Introduction to printmaking
Printmaking is a term that incorporates many different processes including relief, intaglio, silkscreen, monotype, and lithography. Whether you would like to create multiples of the same image or just a one-off piece, each technique has its own distinctive characteristics offering a wide range of expressive possibilities.
Relief printmaking techniques such as linocut, woodcut, and wood engraving involve carving away from the printing block to create an image made up of raised shapes and lines. A print is taken by inking the surface of the plate or block and then applying it with pressure onto paper or card. You can set yourself up relatively inexpensively and get creative making prints, cards and stamps, or explore the more specialist techniques of wood engraving and Japanese woodblock printing (Mokuhanga). Prints are characteristically bold and graphic, with the potential for a high level of detail.
Monotype is a quick and simple printmaking process. Technically, only one impression is made with a monotype, so the work you create is a unique work on paper, although there is often the ability to create ‘ghost prints’ – slightly faded impressions of the work you have made on the glass once the first print is taken. There is no need for a press although one can be used, such as an etching or vertical pressure relief print press. The results can be surprising, subtle, dramatic, and painterly – all depending on how you work with this adaptable and exciting method of image making.
Intaglio is the form of printmaking in which the image is incised into the printing plate – the incised areas hold the ink which is transferred to dampened paper, under pressure, by rolling through a press. The plate will emboss into the paper so that you will see the tell-tale plate mark around the edges of the image and on the reverse of the print. Under the umbrella of intaglio, you’ll find the techniques of etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, and collagraph.
Lithography involves the drawing of a design onto a surface using an oil based material. The surface is kept wet whilst it is inked up using an oil based ink. The ink adheres to the applied oil based marks but is repelled by the water found in other areas of the surface. Paper is then placed on the surface, which is put through a printing press in order for an impression to be made. Aluminium and limestone are two surfaces often used in lithography printing.
Screen printing is a quick, easy and versatile method of printmaking often used for graphic arts. It can also be used to quickly mass produce poster prints, T-Shirts, and original editioned prints. Screen printing is printing with the use of a mesh screen which is placed over the paper or surface being printed on to, and ink is pushed through the mesh of the screen in order to deposit a thin and even layer of colour onto the paper. Shapes are masked off in order to only print ink on to the desired areas of your paper. Multi layering of inks on a single sheet of paper with different shapes masked off could create rich, densely coloured images. Screen printing is a quick way of exploring colour and colour theory, and also a very effective means of mass production of a single image.
Japanese woodblock, or Mokuhanga, is a water-based and non-toxic method of printmaking that has gained popularity across the globe. Born from the traditional craft of creating Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, it is a technique that can be adapted to suit a range of abilities and allows for a wide range of creative possibilities. It is a flexible printmaking method that doesn’t require the use of a printing press or too much space. The system of registration, cutting, and printing is unique to Japanese woodblock printing - the registration is cut into the wood alongside each block and printing relies on water-based paints applied with brushes, rather than inks and a roller.
What is linocut printmaking?
A print is created by carving a design into a block of lino, rolling ink onto the surface and laying paper or fabric on top then applying pressure to produce a print. Like woodcut and wood engraving, it is a relief printing process. Lino was first used by artists at the end of the Nineteenth century, and really took off in the 1920s and 30s, when linoleum was developed for use as affordable flooring. Today, linocut is still very popular, and is often a way to get started in printmaking as there is no need for harsh chemicals or expensive equipment. It is also great fun and is suitable for all ages and artistic abilities.
Linocut printing involves cutting away from a block of linoleum, and inking and printing the uncut areas. When you place your carved, inked up block face down on a sheet of paper, the printed image will appear as a mirror image to how you have carved your block. Areas you have cut away will remain the white of the paper you print on.
What do I need to get started with linocut?
- Marker Pen
- Tracing or Carbon Paper
- Carving & Sharpening Tools
- Inking Slab
- Printing Press and Baren
- Printmaking Paper
It is a good idea to draw your design onto the lino block first, so a pencil is essential, although if you are feeling brave, you can cut into your lino without a guide. A slightly soft pencil works best as it creates a darker, more visible line.
It is useful to go over your design with a permanent marker pen (e.g a Sharpie or waterproof pigment pen) so it doesn’t rub off easily. It will also help to make the lines clearer, which is useful while you are carving.
You can use carbon paper to transfer your design from a drawing or photo onto the lino.
Use tracing paper to draw around your original design drawing and flip it so it is back to front and prints correctly when carved. You can then use carbon paper or a soft pencil rubbing to transfer the image onto lino.
Originally, artists would have carved the linoleum used for flooring, but this is no longer the case. The most common lino nowadays is grey lino, which is softer than the material used for flooring. It’s made with natural materials – linseed oil and cork – and is backed by hessian fabric. It’s biodegradable and comes in a variety of standard sizes from 7.5 x 7.5cm to 40 x 60cm. You can also buy it pre-mounted onto wood to make it extra sturdy (the majority of mounted lino is type high so you can use it alongside letterpress). It comes in single sheets, packs of 10 or in a large 900 x 1830mm roll which means the block can be cut to your requirements. Grey lino can be a little stiff and hard, but heating it slightly – with a hairdryer, on a radiator or by sitting on it – so it is warm (not hot) ensures the carving process is much smoother. It is good to use a couple of blocks to explore mark making first, so a pack of ten in a smaller size is a good investment.
Other blocks commonly available are Softcut, Speedy Carve, and Japanese vinyl. There are pros and cons with all of these materials. Softcut and Speedy Carve are softer and easier to carve, so they are better for smaller designs with less detail, like stamps for example. Japanese vinyl carves and prints more like lino, is PVC based and can be carved on both sides. With all of these surfaces, there’s nothing like a bit of trial and error to find out which is best suited to your way of working. You can read a detailed comparison of the materials here.
Carving tools come in two basic shapes – U shaped gouges and V shaped cutters. The V shaped tools create thin, consistent lines, and the U shaped ones make bigger marks or clear areas around the design. Both tools come in various sizes from very small for detailed work to large for bolder marks and to quickly clear large areas.
Carving tools are available for all budgets, but it isn’t necessary to spend a lot of money on them. There are some budget options for beginners:
- A beginners set of woodcarving tools (they are suitable for all the blocks discussed here) – Jackson’s set of five tools are a great, inexpensive starter set.
Investing in more expensive carving tools will give you tools that can last a lifetime, if they are cared for and sharpened regularly. Pfeil make high quality Swiss made lino and block cutting tools that can be purchased individually or in sets containing a mix of U gouges and V cutters in various sizes. They have shaped wooden handles that fit the palm of your hand, so are comfortable to hold. Each tool is categorised by a number – e.g. 11/0.5 which refers to the curvature and the width of the blade in mm.
Flexcut also makes a great quality range of palm shaped tools. The lino and relief printing set contains a selection of carving tools and a slipstrop for keeping your blades nice and sharp (the slipstrop can also be bought separately). Sets contain mini tools for fine detail, micro tools for general carving and wide tools for clearing areas and larger work.
It is a good idea to keep your tools sharp – blunt tools do not carve efficiently and can increase the risk of accidents as they slip across the lino. Pfeil makes a set of sharpening stones for cutting tools. Colin Blanchard’s article on sharpening tools is an excellent guide.
Relief printing ink is designed to roll onto the block smoothly and print evenly. Water-based and water-soluble relief inks are easy to use and clean up with soap and water. You only need one ink colour to get started with linocut printing, but there’s nothing to stop you from exploring with multiple colours from the start.
There are a variety of different types and brands of relief ink, and they fall into the following three main categories.
