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What is Printmaking?

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing. It is an art form in which multiple copies can be made of the same image or motif. Each of these prints, also called an impression, is considered an original artwork in itself; even if it is one of a series of identical prints, also called an edition or limited edition. Each impression is an imprint made on paper from an original image placed on what is called a plate or matrix. The matrix is fashioned from a piece of wood, stone, metal or other material.

In order to create multiple prints within an edition, the artist needs to work carefully with the printing press or other media to ensure that the process of colouring and printing can be repeated in exactly the same way for each new impression. The art of printmaking includes a variety of techniques in which the motif itself can be set down on the matrix in differing ways. Whichever technique the artist chooses to use will set a stamp of individuality on their finished piece.

Printmaking is divided into four main categories: those of relief printing, intaglio, planographic printing and screen-printing. Each of these categories again contains varying techniques. The most common varieties of relief printing are wood engraving, woodcut (also called xylography), and linocut. Within intaglio printing, a few of the more common techniques are engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint and drypoint. In Planographic printing the most prominent technique is lithography, although other variations, such as monotyping and digital techniques, also fall within this group. Except for the screen-printing technique, the finished impression is always a mirror image of the motif set down on the original plate or matrix.    


The oldest of all the printmaking techniques is that of wood engraving, which has its roots in ancient Egypt and Babylonia, and was used throughout the Roman Empire and in China. The Chinese were the first to use wood engraving as a way of imprinting images on textiles; and after the use of paper was developed, the reproduction of images and symbols grew significantly in importance. Wood engraving was first used in Europe in the early 15th century.

Intaglio was developed as early as the Middle Ages as a way of preserving the intricate patterns created by weapon- and goldsmiths. Starting in the 15th century, intaglio also began to be employed as a way of setting images on paper.

Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) first developed the lithography technique in 1798. Senefelder was a composer and playwright, and he was searching for a method that could reproduce text and musical notes more easily than the existing techniques.

Over time, the variations of printmaking were used more and more frequently for the creation and reproduction of graphic images. The earliest artists worked anonymously, but starting in the late 15th century the names of numerous artists are known. In the earlier centuries of printmaking, it was unusual for artists to sign their own prints. Instead they signed the actual plate or matrix to mark it as their own. But from the middle of the last century it became possible to make reproductions of prints using photomechanical techniques; and from that time on many artists have preferred to sign their prints as proof of their authenticity.

The practice of numbering prints is also relatively new. Numbering is used to limit the total number of impressions in a particular series, thereby creating a limited edition and increasing the value of each individual print.

The silkscreen, or screen-printing, technique began as an industrial technology, and was first adopted by American artists in the 1930s as a graphic art technique. Dataprint, the most recent printmaking technique, is still being developed today.

Relief Printing
Relief printing uses the raised areas on the original plate or matrix to leave a coloured imprint on the paper/impression, while all areas that are not part of the desired motif are cut away from the plate. The most common forms of relief printing are wood engraving, woodcut, and linocut.

Wood Engraving
A wood engraving is an image made in relief, using differences in height and depth on the surface of the wooden plate to create an image. Areas that the artist wishes to appear in colour on the finished impression are left ‘raised’ on the original surface of the wood, while the surrounding areas are cut away. Engravings are made using the end grain of the wood; hard woods lend themselves best to this technique.

In order to cut around the desired motif, the artist uses a sharp knife or a V-shaped gouge (called a burin). Engravings can be done directly on an untouched piece of wood, or the artist can stain the surface of the wood first, in a darker colour, so that the areas cut away appear lighter. Colour is then set onto the surface of the wood with a roller, a sheet of paper is laid over the surface of the engraving, and the two are pressed together with a roller or other rounded tool (such as a spoon); or with the help of a printing press.

This technique utilizes the contrast between light and dark. The size and density of the lines on the engraving determine the value (or relative darkness and lightness) of the image. In wood engravings, a separate plate must be engraved for each colour the artist wishes to appear in the final print; and these colours are printed onto the same sheet of paper in a specific, predetermined order. When colours overlap on the paper they create new, blended colours. The natural patterns of the wood itself can also be incorporated into the design on an engraving, as they will appear on the finished print.

