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Beginner Drawing: Printmaking: An Introduction

Beginner Drawing: Printmaking: An Introduction

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Those daunted by the skills and money needed to operate a large, bulky printing press can still explore a variety of printmaking techniques without the use of a press.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Winged Horse
by Gail Ayres, 2003, monotype, 30 x 22.
Collection the artist.

From etchings to the words of a daily newspaper, for centuries printmaking has enabled people to make copies of images and text and disseminate ideas. For others, printmaking is the end in itself; the directness and relatively quick process is often what makes the medium appealing. “When I’m doing painting, I often work on it for a long time,” says artist Mili Weiss. “With printmaking, the results are immediate, which is satisfying.”

There are five basic methods of printmaking: relief, monotype, intaglio, silkscreen, and lithography. The matrix, or ink-holding surface, is different for each one. In relief printing (linoleum and woodcut, for example) the ink sits on the top surface of a plate or block that has been carved. In intaglio (drypoint, etching, and engraving, and the like) the recessed areas take up the ink. In silkscreen (a stencil printing technique) there is a hole cut in the matrix and ink is pushed through it. In planographic printing (such as lithography and monotype) the matrix is flat, and the part to be printed is treated to hold ink; the untreated parts repel it. Many artists interested in learning printmaking are often daunted by the notion of using heavy, large presses. The size and price can make them less than ideal, especially if one merely wants to dabble. Luckily, there are a variety of methods for creating relief prints and monotypes that do not require the use of a press and yet still yield highly finished, top-quality works of art.

Relief Printing

Relief printing is the most ancient form of printmaking, and the most accessible, even for those without a press. Both artists and nonartists have probably created a relief print without even knowing it—one’s fingerprint, created at birth, reveals the essence of relief printmaking. In this process, the raised part of the surface catches the ink while the depressions do not catch pigment. With this process, paper is pressed against the inked block or plate to transfer the image. Artists can use a wide range of tools to transfer the image onto the paper, including a barens, a wooden spoon, a doorknob, or even the side of one’s fist. Relief printing offers a directness and simplicity that makes it ideal for printmakers of all levels. Linoleum and wood are the most common surfaces used with this technique. “Linoleum is a great surface to start out with,” says artist Joseph Sanchez. “With wood, you have to be aware of the grain and make sure you carve in the direction of the grain in order to get smooth lines. Learning this takes time and experimentation, and can be difficult.” Linoleum is inexpensive and durable, and has a smooth surface without grain or direction. There are also several other options, such as cork, plastic, cardboard, and all sorts of natural and man-made objects. “When I taught printmaking to beginners, I let them use various odds and ends, such as bottle tops, twigs, and leaves, so that they could see the different possibilities printmaking offers,” says Weiss.

Artist Julia Ayres, who has published several books on printmaking techniques and teaches several workshops annually, provides a four-step process for creating a simple relief-type print:

Ayres four-step process for
creating a block print,
from the book Printmaking Techniques
(Watson Guptill Publications,
New York, New York).

Prep. Draw a simple black-and-white design that will be the size of your print (in Ayres’ example a piece of rubber acts as her relief block). If the pencil drawing on the paper is placed face down on the block and rubbed with a spoon, it will transfer the image onto the rubber surface.

1. Use a V-shaped cutting tool (Ayres used one from a Speedball linocut tool set) to cut away areas that will not take up the ink.

2. The raised surface is then rolled with black block-printing ink with a brayer.

3. A thin sheet of paper is placed on top of the inked image and is finger-pressed to make the print; other tools can also be used depending on an artist’s preference.

4. The paper is slowly lifted away, revealing the printed image. You will notice that the cut block is the reverse image of the print. The print reads as the original image, which is why the original image is transferred to the block face-down, creating a mirror image of the original.

“Learning the importance of this reversal is a challenge a printmaker encounters,” says Ayres. “If the image is not reversed, the print can be ruined. For example, letters will print backwards or a left-handed baseball pitcher will throw with his right hand.”


by Julia Ayres, 2003, ink, 7 x 11.

This three-minute gesture drawing
from the live model was quickly
developed by removing ink
from a dark field. This is the
most basic and spontaneous
way to work in monotype.

Monotype is also ideal for beginners, as it is inexpensive and does not require the use of a press. As the name suggests, monotypes are a way of producing one unique print, as opposed to multiple images. Oil- and water-based inks can all be used to make monotypes, with each yielding different results. “It depends on how you prefer to clean up,” notes Weiss. “Water-based ink is easier to clean, but you get a much richer print with oil-based inks. I like oil-based inks, but good ventilation is recommended, as mineral spirits and other solvents are toxic.” There are three methods for creating a monotype: drawing into the ink, painting with printing ink, and drawing on the back of the paper. With each method, you can use your hand to imprint your image, and all three allow an artist to create unique and visually stunning effects.

Drawing into the ink is the easiest way to create a monotype. First, squeeze a large dollop of ink onto a smooth, non-porous surface, such as a sheet of Plexiglas or plastic. Using a brayer, roll the ink out evenly and thinly on the surface. Using any tool that will make a mark, draw your design into the ink (sticks, palette knives, even your fingers will do). Place printing paper over your design, and firmly and evenly rub the back of the paper using the side of your fist. When you feel your ink has fully transferred onto the paper, slowly peel the paper up off of the surface. Determining the density of the print before peeling back the paper comes with practice, but you can peel up portions to determine areas that need to be reworked. Using your thumb or fingernails, you can create localized areas of pressure.

Painting with printing ink can work best for those who prefer to adopt a painterly approach. In this method, your image is painted directly onto the surface, and paper is placed on top and firmly pressed with one’s hand, fist, a wooden spoon or a smooth stone. This can also be done with a press, but when doing so, the surface should not be glass or any other material that cannot withstand heavy pressure. When using one’s hand to apply pressure, a smooth, lightweight paper responds best. Newsprint can be purchased cheaply in large quantities for those interested in experimenting.

Three Fish
by Julia Ayres, 2003, ink, 8 x 10.
Collection the artist.

It is also easy to experiment with using multiple colors to create vivid and dynamic monotypes. “Akura intaglio inks are water-based and readily lend themselves to process-color layering,” says Ayres. “These inks print on dry paper, making them easy to work with in a home studio without a press.” Ayres also recommends using a soft, absorbent, waterleaf paper with a smooth surface, such as Arches 88. To create multicolored images, first apply a thin layer of the first color evenly on the plate, and remove it from the areas that you want to be a different color. Rags, brushes, tissues, and cotton swabs can be used to lift and manipulate color on the plate. Then, print the image as outlined above, and wash the plate to remove the color. Then, apply the next color, wiping it off of the areas that are to be a different color. The process is repeated until each color is in place.

The methods outlined above are a few of the many ways one can begin to explore printmaking. “The most important tool for entering any art field is information,” stresses Ayres. “As a beginning printmaker, I bought a lot of books and scoured the local library for information.” Now, the internet can also serve as a valuable resource, and artists can buy DVDs, bringing the workshop experience into their own homes. When exploring printmaking, one should approach it with the same openness as any other medium. “Don’t be afraid to start in any medium,” Ayres says. “Artists of all levels must experiment and explore new options in order to truly master a medium.”

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

Watch the video: The Printed Line: An Introduction to Printmaking Techniques (August 2022).