Water-based inks are easy to clean up and dry relatively quickly. They come in varying qualities from student grade, with less pigment, to artist quality with high lightfastness. For a beginner, they are a great choice. If you are looking for small tubes with a range of colours to experiment with, Schmincke’s Aqua linoprint ink has five 20ml tubes. The colours are rich and they dry in 20 minutes. They are a good choice if you would like to try printing in different colours without buying lots of big tubes.
Watersoluble oil based ink
Watersoluble oil based ink can be cleaned up with soap and water, unlike traditional oil based inks. This means they have the richness of colour associated with traditional printmaking inks, without the need to use solvents such as turpentine or white spirit. Cranfield Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks are a good quality range of printmaking inks that are good for beginners and seasoned printmakers alike.
Oil based ink
Traditional oil based ink contains a high level of pigment, mixed with an oil such as linseed oil. Their rich colours make them particularly good for large areas of colour or for printing onto dark paper (metallic colours work very well on black). Cranfield Traditional Relief Inks come in a wide range of colours, including gold and silver. Harsh solvents can be avoided when cleaning up by using vegetable oil and newspaper or a rag, then wiping with a plant-based solvent like Zest-it.
Can I use other inks for relief printing?
There are different inks for different printmaking techniques which broadly fall into three categories – relief, intaglio and screenprinting. The crucial difference between them is the consistency. Screen printing ink is very loose and runny, relief ink is thicker and more viscous so it can be rolled out, and intaglio (often called etching) ink is stiff and tacky so it clings to the plate while it is pushed around. For best results with linocut, stick to a relief printing ink.
In order to apply an even distribution of ink on your roller, the ink is first rolled into a thin layer on a surface before inking the lino. This can be an inking slab, glass chopping board or acrylic sheet.
A relief printing roller or brayer is made of natural or tough synthetic rubber and has a handle. It is used to apply a thin layer of ink to the linocut block.
It is possible to buy a good starter roller for under £10. They come in a variety of sizes, weights and qualities. Using a roller that is wider than the block will make it easier to apply an even layer across your whole block. If your roller is narrower than your block, you might get some lines from the imprint of the edge of your roller, but with some extra rolling these can be inked away.
The Esdee soft lino roller is a good starter roller, as it is made of soft synthetic rubber and gives an even coverage. Cleaning them thoroughly after use and storing them with the rubber facing up will prolong their lifespan and help the roller keep its shape for longer.
The shore value on some rollers refers to their softness – hard is over 50 shore and soft under 50 shore. For relief printing, a soft rubber roller is recommended, as they are better at covering the carved detail on the lino block. The Japanese soft rubber roller is a good quality roller that comes in a variety of sizes.
To make a print you must apply pressure to transfer the image from the inked block to the paper. For this, you can use a printing press, but that is not always necessary, particularly for prints on thin paper. A baren is a smooth, round, flat disc with a handle on the back, which is rubbed onto the back of the paper to transfer the image from the lino. An inexpensive Japanese bamboo baren is a lovely tool for starting out, but the back of a spoon can also be used for hand burnishing.
There are a wide variety of printmaking papers available. Specially-made printmaking papers are less absorbent than drawing and watercolour papers and tend to be smooth. Japanese Washi papers, although strong, are very thin, and are very well suited to hand burnishing techniques because they are easy to manipulate in the hand for positioning, and don’t require much pressure when taking a print. Thicker western printmaking papers such as Zerkall, Stonehenge or Fabriano Rosaspina are thicker, and well suited to printing with a press.
You might have some cartridge paper or everyday printer paper spare, which can be used for practice prints, as it is smooth and thin, and will not require much pressure to get a good print. Textured papers such as rough or cold-pressed watercolour paper should be avoided, unless you are specifically seeking a textured effect, as they do not pick up the ink evenly. For more information, see our article on Everything You Need to Know About Printmaking Paper.
The wonderful thing about linocut is that you need very little in terms of tools and accessories – so it is a great way to get creative at home. There is something magical about the whole process and seeing your image turned into a print is really exciting. Once you get the hang of creating simple prints, there are so many possibilities. Linocut can also be combined with other techniques such as monoprint, watercolour or collage. All you need is the corner of a table, some basic supplies and you’re all set.
What is woodcut printmaking??
Woodcut printmaking involves carving an image from the surface of a block of wood, rolling ink onto it and taking an impression or print. It is the oldest form of ‘relief printmaking’ – printing from the surface of a block. There are two distinguishable approaches to woodcut printmaking, one that is thought of as being in the western tradition, and the other as being in the eastern tradition. Eastern woodcut printmaking techniques date back to 9th Century China, while Western Woodcut printing was developed with the invention of the printing press in 14th Century Germany.
What’s the difference between Japanese and European Woodcut Printmaking?
The key difference between Japanese and European woodcut printmaking is the printing method. In western printmaking, oil or water-based relief ink is rolled onto the block, and printed onto heavyweight cotton paper, traditionally with a press. In Mokuhanga or Japanese woodblock printing, water-based paint, ink, or pigments are brushed onto the woodblock with sosaku or inking brushes, then printed with hand pressure, using a disc made of string and bamboo leaf called a ‘baren’, onto very thin and strong paper. A press is never used, and colour is built up by printing by layer upon layer. See our article on Japanese woodcut printmaking for more information on the technique. Some of the most famous woodcut artists include Katsushika Hokusai and Katsushika Hokusai in the east and Albrecht Durer and Käthe Kollwitz in the west.
What do I need to get started with woodcut?
- Soft pencil
- Tracing or Carbon Paper
- Wood Block
- Carving & Sharpening Tools
- Inking Slab
- Printing Press and Baren
- Printmaking Paper
Soft Pencil and Tracing paper or Carbon Paper
Drawing your design on to the wood block as a guide before cutting can make the process of cutting the wood easier. Remember your image will print back to front, so for text or other designs where the orientation is important, the image can be traced onto tracing paper from a sketch then flipped and copied onto the block using tracing paper with carbon paper or a soft pencil rubbing. By rubbing the soft pencil over the lines you wish to transfer, then flipping the tracing paper, the pencil line can be transferred. You can find this technique explained further here.
The Wood Block
There are a variety of woods to choose from, and blocks are specially prepared for woodcut printmaking to ensure even and consistent printing. The wood used in Jackson’s Baltic Birch plywood is dense and fine grained, which allows it to be cut into cleanly and evenly providing you’re using sharp tools. It is 9mm thick so will not split or weaken as it is carved providing you cut into it at a standard depth of around 2-3mm, and is available in five sizes, ranging from 106 x 145mm to 605 x 915mm.
The Jackson’s Japanese Magnolia block is 10mm thick and can be carved on both sides, which is great when you are still experimenting. Magnolia is softer and smoother than plywood, which makes it better for printing large areas of colour. It’s available in two sizes.
The Japanese Katsura block is 13mm thick, and can be carved on both sides. It is excellent quality and is great for finer detailed carving. Although designed for Mokuhanga they can also be used with water and oil based ink.
Good, sharp tools will minimise the risk of them slipping across the surface. A simple, inexpensive set of woodcutting tools is a good way to start. The different blade types create different marks in the wood – from the V shaped tool for detailed lines to the large U shaped tool for clear areas around your design. Investing in more expensive carving tools can be cost effective in the long run, as good quality tools can last a lifetime if properly cared for. Pfeil makes a range of tools suitable for both linocut and woodcut in various sizes, individually and in sets. Their mushroom shaped handles are designed to fit into the palm of your hand. The tools each have a number – e.g. 1/8 which refers to the curvature and the width of the blade in mm. Flexcut are another excellent quality option and are available in a range of sets, from micro for fine detail to wide for clearing areas and larger work. The basic Jacksons woodcut set contains five knives in different sizes, with sturdy wooden handles which are easy to grip.