Woodcut (Xylography)
In the woodcutting technique, the image is carved into the surface of a block of hard wood (often cherry). A woodcut is made following the natural wood-grain on the surface of the wood, making it different from a wood engraving, which uses the end grain of the wood. Cutting along the natural wood-grain also makes it possible to create particularly fine, minute details in the finished motif. A knife or even a chisel can be used to create these detailed images.

This is a variant of woodcut in which the image is carved from a sheet of linoleum, as opposed to wood. Linoleum is easier to cut than wood, and gives the finished print a more even surface and more clearly defined patterns. However, the impression lacks the character given by the visible structure/grains of the wood.

An intaglio print is created in a similar way to a relief print, but with one major difference: in the intaglio technique it is the depressions or furrows in the original plate, rather than the raised portions, which transfer colour to the finished print.

An intaglio image is a picture pressed from a plate (usually of metal) into which the motif has been cut or etched. The image can be incised directly into the plate by cutting into it with a burin or needle (as in the engraving and drypoint techniques); or furrows can be made in the plate using a strong acid or mordant (as with etching). Colour is then applied to the surface of the matrix, and wiped off, so that only the incisions retain the colour and transfer it to the paper.

A variety of intaglio techniques are used by artists today. The most common are engraving, drypoint, mezzotint, etching and aquatint, and digital techniques.

In an engraving, an image is incised onto the flat surface of the plate, which is usually made of copper. Small lines are cut into the soft metal by hand using a steel tool called a burin, which creates a very clear, clean-edged line. This technique makes it possible to create very thin lines and minute details, resulting in exceptionally detailed images.

Various grey tones or half-tones are created using the technique of hatching: cutting a series of very thin, parallel lines one next to the other. Darker, denser tones can be made by intersecting two sets of hatching lines to create cross-hatching (for an example of engraving, see the illustration in the ‘History’ section).

In Drypoint the image is also incised into the (typically metal) plate, but unlike engraving Drypoint is characterized by rough-edged lines that are incised into the plate using a hard-pointed metal “needle”. The needle creates an uneven, raised edge along each incision, which is called the burr. The rough edges of the burr are what transfers ink onto the finished paper.

This technique is easier to use than engraving because it is more similar to drawing; but the Drypoint image is often less minutely detailed than that of an engraving, and the plate cannot be pressed as many times as a wood engraving. After pressing, the burr quickly degrades and becomes indistinct, making the original plate unusable.

Mezzotint is a technique most characterized by the richness of its finished tones. The great quality of the mezzotint tones are created by first roughening the entire surface of a (typically copper) plate using a broad, toothed metal tool called a rocker. The artist then creates the desired image by smoothing out and/or polishing parts of the plate with a burnishing tool. The smoother the surface of the plate, the lighter the tone achieved in those areas on the finished print. The plate is then pressed against a damp sheet of paper, just as with the other intaglio techniques.

The finished mezzotint impression can be highly detailed and has a velvety look to it, with soft transitions between dark and light tones, a deep shade of black and gentle greys. This process requires a great deal of work, and the finished prints are usually published in small, limited editions.    

Etching is a term used both for the basic etching technique and aquatint. In etching, the metal plate is first covered with a protective, acid-resistant waxy ground. The desired image is then scratched into the surface of the plate with an etching needle, removing the ground from those areas and exposing the surface of the metal beneath. The plate is then dipped into a bath of acid, which bites into the exposed parts of the metal, creating furrows. After the plate is cleaned, ink is applied to it with a roller. The surface of the plate is wiped clean, and the ink remains only in the furrows on the plate.

A damp sheet of paper is then laid over the plate and the two are pressed together with powerful force, so that the paper is pushed down into the etched lines, transferring colour from the plate onto the paper. As with other variants of intaglio, the furrows in the plate correspond to the coloured areas on the paper; and the untouched surface of the plate corresponds to bare, uncoloured sections of the finished print.

Aquatint is a technique that, similarly to Mezzotint, results in a rich array of tonal effects on its finished prints. In this technique, the surface of the metal plate is sprinkled with powdered rosin, which is then heated until the rosin melts and fuses to the metal. The entire plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the metal unprotected by the flecks of rosin. Areas that the artist wishes to appear white (free of colour) are painted with a coat of asphaltum (tar) or varnish to protect them from the acid.

