General print vocabulary

This glossary of general print terminology is intended to clarify some of the jargon pertaining to techniques and cataloguing of fine prints. I hope you find it helpful. If I can elaborate on any detail please feel free to contact me.


As opposed to drawings or watercolors, which are unique works of art, a print is created in multiple examples from an original drawing on a surface (matrix) that is transferred by various methods onto paper. The methods of transferring the image onto the paper, or printing, are varied and will be explored in this section. Sometimes a combination of techniques is used to achieve the final product. By repeatedly inking the surface and imprinting new pieces of paper, an edition, or multiple impressions of the same image can be produced.


The artist and publisher usually determine the edition size, although it is often arbitrary and sometimes totally unknown in early works. The prints may be numbered by hand after the print is dry; the first number is the impression number and the second number is the number of examples in the edition. This edition number does not count trial impressions or special proofs ("Artist's Proofs" for example).


An embossed, stamped, or inked symbol used by printers and publishers to identify their work.


The matrix, from the Latin mater, or "mother", is the base from which the print is made. This base or surface can be a block of wood, a sheet of metal, a lithographic stone, a mesh screen, a stencil, or even a potato!


The practice of the artist signing his or her name in pencil or ink in the margin of the print did not begin until the 1880's. It is not uncommon to see a signature or initials "in the plate" instead of a pencil signature in earlier works, although many works are anonymous and the artist remains unknown. It is always noted in the description if the work is signed "in the plate", a "stamped signature", or a hand-written signature in the margin.


An impression is printed from a plate at a particular stage of the creative process and is unlike impressions taken at later stages in the development of the print. The final state is the state from which editions are usually printed.

Intaglio printing

From the Latin word intagliare, "to incise", this refers to all techniques that involve matrices that have been cut or "bitten" into. The cutting may be achieved with a sharp tool and "biting" with acid, both on a metal surface or "plate". The plate is covered with ink and then wiped so that only the incised lines retain the ink. This inked plate and a sheet of dampened paper are processed through the printing press and the image is transferred from the plate onto the paper. Usually the sheet of paper is larger than the plate and the pressure of the press leaves a clear impression of the edge of the plate or "plate mark" on the paper. The plate is re-inked, wiped and put through the press with another sheet of paper over and over again until the desired edition is printed.

Intaglio printing includes


An intaglio printing process whereby the image is incised directly onto the metal plate using a pointed tool called a "Burin". The direct cut creates the groove to which the ink adheres after wiping. The engraved line may be deep and wide or lighter and thinner and tends to be quite sharp and formal looking.


The image is directly cut into the metal plate using a needle. The resulting line can be fine and delicate or strong and heavy. The fine shavings which are raised on the metal on either side of the incising tool are called "burr" and when inked give a beautiful, rich, velvety appearance. This "burr" is very delicate and wears away with the pressure of the printing press.


A waxy substance, called "ground" is applied to the metal plate and the artist incises the image through the ground using various tools. The plate is then washed in an acid bath that "bites" or chemically dissolves the exposed lines in the metal. The ground is then removed and the plate is inked and wiped clean. The ink remains in the incisions caused by the acid bath and are printed onto dampened paper as the plate and paper are passed through a press. The pressure of the press forces the paper into the etched lines and creates a "raised" line.


Similar to etching, this process allows more tonal rather than linear printing. The plate is covered with a "ground" made of fine particles of acid-resistant material, like powdered resin. After the design is drawn into the ground with a pointed tool, the plate is washed in acid and the image is "bitten" between the granules. The plate is varnished to protect certain areas from the acid, and is re-washed to produce variations in tone as the acid bites deeper into the resin. The result is similar to a watercolor wash.


Another variation on the etching technique where a soft "ground" is applied to a metal plate and a piece of paper is laid down on top of the ground. The artist draws the image onto the paper and the ground adheres to the paper where the pencil has pressed down into it. The paper is pulled away, and with it comes the ground that has adhered to it. The plate is then washed in acid and is "bitten" in the lines where the ground has lifted. The resulting print is very soft and grainy.

Relief printing

In this technique, the artist draws an image onto a matrix, usually a block of wood or linoleum, and cuts away from the surface leaving a raised portion where the drawing is. This uncarved section is then inked with a roller and pressed onto paper. The cut-away parts do not receive ink and therefore remain white. The resulting prints are characterized by bold contrasts between light and dark.

Relief printing includes


Similar to a woodcut except the design is carved from a piece of linoleum block, often backed with wood for stability. Color linocuts are created in the same manner as color woodcuts. Linocuts are usually used for larger prints with strong contrasts in the image.


One of the earliest and still a very popular method of relief printing. Woodcuts have been printed since the Ninth Century in China and were used extensively in Europe for the mass dissemination of religious materials. A block of wood is carved to leave the design raised and able to be inked and printed. The resulting print is characterized by the appearance of the grains of wood adding texture to the image. Color woodcuts require a separate block to be carved for each color to be printed resulting in a difficult multi-step process. Japanese woodcuts are considered the finest examples of this complex technique.

Planographic printing

This category of prints includes all those techniques where the ink lies in a flat plane on the surface rather than being pressed down into or raised above the surface of the paper. It does not always involve a printing press and is usually a lighter impression than relief or intaglio printing.

Planographic printing includes


The word lithograph means "stone drawing". The artist draws the image directly onto the "matrix", in this case a flat, ground stone using a greasy or waxy medium such as a crayon. The stone is washed with water that does not adhere to the drawn areas and stays wet only where the drawing isn't. The surface is rolled with an oily printer's ink which adheres only to the greasy areas and is repelled by the water. The stone is then covered with a sheet of paper and passed through the press to create the print. Some lithographs now use metal plates rather than a heavy limestone block.


Very simply, pochoir is a stencil method of printing. Popular in Europe, particularly France, around the Turn of the Century, pochoir is a very labor intensive and expensive technique but produces an image that is often indistinguishable from hand coloring. The stencil itself is made from either a fine sheet of metal or coated cardboard. Each color field requires a separate stencil. The image is cut into the stencil and the gouache or ink is applied by hand with a brush through the stencil onto the paper. The viscosity of the paint, the number of passes the stenciller makes with the brush and the thickness of the brush itself all affect the final coloration. Pochoir printing reached its apex in the 1910's and 20's and virtually disappeared with the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II. It is sometimes combined with lithography to add color to an otherwise black and white print.