It is essential that woodcut tools are kept sharp, otherwise they will slip and slide over the surface of the wood. Colin Blanchard wrote an article on sharpening tools, which is a comprehensive guide. For retaining sharpness, the Flexcut slipstrop is excellent for maintaining your tools.
Roller or Brayer
In woodcut printmaking, a roller or brayer is used to roll a thin layer of ink over the surface of the wood. They are made from durathene or tough rubber and have a sturdy handle. The shore value on some rollers refers to their softness – hard is over 50 shore and soft under 50 shore. For woodcut, a softer roller is recommended to obtain better coverage on uneven blocks. The Esdee soft lino rollers and Japanese soft rubber rollers come in a variety of widths. The recommendation is to choose a roller that will cover the whole width of the wood block, but when starting out a middle sized roller (7-10cm) is a good idea. If looked after well, it will last for years, so it is important to clean your roller thoroughly after use.
Inks for Woodcut Printmaking
Inks for woodcut printmaking are known as relief printing inks, and they are designed to roll out evenly and print without the ink sticking to the block which would result in an uneven print. There are three main categories based on the binder that is used with the pigment.
Water based inks use natural binders such as gum arabic, and are water soluble. They are very easy to clean up, and tend to dry quickly, so are a good choice for younger printers or those printing at home. Schminke aqua linoprint is artist quality ink which comes in three sizes and a wide variety of colours.
Water Soluble Oil Based Ink
These oil based inks are just as colour rich and buttery as any other, but will clean up with soap and water, without any need for solvents such as white spirit or turpentine. This makes them easier to use if you print at home or wish to avoid harsh solvents. Cranfield Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks are one such range of water washable oil based inks that are good for printing at home or at the studio.
Oil Based Ink
Oil based inks have an enduring popularity within the printmaking community, and their rich, smooth colour still make them the choice of many printmakers. You can clean up without harsh solvents, by using vegetable oil and newspaper or a rag, then a plant-based solvent like Zest-it or gamsol. Follow this with a glass washer or multi-purpose spray if the surface is still greasy. Cranfield Traditional Relief Inks come in a range of sizes and 62 colours.
To ensure an even distribution of ink on your roller, the ink is first rolled into a thin layer on a smooth, non-absorbent and even surface before inking the woodblock. This can be an inking slab, glass chopping board, or acrylic sheet.
Printing Press or a Baren
To print a woodblock, pressure is required to transfer the image from the wood to the paper. This can be done by hand with a baren – a flat round disc with a handle. It is used to rub the back of the paper which is placed face down on the inked up woodblock, to print the image. A Japanese baren is a coil of string backed onto a round piece of card or board, and then wrapped in a bamboo leaf, the ends of which are twisted and tied together on the reverse to make a handle. The very finest barens cost hundreds of pounds, but the cheapest cost as little as £5-10. The back of a spoon can be used, but a baren is flatter so will cover a larger area. A spoon only has a small point of contact because it is curved, but it can be useful if you want to apply more pressure on a specific area within your print. The Speedball baren is a sturdy alternative, made from plastic and padded with foam. Japanese hard plastic barens have little raised bumps on the surface which are another alternative.
It is possible to produce prints more consistently and quickly with a printing press, especially if it is a large edition. The Pooki Press is a great little relief printing press which is sturdy but very portable. It will print up to A3 and is also suitable for lino and vinyl. The Fome Manual Lino/Wood Press is another great starter press that is easy to move around. Some etching presses can also be used in woodcut printmaking, so long as the cylinder can be raised to accommodate the thickness of the block you are printing. If unsure, you can check with the manufacturer.
Paper can make a noticeable difference to how a print turns out. For relief printing, the paper must be tough enough to withstand the printing process and smooth enough to ensure the ink is picked up evenly. For test prints and experiments, newsprint or a basic cartridge or printer paper is sufficient – anything that doesn’t have too much tooth.
European and American papers for relief printing are smooth and heavyweight and tend to be made from cotton or wood cellulose, whereas Japanese papers are thin and light but incredibly strong. They are often made from other plant fibres. Read our article on printmaking papers for further more information.
What is Mokuhanga?
The expressive and organic qualities of woodcut are a big part of the process’ appeal and perhaps a reason why its popularity has been on the rise in recent times. Mokuhanga or traditional Japanese woodblock printing holds particular appeal thanks to the use of non-toxic, water-based inks as well as the lack of need of a printing press. The process yields markedly different results to western printing technique; by printing with water-based inks combined with Japanese Nori starch paste the results are subtle and delicate, while Western woodcuts tend to produce bolder results.
Japanese woodblock printing is a craft of discipline and sensibility where the materials and tools, developed from very early Chinese methods, have become arguably some of the best in the world. As always, inspiration is taken from diverse traditions and today we can see many printmakers mixing up techniques and materials from both Western and Eastern practices in order to create the effect they want.
What do I need to get started with mokuhanga?
- Wood such as Baltic Birch Plywood, Shina, Magnolia or Katsura
- Woodcut tools
- Nori paste
- Inking brushes (hanga bake)
- Sumi ink, watercolour, or gouache
- Japanese printmaking paper
- Damp pack (plastic sheet to keep your paper damp)
Woods Used in Woodcut Printmaking
Baltic Birch Plywood
Baltic birch plywood can be used with oil or water-based ink, and is well suited to traditional Mokuhanga technique. JAS Baltic Birch Plywood is grown in a cold climate which produces a wood with a tight and fine grain, and has layers of birch throughout meaning the core has less voids than other plywood. The surface can be sanded very smooth or brushed with a wire brush to emphasise the grain so that you can incorporate it into your print.
Shina ‘Tilla Japonica’, Magnolia & Katsura Printmaking Wood
Shina ‘Tilla Japonica’ is the most popular wood for Mokuhanga in Japan. It is a sustainable timber grown in the colder climes of Japan and is renowned for its fine, almost indiscernible grain. Japanese Shina Plywood is soft and easy to carve. It is robust enough to be able to hold detail and sharp edges when put through a printing press.
For solid colour – thicker, solid side grain blocks are available in Magnolia and more detailed-cutting solid side grain blocks are available in Katsura. Both woods are sanded smooth, ready to carve, and are thick enough to take carving on both sides of the block. All of these wood blocks are suitable for using with both oil based and water-based relief ink.
Tools Used for Woodblock Cutting
Pfeil Specialist Woodcut Tools
Having stocked the ever popular Pfeil Lino and Block Cutters for a while, we have now added their range of larger tools designed especially for wood cutting. The innovative long, octagonal handles of the Pfeil Mallet Handle Woodcut Tools help achieve a stable grip when working and can be held with two hands. They can also be used in conjunction with Pfeil’s Hornbeam Mallet, a beautiful object in itself, carved from a single piece of native hornbeam. For bolder, vigorous woodblock cutting these are perfect. The tools are forged from steel manufactured especially for Pfeil, guaranteeing extreme hardness and edge retention.
Traditional Japanese Woodcut Tools
Jackson’s stocks craftsman-made, traditional woodcut tools from Japan. Japan has a centuries-old reputation for bladesmithing. This is derived from the art of making samurai swords, and from the need for tools capable of precise carving, as seen in the production of Ukiyo-e prints; the ultimate example of this artform being Hokusai’s well known ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. These carving tools were perfected from earlier Chinese innovations and designs.
The quintessential Japanese carving knife is the Hangi To. This tool is held upright in the fist with the thumb on the top, it is used for outlining your design with flexibility and accuracy. You can add control by placing the opposite index finger against the blade as you cut. We carry Hangi-To in a variety of sizes and cater for both the left and right hand. You will find a brief outline of how the various styles of tools are used on the website plus information on the uniquely Japanese Kento registration system. We have also introduced a very economically priced set of five Japanese woodcut tools which are ideal for the beginner or for light use. Familiar to all Japanese students, these entry level cutters offer good quality steel blades that can be re-sharpened using the small waterstone included in the set.