After the finished plate is cleaned, the protected areas are left untouched and smooth, while around them are areas covered in many small, coarse depressions created by the bite of the acid. These depressions will hold the ink and transfer it to the paper when the plate is pressed, giving an even grey tone. Areas the artist wishes to appear darker are left unprotected longer in the acid bath.

Sugar Lift Aquatint
Sugar lift Aquatint is similar to Aquatint, but with an additional step involved. In this technique, the desired motif is first painted onto the metal plate using a mixture of water and sugar (and sometimes also black ink). Then a ground of asphaltum is painted thinly over the entire plate. When this coat is dry, the plate is laid in a bath of warm water, which breaks up the sugar covering the image and lifts it from the metal plate, exposing the bare metal beneath. The plate is then dusted with rosin, as in the Aquatint technique, and laid in an acid bath, thereby etching the exposed metal into the desired motif.

This technique is often used as a combination of relief printing and intaglio. The plate is made into a collage, upon which bits of metal, screening and/or other materials are connected/glued to the plate itself, or are laid loosely over it so that they can be coloured individually. The finished metal plate is then coloured and pressed. Colour can be transferred to the paper using both incisions made into the plate and/or raised portions (as in relief printing). The dramatic relief effect on the collagraphy plate itself gives a correspondingly dramatic imprint on paper.

This is a photography-based technique that has been adapted to use in intaglio printing. The desired motif is either a photographic image or a drawing made on transparent material. The plate is given a photosensitive coating (either purchased this way or applied by the artist), and the film/negative image is projected onto the surface of the plate with light, exposing it like a photograph. Other intaglio techniques, like Drypoint, etching or engraving, can afterwards be used on the plate if desired. The finished plate is then pressed in the same manner as any other intaglio print.

Digital Printing
Digital prints are editions of images that are printed using a digital printer rather than a traditional printing press. The starting point for a digital print can be either a drawing or painting that is scanned into the computer, or an image drawn onto an electronic tablet that is connected to the computer. These images are created like collages, as they can use elements from both photography and drawing. The digital document then tells the printer which colour to spray for each dot on the finished print. The final image can be printed on paper, cloth or other materials. After printing the image, the artist can also choose to continue working on the print using various hand-tools, making this technique a blend of new and traditional printmaking methods.

Planographic Printing
As explained earlier, both relief printing and intaglio are variations on the concept of using differing planes on a surface to make a print. Planographic printing, by contrast, is the art of printing on a flat surface where both the parts to be included and those not to be included in the final image lie on the same plane. The most common form of Planographic printing is lithography.

Lithography is a technique that is closely related to drawing and painting, and unlike the older printmaking techniques of woodcut, engraving and etching the stone plate (usually limestone) used in lithography is entirely without relief.

This technique is founded on the principle that oil and water naturally repel each other. Before a lithographic image is made, the surface of the limestone is ground perfectly flat and smooth, and is washed completely clean of any oil or residue. The artist then uses an oil- or fat-based substance to draw or paint the desired image onto the surface of the stone. The substance can be applied using a paintbrush or crayon; the resulting image will adhere to the ink when the stone is coloured and pressed.

After painting the image onto the stone, the parts of the surface that the artist wishes to remain uncoloured are applied with a solution of gum arabic and water, which makes the surface water-receptive and will repel the oil-based ink. Throughout the preparation and printing process, the stone is kept continuously moist by applying water, thereby ensuring that the ink adheres only to the image areas (the areas onto which the image has been drawn) while simply washing off of the damp surface of the stone itself. A moistened sheet of paper is then pressed against the stone through the force of a printing press.

When the artist wishes to create a print in multiple colours a different stone must be prepared for each colour desired. It is therefore vital that in each successive printing, the paper is aligned exactly so that the new colours are coordinated to the previous ones. The artist must also have a good understanding of which shades/colours will result from the blending of two or more colours in the finished print, as each time that colours intercept on the print they blend to create a new shade. Each stone that is prepared for a new colour is painted in black with the oil-based solution. The coloured inks themselves are transparent, and as a result the artist needs to be aware of how much of each colour should be used to create the correct shade: for example how much yellow ink should be applied atop a preceding blue printed area to produce the proper shade of green. The types of pigments used when blending colours together also play an important roll in the finished result.

