What is Printmaking?

Mary McMahon

Printmaking is an art form in which ink or other materials are transferred from a matrix to a material like paper, fabric, wood, or stone. A wide variety of techniques can be used in printmaking, and this art is one of the oldest in the world. Some noted people in the field of printmaking throughout history include Hiroshige, Dürer, Hokusai, and Currier and Ives.

Screen printing is a form of printmaking.
Screen printing is a form of printmaking.

The matrix used for printmaking is classically a block of material such as wood, rubber, or metal. In relief printing, the matrix is carved away to create a raised image, which prints in reverse. Intaligo printing involves incision of the matrix, while planographic techniques like lithography use specially treated flat plates, with the ink adhering in some areas and not in others. The use of stencils and screen printing tools is also a form of print making.

Printmaking was a major art form during Japan's isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate.
Printmaking was a major art form during Japan's isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate.

Classically printmaking is used for visual art, not the reproduction of text. The matrix is the original artwork and the prints or impressions are copies in the technical sense, but they are often treated as original works of art. Rather than being copies of existing works in other mediums, like photographs of paintings, impressions are actually individual works of art created with the use of the tool. Printmakers may also customize each impression, as in the case of hand-colored engravings, which really are unique works of art because they cannot be produced through duplication.

Although many prints are produced in black and white, they can be made in any color, and multicolored printmaking techniques can also be seen, ranging from simple split fountains in which broad swathes of the matrix are inked with different colors to painstaking planographic techniques in which the plate is painted by hand and then used to make an impression.

Many people study printmaking techniques in art school, and printmaking courses are also available as general community education classes at art centers and community colleges. Most art supply stores carry equipment used in printmaking along with printmaking supplies including blocks for carving, inks, rollers, and more advanced tools such as presses for use in screen printing.

Historically, impressions were used to distribute works of art and information. In the modern day, this technique is primarily treated as an art form, with some people classifying it in the fine arts while others classify it in crafts. Even historically, prints were often objects of great beauty and value, with people distinguishing between works of art and practical prints utilized to convey basic information.

Stencils are a useful took in the printmaking process.
Stencils are a useful took in the printmaking process.

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Discussion Comments


Do famous artists, e.g. F W Benson or Arthur J. Elsley have their signatures on mass produced copies of their artwork?

They are long gone now, I realize, however, I was wondering if this is normal when ordering a print? (I have two old reproductions, both signed, but appear to have dots?). Thank you. -just curious


Why would an artist choose to work in monotypes as opposed to painting on canvas? Both processes possess unique qualities, while sharing some similarities. What are the advantages of monotype over painting?

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