Eastern (Japanese-style) Woodblock Printing Process Explained
The greatest difference in approach between Eastern and Western woodblock printing is the method of inking the block. When making Japanese-style woodblock prints, inking is done with a brush rather than a roller. The uneven surface of the block, as well as the mixing of nori paste and pigment on the block, makes a brush the logical tool. The specialist inking brushes, hanga bake, are held upright, brushing over the print areas with circular movements. This method of applying ink allows for greater control and manipulation of colour as you can adjust the amount of pigment on the block, as well as create gradations of colour through blending.
Japanese nori (glue) paste is used in the printing process to bind and disperse the pigment colour and add to its brilliance. As mentioned earlier, colour can be in the form of a liquid pigment such as Akua Liquid Pigment, artists’ watercolour, gouache, or Sumi ink.
Taking a print from the inked block utilises the baren, a small, flat, disc-shaped tool that is rubbed over the back of the paper in a zigzag pattern while applying pressure with the heel of your hand. Traditional hon barens are finely crafted tools that are deceptively sophisticated.
What is a baren made of?
Fine rope coils are fixed to a rigid disc of layered washi then covered with an outer layer of bamboo, made by hand. Producing Japanese Printmaking barens is an art form in itself, and it is possible to invest a great deal of money and/or expertise into making the very best. We have introduced some affordable yet effective versions to our stock; you will find them in the Japanese woodcut / sundries section of the relief printing department, alongside everything you need to start printing.
Japanese Specialist Printmaking Papers
Japanese papers, known as washi, have great character and resilience and are ideally suited to withstand the stresses of hand printing where strong pressure is exerted on the dampened paper. The inherent strength and dimensional stability of these papers helps prevent them distorting, so that accurate registration can be maintained.
Traditional Japanese woodblock printing has, for centuries, utilised washi made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree: kozo. Kozo fibres are extremely long and will create very strong and absorbent paper. Gampi has long silky fibres that can create a thin, translucent and smooth tissue-like paper.
Awagami Factory, a sixth generation family run paper mill, makes washi from these traditional fibres as well as non-tree fibres such as bamboo, cotton and hemp. Awagami papers are acid-free and are available in a range of prices and sizes, as well as a special selection pack for you to try.
What is the difference between monotype and monoprint?
A monotype is an entirely unique work of art. A monoprint forms part of a series of prints that each have some variation between them. The constant element throughout the series might be an intaglio or relief print that usually provides a foundation that the variable elements hinge upon. This could be a drypoint or copper plate etching, a linocut, or a collagraph, or a stamp. The way this is inked up or printed might vary from print to print, and there may be some monotype elements or hand coloured elements added to each print to make each monoprint in the series slightly different to the next.
What do I need to get started in monotype?
- Ink Slab
- Palette Knife
- Drawing Tools
An ink slab is a smooth, non-absorbent surface onto which you can roll out an even layer of ink. A glass ink slab is ideal because you can place guides beneath it when building up a monotype print in layers, to ensure the marks you make line up with what has already been printed. You could also use an old mirror or sheet of perspex, a Gelli Plate or these Grafix Monotype plates.
You can start monotype printmaking with just one roller, but if you’re making a print with multiple colours, it can save a lot of time to have one for each colour. Rollers with a metal bar over the cylinder are extremely practical as you can rest them on the metal bar when they’re not in use. This will help maintain the shape of the cylinder over time, and if the roller is loaded with ink, resting it on the metal bar will help stop it getting stuck to any nearby paper or rags.
It is possible to use neat oil paint for monotypes but it does not get picked up by paper as easily as printmaking ink. You need that added tack for a satisfying result. Therefore, it is recommended to use a relief or etching ink, and if it takes too long to dry, add a couple of drops of Cobalt Siccative. Caligo Safe Wash Ink is ideal, or you could use a regular oil based or water based printmaking ink. Water based ink dries much more quickly, so is better suited to simple one layer prints. Another option is to add some block printing medium to oil paint, such as Schmincke Relief and Intaglio Printing Medium.
Regular cartridge paper of around 130-150gsm is smooth and sufficiently flexible to make it easy to manipulate in the hand, and pick up fairly light hand-pressure, so it’s perfect for simple monotypes. If you begin to create multiple layered monotypes, or begin to work with thicker layers of ink, you might find that a heavier printmaking paper will hold more colour, such as Fabriano Rosaspina, Stonehenge or Zerkall. You could also use watercolour paper. Oil painting paper can also be used, but in general, papers that are uncoated or primed tend to hold more ink and will minimise ‘ink squash’.
A palette knife is useful for mixing up the ink and putting it on to your ink slab (if you’re working from a tin). It can also be used to scratch into a layer of ink to create texture in an image. A metal palette knife can scratch a glass surface, so if you want to avoid this we advise using a plastic palette knife.
Rags are useful when clearing up but also they can be used to lift ink away when drawing into ink on an ink slab.
The sharper and harder a pencil the crisper the line it will achieve, and to combine a sharp and hard pencil with a softer pencil such as a 7B or 8B will allow you to get a range of tones in a single colour monotype.
Brushes can be used to paint marks onto an ink slab prior to taking a print – literally any brush can be used for this purpose. If you are using a brush on the back of a piece of paper to add a some imprint of ink to your monotype, it’s better to use a stiff haired brush as you need a greater amount of pressure – a Da Vinci Impasto brush or a hog hair brush is recommended.
There are 3 main approaches to monotype printmaking:
No. 1: Monochrome Linear Monotypes – Placing Paper on an Inked up Slab and Drawing on the Reverse
This method is well suited to quick, one line drawings, as the pressure you apply with your drawing implemented on the reverse of your paper will pick up the ink on the ink slab on which you rest your paper. The most important considerations to remember is to not allow your paper to slide across the ink as the image will smudge, and avoid resting your hand on the paper as you might usually do when drawing, as this will add unwanted ink to your image. The sharper the tool you use the crisper the line.
How thin should the ink be?
If the ink is too thick you’ll get a very blotchy image, so the best practice is to make it as thin as possible and build it up if you need. Half a thumb nail’s blob on your roller is ideal for a 16 x 12 inch print, spread out in a rectangle on your ink slab. The ink needs to be thinner than if you were linocut printing, so you want to ensure there are no dimples on the surface of the colour and only the slightest of hissing sounds as you roll over the colour.
When placing your paper, drop it lightly onto the ink. If you need to move it, pinch it from two diagonally opposite corners and then lift and re-drop, rather than sliding it across the ink and picking up an ink smear. Then, use a sharp point to draw your image. A hard pencil is better than a soft one to get a crisp line, or you could use a biro.
It’s worth holding the paper in place using one finger in the corner of the paper – remember any pressure you put on the paper will pick up ink, so do not lean on the paper with your drawing hand.
You can always lift up the paper to see the lines at any point to see if the pressure you are applying with your drawing instrument is picking up enough of the ink. If it isn’t, consider using more pressure or adding more ink to your plate.
This is the resulting monotype of a succulent. It’s picked up enough of the ink to show the crisp lines of my drawing and a bit of the ink around the drawn lines, which is characteristic of the qualities of monotype.
If you would prefer to prepare your drawing prior to making your monotype using this approach, you can draw it out onto a piece of tracing paper, then place this over your printing paper and tape both over the ink around the edges with masking tape. If you flip the tracing paper over after drawing on it, when you go over the lines with a sharp point to make your print, the image will be created in the same orientation as your original drawing. If you don’t flip the tracing paper over, the resulting image will appear back to front from the original.