Lithography is a complicated technique both chemically and in regards to the process of printing, and the artist is therefore often dependent upon working together with a person skilled in using the printing press and inks. Hence, lithography is traditionally considered a cooperative art form.

Screen Printing
Screen printing, also known as serigraphy or silkscreen, is a technique using textile and a stencil/template. To create a silkscreen spring, a finely woven, porous length of fabric called mesh is stretched tightly across a solid frame of wood or aluminium. The basis for this technique then lies in preparing the woven mesh so that certain areas are left open and others sealed, making them impermeable to the coloured ink and transforming the mesh into a stencil for the desired print. Areas of the mesh are blocked by either applying a non-permeable material/emulsion to the mesh, such as lacquer, glue or plastic film, or by laying a separate stencil over the top. Each method results in the artist leaving open only those areas that they wish to be coloured on the finished print.

Colouring and pressing occur simultaneously in this technique, and no additional pressing tools are needed. A piece of paper or fabric is laid beneath the mesh and frame. The ink is placed along one edge of the screen, and is then pulled across the length of the mesh using a fill bar (or flood bar), so that the openings in the mesh are filled with ink. Then a squeegee (rubber blade) is used to press the screen against the paper beneath it, depositing ink onto the print.

If the artist wishes to create a print in multiple colours, the same frame can be reused with a cleaned/newly-worked screen mesh for each individual colour.  Prints made with the screen-printing technique are characterized by smooth, even layers of colour which rest on the surface of the paper, rather than having been pressed into it. Colours are also combined in a much different way in this technique. In screen printing, a light colour can be set down atop a darker colour without any trace of the dark colour seeping through or tinting the lighter colour atop it; something which would be impossible in the more traditional methods of printmaking.

First adopted in Europe for more industrial purposes, screen printing began to be used by graphic artists around the start of the 1930s.

A print made using Monotyping differs greatly from those of other printmaking techniques in that Monotyping produces only one single original print, also called a monotype (mono = 1). To create a monotype the artist draws/paints in paint or ink on the surface of a plate of metal, stone or other material (traditionally a copper plate was used), then presses the finished plate to a sheet of paper, transferring most of the wet paint to the paper. As a result the Monotyping technique is a combination of both painting and printmaking.

Water- and/or oil-based paints may be used to create the monotype, though oil paints provide more contrast and/or flexibility and range of tones to the finished print. The artist must take care while preparing the plate that the layer of paint is sufficiently thin; an excess of paint would cause the image to smear while being pressed to paper. After pressing (usually in a printing press), the artist then has the option of adding additional embellishments to the monotype, for example by painting auxiliary details with a brush or spatula spreader. As most of the ink or paint set down on the plate is removed when the imprint is made, the finished monotype is the only original example of the artist’s work; just as with a painting.

Giclée is a term for fine art prints created through a computer/digital program, and printed on a high-quality ink-jet printer. A giclée print is therefore a very different type of visual expression than those previously seen in the other printmaking techniques. The latest developments in computer technology raise new and difficult questions regarding giclée as a form of art. Questions like: who owns a computer file? How can an artist ensure that only a limited number of examples are printed to create a limited edition? As new advancements continue to be made it is important that these and other questions continue to be taken up by artists and the public alike.

Signing and Numbering of Prints
It is common practice in modern printmaking for the artist to personally sign and number each print within a limited edition series. The artist usually writes in pencil beneath the image itself, such information as their name, the print’s individual number and title, and the technique used.

The most common numbering system for prints is written as a fraction, for example 1/100; with the first number being the unique number of that print, and the second number as the total number of prints in the series. The print’s individual number has no relation to its actual sequence in the printing process. The number is usually followed by the technique (lithography, etching, woodcut etc.), the title of the print, the artist’s signature and, occasionally, the year in which the print was made.

