introduction

Line Engraving
French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching

Colour Printed Intaglio Prints


Colour Lithography


This section of the website is based on Elizabeth Harvey-Lee's catalogue LASTING IMPRESSIONS: a survey of the techniques and history of artists’ printmaking c1490 – c1940.

Elizabeth Harvey-Lee's catalogue “Lasting Impressions: a survey of the techniques and history of artists’ printmaking c1490 – c1940 ”

Where possible the illustrations are drawn from more recent stock which in some instances is still available for purchase. Please enquire.

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