Using a Hard and a Soft Pencil
You can vary tone by using a soft and hard pencil to make a monotype. These images of the front and back of a drawing of a head show how a tonal pencil drawing can result in a monotype with a range of tones and the soft graininess that is characteristic of the process.
Using a mix of drawing tools
By using a range of different tools, you can explore mark making and tonal range. A brush will produce a softer mark, and a colour shaper is capable of a broader but just as dark mark as a pencil. It’s a good idea to dip whatever tool you use in paint or ink so you know where you have drawn.
No. 2: Painterly Monotypes – Painting the Image on the Slab
One way to start this approach is to apply a thin layer of ink and then use solvent or water (depending on which ink you are using) and a rag to lift areas away. You can also scratch into the ink with a paint brush or pencil. As you will see, the effects of this approach are more painterly than the previous, with plenty of potential for energetic image making.
Once you have your first layer printed, you can then place the print underneath your ink slab to use it as a template for painting on marks for an additional layer to your image, ensuring the position doesn’t change by drawing corners for where the paper is on the ink slab using an Oil Based All Surface Pencil.
Of course, you can build your image simply by painting on to the ink slab with brushes; you don’t need to roll the ink out first. However it’s always worth making sure your ink is not very thick and impasto as it can make a very smudgy and hard to control mark.
This method tends to use a heavier application of colour, so it would be advisable to use a heavier paper. One with texture such as a rough or cold pressed watercolour paper can alter how marks appear and will help to hold more layers of colour.
Stencils and found textures and patterns can introduce clean, crisp edges to a monotype. Stencils usually require the use of an etching or vertical pressure press, as textured materials may be too thick for the ink to come through to the paper if only applying pressure by hand.
The level of detail can be surprising when trying this process out, and can make some really interesting textures to use in a collage, as well as monoprint.
What is etching?
Etching is an intaglio technique that uses acid or other corrosive chemicals to ‘bite’ or ‘etch’ incised lines or marks into a metal printing plate. An acid resistant ground is applied to the surface of the plate and the image is drawn through the ground, exposing the metal underneath. This exposed metal is then etched away by the acid - these etched lines create furrows that hold the applied ink to form the image. As with other types of intaglio printing, ink is pushed into the furrows and the surface is wiped clean. A print is then taken by putting the plate and dampened paper through an etching press under high pressure. The resulting prints often have rich, velvety lines and a range of tones which stand alone or can be combined with a range of other printmaking techniques.
What is drypoint?
Drypoint is also an intaglio technique, but rather than relying on acid or other corrosive chemicals to create incised lines or marks into a plate, a sharp pointed tool (such as a diamond or carbide point) is used to scratch into the plate to create a slightly ragged, rough edge known as a burr. This technique is usually done on copper plates, but can also be done on other soft metals such as aluminium, as well as transparent plastic plates (although plastic won’t give as much of a burr as metal). Ink is then pushed into the incised marks and the surface is wiped clean. The burr will hold onto ink when the plate is wiped, giving the printed line a distinctive velvety look. Drypoint is often combined with other intaglio techniques, such as etching.
What do I need to get started in etching?
- Etching plate such as copper or zinc
- Etching grounds or resists
- Etching tools
- Etching ink
- Inking slab
- File for filing the edges of the plate to a 45 degree angle
- Vinegar and whiting (for degreasing)
- Nitrile gauntlets (heavyweight gloves)
- Chemical Resistant Tray/Water Tray
- Barrier cream
- Resist to back the plate (etching) such as Straw Hat Varnish or even brown tape
- Etchant such as Ferric Chloride or salt etching solution
- Vegetable oil (for initial cleaning up)
- Solvent for cleaning up ( Zest-it Printmakers Cleaner)
- Printmaking paper
- Tissue paper
- Square of mountboard to apply ink to the plate
You may wish to join an open-access print studio to use the facilities such as presses and etching baths. Print studios will also have the facilities for you to try other techniques, such as aquatint, and may also have technicians on hand for support.
Etching plates are most commonly made from zinc or copper. Copper plates are the traditional choice due to their even texture and longevity – this is particularly important for large editions. Polished copper plates are protected with a plastic film, and require degreasing with vinegar and whiting or calcium carbonate prior to use. Zinc is a slightly softer metal and therefore not as durable, but it is a good, less expensive choice for beginners and students. Zinc economy plates will require polishing with a metal polish and degreasing.
Etching grounds or resists
Traditionally, an etching plate was etched with acid so required an acid resistant ground made from beeswax and asphaltum with a solvent. In the 1990s, printmakers began developing less toxic methods of etching using safer materials.
The etching plate can be covered with a hard ground or a soft ground. A hard ground is applied to the plate with a roller, and the image is scratched into the surface with an etching needle or other mark making tool. Soft ground is applied with a brush and since it never really hardens, can be used to make soft painterly marks, or to create impressions from objects (for example leaves, textured stencils etc).
The Lascaux acrylic resist etching system is a full range of solvent-free, watersoluble, and non-toxic products that can be used instead of traditional acid based products. It includes a plate backing resist (for protecting the back of the plate from the etching solution), hard and soft resists and stop out resist which can be painted onto a plate to create an image, make corrections or prevent areas from being etched. B.I.G Etching Ground is a non-toxic ink based resist. This ground makes it possible to experiment with many different effects on an etching plate, and it can act as a soft or hard resist. The resist can be heat set in an oven, and is available in two colours. Plates can be cleaned up with non-toxic cleaners such as Zest-It Printmakers Washdown.
Traditional etching resists
Hard resists can be in solid or liquid form. Charbonnel Ultraflex is a liquid hard ground made with turpentine and wax. It is transparent with a satin finish when dry and can be applied to the plate with a brush or by pouring it directly onto the plate. Artools hard wax ground is a solid lump, which is rubbed directly onto a heated plate and spread with a dauber.
Soft resists are available as a varnish that can be applied to the plate with a roller or a traditional wax ground that is applied with a soft cloth. Button polish and straw hat varnish are shellac based varnishes that can be used to protect the back of the plate. Straw hat varnish has added dye making it easy to see where it has been applied.
Etching tools of various sizes can be used to make marks in the etching ground. Using a variety of etching needles allows you to create lines of varying widths and depths. It is like using a pen without ink, and they have metal points to scratch into the etching ground. The Arteina drypoint box set contains four steel tipped needles with different point sizes, and wooden handles which are comfortable to grip. The needles can also be purchased individually.
Marks can also be made with roulettes which create a range of textural marks as the wheel is rolled over the plates. Arteina box sets contain four sizes of roulettes in widths of 2mm or 5mm. They can also be purchased individually.
Scrapers and burnishers are used to make corrections to the etching plate. The scraper is for lowering the plate surface and scraping away burrs. The burnisher is used to smooth the plate surface and soften the lines. They can be bought as a dual purpose tool, or individually in various sizes.
An etchant is the substance used to etch the plate, or bite through the exposed lines or marks to create the image. Traditionally, nitric acid or a mixture of hydrochloric and potassium chloride (known as the Dutch Mordant) were used. However, both these solutions are extremely toxic, which led to the development of new, safer methods.
The ‘Edinburgh Etch’ (© F.K. 1997) method, developed in the 1990s, uses Ferric chloride, a metal salt which can be diluted or used alongside citric acid powder for copper plates. It is not recommended on zinc plates, where a solution of copper sulphate and table salt can be used.
Etching ink is stiff, highly pigmented and designed to stick to the grooves and indentations in the plate. There are a variety of different types and brands of etching ink, and they generally fall into two categories – traditional oil based ink and watersoluble etching ink.