In addition to the basic numbering system, there are other marks that can be given to prints existing outside of a series. Perhaps the most common of these is the epreuve d’artiste, meaning “artist’s proof”, abbreviated as E.A., A.P. pr P/A. In theory these “proofs” are prints that were taken while the plate was still being worked in order to observe the current state of the plate. But today artist’s proofs are often identical to the finished prints, though they are not included in the series itself; and the proofs belong specifically to the artist. Proofs can be numbered with roman numerals. The total number of proofs should not exceed 10% of the finished series.

Another category of prints is the hors de commerce, meaning “not for sale”. These prints are marked as H.C. or H/C; and are prints that are deemed unsuitable for sale, perhaps because the artist has decided to use them as examples in an exhibition, or has given them as gifts, or for other reasons.

Prints can also be marked P.P. (P.T. in Norwegian). These are prints that were created as test prints during the printing process, and have (often) been given to the printer to keep. These prints usually vary in some way from the finished series.

A print marked as “unique” also deviates from the finished series. “Unique” prints may be an additional variation on a series (for example a deviation in colour), one that the artist has found interesting and of which the artist has chosen to print a limited number of examples. In such a case, these prints would be numbered with roman numerals and/or given a denotation such as “the blue variation”. “Unique” prints can also be monoprints, or prints the artist has hand-altered in some way to make them stand out from the finished series. 

Handling and Care of Fine Art Prints
The majority of prints are pressed on handmade paper consisting of cotton and linen. Such paper is quite sturdy and able to withstand a certain amount of handling. However, it is important to take care with prints and to keep the fibres of the paper from breaking apart. A print should therefore always be handled with two hands, and held by each hand between two fingers that meet through the paper, so that the paper does not bend or dent. A dent or tear in print paper is almost impossible to remove.

Both the paper and ink used to create the print can tolerate a certain amount of water; and if the paper has bent, an expert may be able to moisten it and stretch it back into shape. This method cannot be attempted, however, if the print has been hand-coloured in any way. In such a case, the added colouring would be loosened by the water and destroyed.

Print paper should only be touched with clean hands, as any flecks of oil or residue from the hands is very difficult to remove.

There are many ways to frame a print, depending upon both the type of frame desired and the method by which the frame is fitted and assembled. For example, a print may be framed without using a passé-partout or mat (a border, often of cardboard, surrounding the image within the actual frame); or the owner may wish to have an extra-wide mat. When it comes down to such decisions, the print’s owner must choose how they wish for the print to be framed and cared for.

It is important to remember that prints must be framed so that they do not come into any contact with the glass of the frame. Glass is acidic and will, in the long run, damage both the paper and colours of the image itself. One should also be aware that a ready-made frame might contain acidic cardboard, which would eventually make the print paper grow yellowed and brittle. The bottom line is to avoid bringing the print into contact with any acidic material.

Hanging of Prints
There is in general only one rule that applies to the hanging of prints, and that is that prints should never be hung in direct sunlight. Even if the pigments used in printing are light resistant, no print can withstand direct sunlight over a long period of time. Different colours have varying degrees of light tolerance in this respect.

Atelier Larsen
Atelier Larsen was created in 1972 by the Swedish artist and printmaker Thormod Larsen (1921-1977). Since1977 it has been run by Thormod Larsen’s son Ole Larsen; with the help of his sister Denise Larsen, Gunnar Holmgren, Per Johansson and Peter Sjöblom.

Atelier Larsen is a workshop established for the making of prints and engravings, and is also a publisher of fine art prints. Thormod Larsen was one of the first to pioneer the modern concept of the printmaking workshop as a place where a close partnership between the artist and printer is given the highest priority.

The entire process of printmaking is a work of art, and at Atelier Larsen the artist is an integral part in every step of that process, from the very first stages up to the eventual printing of an approved trial print. Such a close partnership is made possible through an atelier which is fully integrated into a complete printmaking workshop. In Sweden, Atelier Larsen is the sole proponent of this concept. Artists from a number of nationalities have travelled to Helsingborg to work on their art. The largest format possible for prints is 1.5m/3m.

Atelier Larsen has created partnerships with a limited selection of galleries in a number of different countries. KunstVerket Gallery is one of these.


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