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Glossary of print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

The Art of printmaking

Right at the birth of printing, the artist-printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) brought an unprecedented level of artistic control and technical quality to the printed image, raising its status – once approved and signed by the artist – to that of a true work of art.

Over the centuries many complex printing methods, each with their own special terminology, evolved to become intricate and expressive tools at the disposal of artists seeking to make authenticated multiple images with no loss of quality. Today’s ever-increasing range of printing techniques and media continues to fascinate artist-printmakers who find in close collaboration with master printers’ workshops a powerful and flexible route to their personal vision.

A key distinction here is between an original artwork and a reproduction: a photograph of an artwork is a reproduction, but an art print is the product of a process in which the artist is involved at every stage, including the decision as to how many to be printed in any edition. The artist then signs and numbers the finished prints: conventionally, the smaller the edition the more valuable the prints are likely to be.

This glossary lists a representative selection of technical terms, traditional and contemporary, used to describe the rich variety of art printmaking methods and media available to artists today.

Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Acid – Used in etching to bite into the surface of the metal plate and create line or tone. Nitric acid, hydrochloric acid and ferric chloride are commonly used.

A la poupée – A very precise method of inking an etching plate, using a piece of scrim, folded around itself and formed into a point. The folded scrim resembles a small rag doll, hence the French term ‘poupée’. This pointed form of the pad permits very careful multiple colouring of a single plate.

Aquatint – Means of producing a tone rather than a line. The artist covers the etching plate with grains of rosin (a type of resin). When the plate is immersed in acid the liquid eats into the metal around each grain, leaving a tiny etched ring around each. The acid can be applied over the whole plate to give an even tone or painted on by hand to create the effect of brushstrokes.

Artist’s proof – The artist normally makes several ‘proofs’ (see below) of the finished print outwith the numbered edition. Works from the numbered edition are available for general sale while the artist or publisher may retain the artist’s proof copies for their own use.

BAT – Stands for Bon à tirer (good for printing), a French term which means that the final proofed print has been checked and approved by the artist and that the printers can edition the print, using BAT as a guide.

Burnishing – Done with a burnisher, a steel tool which has a smooth, rounded point. By rubbing the point on the metal etching plate, the metal flattens to make it print in a lighter, softer form.

Chine Collé – Chine is an extremely thin type of rice paper. It can be stuck (‘collé’ in French) on to the printing paper, prior to printing the image, in order to give a different ground tone. 


Colophon – Printed page in book
or portfolio carrying mainly technical information about the contents, for example date, paper type, printer, technique etc.

Deep-bite etching – By leaving the etching plate for a long time in the acid bath, the acid bites very deeply into the etched lines.

Drypoint – A technique similar to etching except that instead of drawing into the waxy ground and then biting into the plate with acid to produce a line, the line is scratched directly into the plate with a sharp needle, which can be used much like a pen. This technique produces fine ridges of metal on either side of the scratched line: when inked the ridges retain a quantity of ink and this gives the printed line a rich, velvety quality.

Dye  A tinted liquid with no physical body, used in many photographic processes.

Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Edition – Prints can be made in editions between one and many thousand copies. With most printing techniques the plate or screen will become worn if very many prints are made, so to maintain quality (and exclusivity) editions of original prints are usually kept below one hundred copies and are normally average between thirty and fifty copies. Prints made up of several different plates can be extremely complicated and time-consuming to edition, so in these cases editions are kept low for practical reasons.

Engraving – The engraver pushes a lozenge-shaped chisel called a ‘burin’ through the plate (either metal or wood), leaving a clean-edged incision. This technique requires a great deal of control ad is not suited to spontaneous mark making.

Etching – A metal plate, normally copper or zinc or steel, is covered with an acid-resistant layer of rosin mixed with wax (this is called the ‘ground’). With a sharp point, the artist draws through this ground, but not into the metal plate.  The plate is placed in an acid bath and the acid bites into the metal plate where the drawn lines have exposed it. (If the plate is left in the acid for a long time, the technique is known as deep-bite etching: see above). The waxy ground is cleaned off and the plate is covered in ink, then wiped clean, so that ink is retained only in the etched lines. The plate can then be printed through an etching press. The strength of the etched line depends on the length of time the plate is left in the acid bath.

Hardground etching – This is the normal etching method, but it is referred to as hardground to distinguish it from softground etching (see below).

Heliogravure – French term, adopted into English, for what is also called Hand photo-gravure. A later of bichromated gelatin laminated to a copper plate is placed in contact with a photographic positive plate and exposed to light. In the exposed areas the gelatine becomes hard, in the unexposed it remains soft. The soft gelatine in the unexposed areas that were shielded from the light by the black in the positive is washed away and the plate is etched, the hard gelatine acting as a resist to the acid. The etched plate is finally cleaned and is hand-inked, wiped and printed in the same way as an ordinary intaglio plate.

Hors de commerce (‘H.C’) – 
French term meaning that this copy of a print or book is intended for display only and is not for sale.

Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Ink-jet (pigment) print – 
See Pigment print

Lavender oil – Is applied to the hardground. It has the effect of breaking the ground down, so that in the acid bath the acid can reach the plate.

Letterpress – A traditional method of printing text. The text is set in metal or wooden letters: these letters are in reverse and in relief. The surface is inked up and the paper pressed down on to it.