Watersoluble etching ink is oil or soy based and can be cleaned up with soap and water, unlike traditional oil based inks. This means they have the richness of colour associated with traditional etching inks, but can be cleaned up without solvents such as turpentine or white spirit. Cranfield Caligo Safe Wash Etching Inks and Charbonnel Aqua Wash are both good quality oil based inks that are also suitable for other intaglio techniques, and are easily cleaned up with soap and water. Akua intaglio ink is a soy based ink which is also easily washed off with soap and water.
Traditional oil based etching ink contains a high level of pigment, mixed with polymerised linseed oil. Their rich colours make them particularly good for larger plates, and they have a buttery consistency that some printmakers love. Cranfield Traditional Etching Inks come in a wide range of colours and are also suitable for other techniques such as engraving, dry-point, mezzotint, etching and aquatint, as well as monotype.
An inking slab is a smooth, non absorbent slab where you can mix and roll out ink prior to applying to the plate. Ink can be applied with a brush or a roller, depending on the etching ground used.
Traditional etching presses have a heavy metal roller attached to a metal bed that slides under it when you turn the handle. Fome etching presses are available in three sizes, have adjustable steel rollers and a metal plate. are small enough to sit on a desktop (they should be attached to the table to prevent slippage) To find out more about setting up a Fome press: Setting Up The Fome Etching Press. An alternative is the handheld Sláma Press, which uses the weight of steel balls to produce an even print. Both Fome and Sláma can also be used for relief printing.
Scrim is useful for wiping the ink on intaglio plates. It is a fabric made from open weave cotton, stiffened with starch. You can buy it by the metre or in 50 m rolls.
Prior to printing, the plate is polished with tissue paper to remove the last traces of ink from the areas that will not be printed.
Chemical resistant tray/water tray
A chemical resistant tray can be filled with the etchant solution and used as an ‘etching bath’ to etch your plate and to soak paper in water prior to printing.
Papers used for etching need to be exceptionally strong, even when wet as the printing plate will be embossed into the paper alongside the etched image. They need to be compressible and supple as well as being dimensionally stable such that they won’t distort and affect registration. Heavyweight cotton papers such as Somerset and Fabriano Rosapina are ideal for intaglio techniques. Hahnemühle etching papers are made from 100% alpha cellulose, which makes them soft, pliable and very sensitive to detail.
Protecting your skin and eyes is essential when etching, as it requires the use of corrosive materials. Nitrile gauntlets are flock lined and chemical resistant when handling etchants and solvents, while lighter weight nitrile gloves or barrier cream helps protect your skin when inking the plate. Chemical resistant goggles are also essential to protect your eyes from splashes.
When cleaning up, harsh solvents can be avoided by using vegetable oil and newspaper or a rag, then wiping with a plant-based solvent like Zest-it Printmakers Cleaner.
Safer intaglio printmaking
The term ‘non-toxic printmaking’ has become synonymous with the search for safer printmaking practices and techniques that have a less harmful environmental impact. While it is difficult to use totally non-toxic materials, an awareness of health aspects while printmaking will allow you to make informed decisions on the materials that you use. There has been an enormous development in safer printmaking materials, and many printmaking studios around the world have adapted or developed to work with safer procedures. Below we list some of the stages of intaglio printmaking that require particular care, and suggest ways to make them safer.
At the very heart of etching is the use of corrosive materials to bite into a metal plate, and so in all cases, it is vital to protect your skin and your eyes. Nitrile gauntlets will protect you from solvents and mordants, while lighter weight nitrile gloves or barrier cream can prove invaluable when inking your plate. Goggles are also necessary for protecting your eyes from any inadvertent splashes of either acid, salts or solvents. If you are using traditional aquatint techniques, then a FFP3 mask (or above) is recommended. For those who feel a little apprehensive about the chemicals required for etching, Jackson’s transparent plates are ideal for drypoint etching, which involves scratching into a plate with a sharp etching tool. This comparatively safer method of printmaking is often an introduction to the world of intaglio, and a precursor to an exploration into etching. These plates can also be used for monotype and are recyclable.
Metal salt etching
Nitric acid or potassium chlorate (sometimes referred to as Dutch Mordant) is traditionally used to bite into the lines drawn onto the metal etching plate. However metal salt etching offers an alternative, safer method of biting into brass and copper plates. Ferric Chloride is used in the solution instead. Also known as Perchlorate of iron, this solution emits far less hazardous fumes than many acids, and can be used in a professional printmaking environment, as well as in an artist’s personal studio.
Although it is safer than acid, care should still be taken to avoid contact with skin and eyes; protective clothing and goggles should be worn when mixing and decanting ferric or when etching plates. Ferric Chloride is sold as a solution which may require further dilution with water in very specific quantities, depending on the metal. It can be used with citric acid to make ‘Edinburgh Etch’ (© F.K. 1997), known to be the safest and best performing etchant for copper plate, brass and steel – but again, this is relative, and protective goggles and gloves should still be worn when handling.
For salt etching zinc, aluminium or mild steel, a solution comprising copper sulphate and sodium chloride mixture in equal parts can be used. This is known as the Saline Sulphate etch. It is particularly effective on zinc, and does not require aeration or heating.
Neutralisation and Disposal
The safest way to dispose of exhausted etching solutions is to take them to a chemical disposal company. Ferric chloride or Edinburgh Etch can be neutralised by adding soda crystals. Your local authority may then allow disposal down the drain if the neutralised solution is highly diluted, although you must check before you do so. To neutralize an Edinburgh Etch or ferric chloride solution, gradually add a strong sodium carbonate solution to it (1:1 soda crystals to water). It will fizz then settle. Once settled add more sodium carbonate solution until no further fizzing occurs and the solution is neutralised.
While traditional turpentine and white spirit are often used in printmaking studios to clean plates and ink slabs at the end of an oil based printmaking session, they emit heady fumes and can easily cause dermatological and respiratory issues. Fortunately these days, there are many safer alternatives available which help to keep the inhalation of fumes and contact with harsh solvents to a minimum. Solvents such as Gamsol and Pure-Sol (pictured above) as well as Zest-It Printmaker’s Cleaner and Sennelier Green for Oil offer alternatives that are low or even no-odour, emitting fewer fumes and are kinder to sensitive skin. These are essential for home studios and communal printmaking spaces in particular.
A top tip for degreasing without using toxic materials is offered by Andrew Baldwin of Trefeglwys Print Studios, Powys (developer of B.I.G etching grounds) who suggests that you can degrease a plate prior to applying your resist with vinegar and a little whiting. Make sure all the whiting is removed from both sides of the plate while you are drying it – which should be done by blotting away all excess water with clean newsprint. Another alternative to vinegar which can also be used for degreasing is soy sauce.
Prior to immersing a plate in acid, its back and edges need to be protected with a resist. In the past, a variety of materials have been applied by printmakers for this purpose, such as an asphaltum solution, metal enamels and wax. Many traditional etching grounds contained arsenic, lead, mercury and many other toxic elements which you could easily breathe in while using, as well as absorb into your skin when handling. Lascaux now offers an acrylic based plate backing resist which once dry is highly effective in resisting the effects of both acid and salt. After use it can easily be removed from the back of the plate using Lacaux’s specially formulated remover. Also in the range are a vast number of resists that mimic the qualities of specific types of etching, such as aquatint, soft ground etching and hard ground etching. If you wish to avoid working with acrylics, B.I.G Etching Ground is another non toxic ink based ground with a longer open time. It is made from a formulation of resin, oil and pigments. With B.I.G it’s possible to experiment with many different effects on their etching plate. Techniques ranging from soft and hard ground, photo etching, marbling, relief etching, sandpaper aquatints and coffee lift can all be explored, and once applied the ground can be heat set in an oven. Once you have finished working, B.I.G can be washed away with non toxic cleaners.
