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Date posted:  February 3, 2016

The printing of symbols or images has a long history. Rudimentary forms included carved seals pressed into clay or wax, stone rubbings, and designs cut in wood then printed on fabric. After the invention of paper and the printing press, printed images continued to serve primarily utilitarian purposes. They might, for example, extend or illustrate the text of books. Gradually, in the hands of creative artists who began to explore the various methods of printmaking, a new art form was born. Linking their visions to the mechanics of process and technique, artists were seduced by the magic of multiples.

Each method of fine art printmaking requires specific materials, tools, and techniques, and produces prints with characteristic qualities. Each process blends a concept with an artist's skill in manipulating physical properties. The surfaces and tools chosen reflect a great range of expressive styles.

Prints are considered original when the artist works alone directly on a surface — metal, stone, or wood — to create an image. The surface, called the matrix, is the origin of the subsequently printed image. When paper meets matrix under pressure, ink is transferred from the matrix onto the paper. This can be done repeatedly an undefined number of times so long as the surface of the matrix remains intact. Some surfaces break down more quickly than others, limiting the number of quality prints obtainable from a plate or block. The group of prints made from a single matrix is called an edition and is numbered to reflect the number of prints made and the serial position of the particular print. 1/30 indicates the first print pulled in an edition of thirty. Artists do not always number their prints, however. Some write only the total number printed in an edition, as in “Ed. 30.” Others only sign each print with their name and the title of the work, leaving open the number that might be printed.

Each impression is not a mere duplicate. With every print pulled from a plate, stone, or block, the variations in ink application, plate wiping, and pressure applied during printing result in each impression being unique.

Prints from the Gilcrease Museum collection featured here were created by American printmakers working in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Part of a larger American story, these images reveal landscape, people, animals, and regional scenes of the northeastern United States, the Southwest, and the Midwest. Most are monochromatic in black or brown ink, either by choice or because they were created before artists involved themselves with the technical challenges of printing color. Each impression speaks of an artist’s unique experience expressed within a mechanical process. The works present only a facet of American printmaking but collectively they provide a memorable visual experience.

Understanding printmaking processes ensures a better appreciation of the original print as an art form. Relief, intaglio, and planographic are terms that describe three methods of printmaking identified by the surface or matrix from which the print is generated and how the image is applied to it.

Relief method starts with a block of material as the matrix. What is not to be printed is cut away, leaving only the raised areas to receive the ink. Examples include woodcuts, wood engravings, and linocuts (linoleum block prints). Relief printing is the oldest form of printmaking. It has existed for over a thousand years.


A drawing is made on the plank-grain surface of a wood block. Different types of wood can be used; their selection is based on hardness, softness, and the desired end result. Some woods such as cherry or pear are chosen for smooth, tight grain which gives crisp results. Other woods may be chosen for their ease of cutting or for pronounced grain if texture is desired. The artist cuts away areas that are to remain white with knives, gouges, and chisels. A brayer (roller) is used to apply a thin layer of ink to the remaining raised parts of the block. Paper is positioned on the block and pressure applied to make the print. A press can be used but is not required for relief printing. Instead, the back of the paper can be burnished by hand or with a barren or a wooden spoon to transfer the image onto the paper.

Wood engravings

Wood engravings are prints that are cut on end-grain planks of wood, usually hardwoods such as maple or boxwood. Extremely fine detail is possible with the tighter end grain.


A linocut is similar to a woodcut, but the surface utilized is linoleum. It is easier to cut, cheaper, and contains no cross grain. It does not produce the fine quality of a woodcut, however, because it is not as hard a material and has a slight grain, so the lines are not as clean and crisp. Nevertheless artists took advantage of linoleum because it lacks the greater resistance of wood, allowing for quick, more liberated strokes of the knife.



Intaglio method utilizes the surface of metal plates such as copper or zinc. The ink goes beneath the original surface of the matrix and into lines that have been inscribed or etched. The plate is inked and wiped, leaving the ink in the recessed grooves. Examples of this method include etchings, aquatint, and the non-etched, strictly mechanical, drypoint and engraving. Intaglio printing requires great pressure from a press to extract the ink from the lines and onto paper. Intaglio techniques have been in use for five centuries.



The word etching is derived from the Dutch "etzen" meaning “to eat.” A metal plate, usually copper, is coated with acid-resistant material or ground. Etching needles are used to draw through the coating to expose the metal. After the drawing is complete, the plate is immersed in an acid bath. The acid “bites” into the exposed lines, deepening them. The artist can take the plate out at intervals, add more ground to protect some lines from biting deeper when placed in additional baths, while allowing other lines not protected to deepen and widen. Some lines remain light and delicate while others print heavier and blacker. After the ground is removed the plate is cleaned, inked, wiped, and printed with a press.


Aquatint is a form of etching that produces soft graduated tones. Fine grains of rosin are applied to the plate. The acid bites around the grains, creating a rough surface that holds ink. When printed, the result is similar to the wash effect of watercolor.


Drypoint is an intaglio method, but unlike etching, requires no chemicals. The artist uses a sharp needle to scratch lines into the copper plate, which is then inked and printed. The drypoint line is slightly blurry due to the displaced metal, called burr, which is pushed up by the tool and also holds ink, creating a soft fuzzy appearance on the sides of the incised line.


Another type of intaglio printmaking that is also a mechanical technique is engraving. Burins with shaped tips are used to incise an assortment of marks into the plate. The excess metal material is cut away and discarded rather than pushed up as in drypoint. Engravings were used less often by creative artists because of its physical difficulty, so examples are not represented here. Engraving specialists became needed as this method became a popular way to create reproductive prints of paintings by other artists.