Linocut – The artist cuts into the surface of a piece of lino with a simple gouge, knife or engraver’s tool. The surface of the lino is inked and printed: this can be done by passing it through a press, though it can also be done manually by rubbing the paper onto the lino with a spoon or a similar implement.

Lithography – Means, literally, stone drawing. In addition to fine grain lithographic stones, metal plates can also be used for lithography. The method relies on the fact that grease repels water. An image is drawn in a greasy medium on to the stone or plate, which is then dampened with water. Greasy printing ink rolled onto that surface will adhere to the design but be repelled by the damp area. The inked image is transferred to the paper via a press. For large editions, the grease is chemically fixed to the stone and gum arabic, which repels any further grease marks but does not repel water, is applied to the rest of the surface. For colour lithography the artist uses separate stone or plate for each colour required.


Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Mezzotint screens – A random
dot screen used for photographic screenprints, as opposed to a mechanically generated dot screen.

Monotype – The artist may draw or paint on to a surface such as glass or metal and then press paper on to the image to take its impression. Because the ink or other medium is transferred to the paper, only one good impression can be made.

Offset etching – The etched plate is printed on to the paper in the normal way, but the paper is left in the press. It is then itself printed on to a fresh etching plate, in other words, it is ‘off-set’.

Offset lithography – A large, rubber covered cylinder rolls over the inked-up lithographic plate so that the ink is transferred onto the rubber. The cylinder then rolls over a sheet of paper, on to which the image is transferred. This double-transfer technique allows the artists’ design to be printed the right way round. 

Open-bite etching – The artist paints directly on to the metal etching plate with acid.

Photo-etching – An intaglio process in which the etching plate is coated with a light-sensitive acid-resistant ground and exposed, through a dot screen, to a photographic image. A ‘negative’ resist dissolves in the areas that are exposed to light, while hardening in areas not exposed to it.

Photogravure –  A photograph is taken of a painting or other image, then transferred onto a large sheet of bromide film which is then transferred on to a copper plate with a squeegee. The image is etched through the gelatine film onto the copper plate in a series of ferric baths.

Pigment print – Recent developments in piezoelectric technology have resulted in increasingly high-resolution colour prints.  

Polymer-gravure – An image on acetate paper, Mylar True-grain, is transferred on to a polymer-gravure-plate through a light sensitive process.

Printer’s proof (‘PP’) – As with artists’ proof copies (see above), the publisher may make a copy of the print, outwith the full edition, for the printer to retain: this would be kept for record purposes. 

Proof or State – When the artist uses any printing technique, he or she may wish to print the image from time to time to see how it is progressing: this is known as ‘proofing’ the image. These intermediate prints are known as ‘trial proofs’ or ‘states’.  In some cases the artist  may make editions of the print at various stages in its making (Rembrandt did this). These editioned proofs are called ‘states’. When the finished print is editioned, the artist generally makes a small number of proof copies outwith the numbered edition: these are known as ‘artists’ proofs’ (see above).

Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Rosin – A type of resin used in the production of aquatint and spit-bite etchings.

Screenprint – Also known as silkscreen. In its simplest form, this is a technique by which the artist blocks out a section of a fine, woven screen (formerly made of silk), which is stretched over a frame. With a squeegee, ink is pressed evenly through the screen on to a sheet of paper beneath. Only the areas of the screen not blocked out will be printed. The artist will use as many of these transparent sheets (separations) as the numbers of colours required in the print, and each sheet must be aligned very carefully with the others. The films are transferred on to the silkscreens via a light-sensitive process: only the areas which are painted by the artist will be blocked out and will not allow ink through.

Silkscreen – See Screenprint


Softground etching – A variety of etching which uses soft etching ground, composed of waxy rosin to which Vaseline or tallow has been added: this gives a soft, sticky ground which takes impressions easily. It may be used by the artist in two principal ways. Firstly, the artist may draw freely on to a sheet of paper laid onto the softground plate: when it is removed it takes with it the sticky softground layer and the exposed plate may be etched in the usual way.

Spit-bite – An etching technique.
The copper plate is first covered with powdered rosin, in exactly the same way that an aquatint plate is prepared. The artist applies acid on to this layer and it slowly bites through to the plate. The artist can literally spit into the acid to create different effects, though this is not an essential part of the spit-bite process.

Sugar-lift etching The etching plate is first coated with the powdered rosin used in the aquatint process. The artist then paints an image on to this with a special, water-based ink to which sugar has been added, and then coats the plate in varnish. The plate is immersed in warm water. The sugar dissolves and lifts off the coat of varnish to expose the metal.  This ground is then etched with acid following the normal etching method.
The technique gives an unusual painterly effect.

Transfer lithography – The artist draws or paints on to a sheet of transparent paper resembling greaseproof paper. The image on the paper is transferred, in reverse, on to a photo-sensitised lithographic stone or plate by shining light through it. Because the lithograph prints in reverse, the final printed image is the same way around as the original image drawn or painted by the artist.

Glossary of Print terms and techniques A-D E-H I-L M-P Q-T U-Z

Varnish – Also known as glaze, this is an ink with no pigment which has varying levels of gloss or matt finish. It is often used as the final screenprinted layer in screenprints, and protects the surface.

Woodcut – The woodcut is achieved by covering the side-grain wooden block surface with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer). The impression is printed by placing the paper directly on the woodblock and then applying pressure either by hand or through a press.