For cleaning acrylic resist etching
Zest-it Printmakers Washdown is a non-toxic, non-flammable solvent for use with acrylics. It can be used with acrylic based inks and will remove most types of acrylic stop out fluid and grounds. To remove hardened acrylic resists, the plate will need to soak in the Washdown prior to wiping away with a rag. It can also be used for acrylic ink and paint. Because of the strength of this product, barrier cream or nitrile gloves are recommended.
Alternatively, a cleaning solution for acrylic resists can be made with Soda Crystals and water. A weaker solution can also be used to neutralise spent Ferric Chloride and Copper Sulphate etching baths.
Water washable oil based ink
Water washable oil-based ink allows you to benefit from the longer open time and density of oil based ink, without needing to rely on solvents for the clean up operation. For etching there are a number of different inks available, including Charbonnel Aqua Wash etching ink and Caligo Safe Wash etching ink. Akua Intaglio Ink is soy-based and will also clean up with just soap and water.
The etching press
Etching presses can also be used for relief printing as well as monotype. Etching presses have a heavy metal roller attached to a metal bed that slides under it when you turn the handle. The roller's distance from the bed can be adjusted depending on the pressure you need for your print. Etching presses work well for relief prints so long as you don't over ink your plate and you have a good pressure. Pressure can initially be worked out by placing a sheet of lino on the bed and adjusting the press so that the roller sits snugly on the lino. You will need to make a couple or more test prints to ensure the pressure does not cause the lino to slip during printing, or that the pressure is sufficient to press the ink on to the surface.
What is Aquatint?
The aquatint process creates a range of tones from light washes to rich deep tones. It is often used in conjunction with line etching techniques to achieve varied and striking prints. The technique uses an acid resistant material like powdered rosin or acrylic hard resist which is applied to the plate prior to immersion in the acid bath. The acid corrodes the particles around the resist to produce patterns and tones. The longer the plate is immersed, the richer the tones. A variety of tones can be achieved by varying the amount of time different sections of the plate are etched before being masked with stop out.
What is printmaking paper?
In theory you can print on any type of paper so long as ink will adhere to it. The paper that you choose will become integral to your work and if you experiment by printing the same plate on a selection of papers you will see how each makes a unique contribution to the finished result. Not only will the image vary but the overall feel of the print as an object will change with the weight and texture of the paper. Margins around the image and the edges of the paper traditionally remain on show. They differentiate the hand printed piece from a reproduction. Artists will commonly sign and edition the print in the margin and collectors will appreciate the choice of paper and whether a deckle edge remains or has been trimmed.
Relief printing includes linocut, woodcut, wood engraving, letterpress and collagraph. The print is taken from the ink on the block’s surface with the cut-away areas remaining unprinted. Printing can be done by hand or by press and you will want to consider the paper surface and how it makes contact with the ink, so a smoother surfaced paper, such as Fabriano Rosaspina, is ideal for relief printing. If printing is done by hand then lighter weight papers are ideal. Smooth surfaced papers by Zerkall and delicate washi papers such as Kozo and Kitakata will pick up the finest of detail. The silky delicacy of many washi papers belie their incredible strength, especially when dampened. They can withstand the pressure exerted by the printmaking baren as it rubs the back of the paper and still retain their shape. If you are experiencing picking of paper fibres when using fast drying water based inks, it is worth looking to try some of these resilient printmaking papers.
Intaglio printmaking incorporates etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and some forms of collagraph. Marks made in the plate hold the ink below its surface and when dampened paper is pressed down into the marks, the ink is transferred to the paper under the pressure of the press. The ink will penetrate the paper and an internal size that softens during soaking is ideal for this. The printing plate will be embossed into the paper along the image lines as well as all around its outer edge creating a ‘plate mark’. Papers used for intaglio need to be exceptionally strong even when damp, especially for printing multiple plate images which require passing the paper through the press several times. They need to be compressible and supple as well as being dimensionally stable such that they won’t distort and affect registration. The linen papers of Renaissance Europe perfectly fitted the bill and cotton papers of today come a close second, Somerset being just such a favourite. Much can be said for alpha cellulose papers in intaglio printmaking; for many years Hahnemühle have manufactured etching papers made from 100% alpha cellulose that are soft, pliable and very sensitive to detail.
Screen Printing and Lithography
Flat printing techniques where the ink and paper are on the same level are referred to as planographic and include lithography, screen printing, and monoprinting. Again many papers are suitable with a smoother surface working better for these techniques. In lithography strong papers with a high cotton content will help avoid picking, where a tacky ink can lift surface fibres from the paper, and internal sizing will allow the paper to absorb both the oil based ink as well as the water from the surface of the stone or plate. The smooth, absorbent Arches 88 was designed specifically for screen printing with oil based inks, it is ‘waterleaf’ with no size at all. However when laying down multiple layers of water-based screen ink, papers with a modest amount of surface size, referred to as tub sized, will cope best. Legion Coventry Rag and Somerset Tub Sized are examples of such.
Considerations When Choosing a Paper for Printmaking
100% cotton rag or ‘rag’ paper is how manufacturers describe paper made from cotton linter fibres. They are strong papers that retain their shape during printing, so are dimensionally stable, which is helpful when registering multiple plates for colour printing. Genuine rag papers, those made from the spun fibres of discarded garments, are rare and occasionally used for watercolour papers such as Jackson’s Two Rivers and Khadi 100% Rag. Papers made from a combination of cotton and wood cellulose make strong archival papers designed for printmaking. Plant fibres in Asian papers are naturally very long, enabling incredibly strong papers to be made very thinly - if you try tearing a Japanese kozo paper you will appreciate its inherent strength. The type of fibre can affect how the ink penetrates the paper, and how the paper takes up water, a consideration to bear in mind across all print disciplines.
Surface texture can affect ink pick up as well as how your colour looks. A textured paper can work very well for deeply etched intaglio prints and a smoother paper can work better for lithography or silkscreen. How colour reflects from the surface of the paper will affect how bright it will appear. A more textured paper will bounce back the colour in a more diffused manner and look less bright than a smooth paper.
Internally-sized printmaking papers will be soft with a porous surface to take up the ink. Most size used today is synthetic as opposed to animal gelatine. Unsized waterleaf papers will be occasionally referred to as ‘copperplate’, and will only require a sponge over or spray of water to dampen. These are better suited to oil based inks. You can tell if a paper has more or less size by touching it with the tip of your tongue. If your tongue sticks it is likely to have little or no size.
A genuine deckle edge occurs when the paper slurry slips between the mould and deckle of a hand formed sheet and is a beautiful aspect to hand made paper. These can be left in place and other edges torn down to compliment them depending on your registration system. You can tear down a machine-made paper to create a similar effect. Of course if you want to register using the paper edges you will want to trim them off, ensuring that your edges remain perfectly square to one another.
This is a very subjective area with colour choices extending from radiant white to deepest black. Some printmakers love a bright white paper for their cool black inks and a warmer white for the browner blacks. Metallic inks look fabulous on a deep black paper such as Somerset Velvet Black.
Thinking about what and how you print will inform this aspect of your choice. A thicker etching plate or deep collagraph will need a thicker, heavier weight paper, perhaps over 300gsm to mould around the sculptural aspect of the plate and adequately emboss. A delicate drypoint on a thin plate could take a much lighter paper. A hand rubbed relief print will take less effort to execute on a lighter weight paper such as 36gsm Awagami Kitakata.
Preparing Your Paper
When it comes to preparing your paper for printing you will want to consider the margins around the image and what form of registration you are using. Traditionally the margins will be of equal width on both sides and above the image, with a slightly wider margin at the bottom. This gives the effect of the image being placed centrally on the paper, an optical effect especially evident if you sign and number your print in the bottom margin. If you are printing an intaglio you could be registering your plate on the press bed while holding the paper trapped under the top roller and the beautiful deckle edges can remain untrimmed. There are numerous forms of print registration and you can leave your paper edges, tear down or trim to a crisp straight edge accordingly. Some editioning studios will print with the paper larger than intended and trim down afterwards, this has the advantage of removing any unwanted inky finger marks or damage but can be costly.
If you are dampening your printing paper then each will have its own optimal soaking time depending on the amount of sizing, sheet thickness and fibre content. Cotton papers with their long fibres need to be dampened or soaked longer than wood cellulose papers because wood fibres will take up water faster. Waterleaf papers that contain no size will only need a sponge over or spray of water before stacking and covering to damp through. You want to achieve evenly dampened fibres throughout, the paper should feel limp and cold without any visible water remaining on the surface. A good way to ensure this is to prepare your paper the day before printing and form a damp pack.
A damp pack consists of wetting your paper either by dipping or sponging, creating a stack and wrapping it in plastic and placing it under a board to add some weight. Any paper you do not use can be dried and then re-damped at a later date. This will avoid mould forming and staining your paper.
Your beautiful sheets of paper will be handled quite a lot during printing. Always use (at the least) two hands to avoid cockling the sheet. Large sheets are best picked up at diagonally opposite corners. After printing dry sheets can be hung up or placed on a drying rack. Dampened sheets will need flattening out during the drying process. Acid-free tissue should be placed over the image before placing the prints between sheets of blotting paper underneath boards to add weight. You can change the blotters periodically if required.
Acetate - Clear plastic film or sheet, often used for registration when printing and creating handmade transparencies.
Acrylic - Acrylic printmaking inks will dry more quickly than oil based inks, which can work to both one’s advantage as well as disadvantage. Acrylic paint can be used in relief and screen printing with the aid of special printmaking mediums – without these the paint may dry too quickly and will not have the best consistency for successful printmaking.
Ammonia - Traditionally used to degrease etching plates along with whiting (fine chalk).
Aluminium plate - Aluminium sheet used in plate lithography as well as for intaglio techniques.
Aquatint - Intaglio method used to create tone by dusting and fusing powdered rosin on the surface of copper or zinc plates. Acid bites into the plate around the rosin particles. The deeper the etch, the darker the tone.
Artist’s Proof - Prints made outside of the edition, marked as AP or A/P.
Ascetic acid - Acid used for degreasing screens and plates, as well as for other applications.
Asphaltum - Tar product used in lithography and as an acid resist in etching.
Baren - A smooth, round, flat disc with a handle on the back, which is rubbed onto the back of the paper to transfer the image from the wood or lino. A traditional Japanese tool.
Bite - Effect of acid corroding a metal plate.
Blind embossing - Printing a relief, collagraph, or intaglio plate without ink.
Burin - Engraving tool, normally made out of steel.
Burnisher - Intaglio tool made of smooth steel, used to polish and smooth rough areas of metal plates.
Burr - The rough edges created by a drypoint needle that hold onto ink to create a velvety effect around the line or mark.
Carborundum - Silicon carbide, an abrasive powder that can be used to create tone on intaglio plates and is also used to grind litho stones.
Drypoint - Intaglio technique using a sharp point or tool to create a mark in a metal plate. The burr created holds more ink than the incised marks or lines to give a velvety effect.
Dutch mordant - An etch made of hydrochloric acid, potassium chlorate, and water. Used for copper plates.
Etching ink - Pigment ground in plate oil.
Ferric Chloride - Etch used with water for copper. Can be used in conjunction with citric acid to make 'Edinburgh Etch.'
Ground - An acid-resistant substance used in etching through which the drawing is made.
Gum arabic - A gum that is extracted from 2 species of the acacia tree. Used in lithographic etches and some etching techniques.
Intaglio - Print process where ink is embedded into engraved lines on a plate made of copper, aluminium or perspex, and transferred to paper by pressure. The opposite of relief printing, where ink is transferred to paper from the raised edges of a plate, most commonly lino or wood.
Lithography - A print process that relies on the repellant nature of oil and water. An image is created using oil based material onto a stone or sheet of metal, lightly coated with water and then inked with a roller before an impression is taken on to paper.
Mordant - the acid used for etching.
Mezzotint - Intaglio process which involves rocking the entire surface of a copper plate with a serrated tool called a ‘rocker’ to produce a roughened surface that prints a rich black. The surface can then be worked with burnishers and scrapers to create tone.
Newsprint - Thin, light grey paper that is internally and surface sized, but designed for printing gravure on reels. Its acid content causes it to yellow easily, especially if kept in natural daylight. Because of its low cost, newsprint is often favoured for quick disposable sketches and initial proofs in printmaking.
Nitric acid - Etch used in various dilutions for zinc, steel, and copper plates.
Paper Fingers - Little folded pieces of paper with which you pick up clean sheets of paper to avoid inky fingermarks. Used mainly when printmaking.
Pigment - Pigments don’t just give paint its colour, they will also alter how the paint behaves as you work. Tinting strength, opacity, granulation and other handling properties are all result of the pigments used in a paint, and when different brands produce even the most familiar colours to numerous varying recipes, it’s best not to rely on titles alone. Pigment numbers are grouped into 9 categories, each prefixed with a code that will help you decode how your colours are made. These codes are PR, PO, PY, PG, PB, PV, PBr, PBk and PW, and refer to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, black and white respectively.
Some pigments will crop up again and again across a colour chart; PBr7 represents the
natural iron oxide used to produce raw and burnt Umbers and Siennas. Others will appear in
variations, either denoted by a colon and a secondary figure such as PW6:1 for buff titanium derived from PW6 titanium white, or listed in brackets after as in PV23 (RS), a Red Shade of the Dioxazine Violet pigment. It can be useful to look at the paints you use most often and make a list of your preferred pigments, especially when considering purchasing from new brands.
Plate oil - Linseed oil thickened through evaporation to produce a more viscous oil. Can be added to etching ink to create the desired consistency.
Print Rack - A Print Rack or Print Browser is used for storage or display of works on paper. Useful at art fairs for buyers to browse through the work, these can be tabletop or floor-standing displays. Often the work is placed in a poly bag with a stiff card for protection and the work on paper is flipped through like at a record shop.
Proof - A print taken to check on the progress of the plate.
Rabbit Skin Glue - A strong glue made from animal parts, that is an ingredient in genuine gesso, is used for sealing (sizing) panels and canvas before priming and is used as sizing for
papers. It stiffens canvas in preparation for gesso primer in oil painting. Also called hide glue.
Relief Print - Print process where ink is transferred to paper from the raised edges of a plate, most commonly a carved piece of wood or lino.
Roulette - Intaglio tool in which the head is formed of dotted, lined or irregular patterns to create pattern or tone on the plate.
Saline Sulphate - Etch comprising copper sulphate and sodium chloride mixed in equal parts. For salt etching zinc, aluminium, or steel.
Solvent - Liquid used to clean or remove ink, paint, or ground by dissolving it.
True Deckle - The actual deckle formed as the paper slurry slips between mould and deckle, this is as opposed to a torn edge that can mimic a deckle.
Viscosity - Stickiness or thickness of a fluid such as etching ink.
Waterleaf - A paper without any sizing, usually for use with oil based printing inks.
Watermark - A watermark is an image that identifies the manufacturer of the paper. It is created by changes in the thickness of the paper, light being able to pass through thinner areas, so that when a paper with a watermark is held to light, the image can be seen. Watermarks are made during the sheet formation process.