Picasso & Printmaking

Nov 27, 2020 5:17PM

In printmaking Picasso was completely self-taught; he never studied it. And although he learnt it himself, he had help from his printers, who were all highly dedicated, resourceful and perfectionist craftsmen. They are perhaps the unsung heroes of his graphic corpus. Picasso was attracted to printmaking for the new challenges the medium offered him but arguably also for the intensity required to work on a plate and the intimacy it created.

Jaime Sabartés, Jacques Frélaut (master printer), Jacqueline and Picasso examining aquatint proof, basment of La Californie.

Generally smaller than his oils and sculptures, Picasso needed to be very concentrated on his plates and above all controlled the strength of his gesture and his impatience - he was well-known for applying too much strength and for his tempestuous gestures. Working on plates, the artist surrounded himself with a meticulous intimacy and his graphic works became a kind of personal diary, where all his preferred themes are discussed: saltimbanques & comedians, eros & his muses, the painter and his model, the Old Masters, violence & peace, illustrated books & animals. We are pleased to present a very short chronological survey of Picasso’s printmaking practice.

Pablo Picasso, Faune Flutiste et Bacchantes, 20 June 1968.


Etching is an intaglio technique, whereby the engraved lines are printed onto the paper. The artist draws with a needle in a layer of wax that covers the metal plate. Then this plate is bitten, which means the printer puts it in an acid bath and the exposed metal, i.e. where the artist has removed the wax with a stylus to make his composition, is bitten by the acid. The plate is then cleaned, covered in ink and printed.

In September 1904, Picasso made his second print and equally second etching entitled Le Repas frugal, which is considered one of his 10 most sought-after prints. It is important to underline that Picasso would be 23 the following month and without any formal training in printmaking, created a remarkable composition: accomplished and evocative. The etching technique allows quite some freedom in making the composition and tracing its outlines and was Picasso’s favoured technique as in La Minotauromachie of 1935 being one his two top prints. Our exhibition has a few etchings such as Jeune Homme au travail belonging to the Suite Vollard, that is one of the great contributions to printmaking and also one of the finest works of art to reflect on the tortuous, glorious nature of creativity both in art and life. We are also offering Faune flûtiste et bacchantes of 1968, where Picasso succeeds in rendering the playfulness and lightness of being of these mythological creatures.

Pablo Picasso | Faune Flutiste et Bacchantes, 20 June 1968.


In February 1905, at 23 years old, Picasso created his first drypoint Portrait of Madeleine, a portrait of his lover, who fell pregnant in summer 1904 but aborted - February 1905 would have been the month on which their child should have been born. Likewise etching, it is an intaglio technique so it still is the engraved lines which are inked and printed onto the paper, but the artist must cut the metal plate himself - there is no acid bath to help. Consequently, the composition has a more nervous, harsher feel. What attracts Picasso is the difficulty to handle the stylus, which tempers the ability and virtuosity of his hands. Peintre et Modèle of 1966 is a nice example of one of Picasso drypoints and focuses on the theme of painter & model that was pivotal to his practice in his late years.

Pablo Picasso
Painter and model [Peintre et modèle], 1966


Equally in 1905, Picasso makes his first woodcut. Contrary to etching and drypoint, it is not an intaglio technique but a relief technique, meaning it is the surface, left plain and in relief, that prints. Picasso inked his woodcut with Indian ink or gouache and printed them manually. It is the slowest and most physically demanding of all printmaking techniques, consequently far too fastidious for Picasso. He only made 12 woodcuts throughout his career with the last in 1923-1914, and although they are rare, they have been relatively overlooked by the market.

Pablo Picasso, 1960, in his studio in Cannes with Jacqueline Roque (André Sartres/Paris Match/Scoop)


Still in 1905, Picasso made his first burin but he did not consider it a success. The burin is the most ancient intaglio technique but is difficult because the engraver’s hand can only go in straight lines so the plate must be turned while creating the composition. Needless to say, the inflexibility of this technique was not favoured by Picasso, and he used it in association with other techniques, such as the scrapper or the aquatint such as in Deux couples of 1968.

Pablo Picasso
Deux Couples [Two Couples], 1968


In 1914-15 Picasso briefly tried aquatint but it is not until 1934 that he masterminded this technique, and the printer Roger Lacourière must be credited for encouraging him to tackle aquatint and guiding him throughout. Aquatint is derived from etching and allows the artist to work with surfaces, so with areas and no longer with lines, hence obtaining “painterly surfaces and variegations of tones”. Picasso’s most well-known aquatints are Faune dévoilant une femme of 1936 from the Vollard Suite, La Femme au tambourin of 1939 published in 1943, and Femme à la fenêtre of 1952. The artist leveraged and explored all possibilities that this technique offered him and created wonderfully atmospheric works.

Pablo Picasso | Faune dévoilant une dormeuse [Faun revealing a sleeping woman], 1936.


Lithography is a technique that allows an artist to print multiple impressions of a drawing executed in ink on a stone. The artist draws on the matrix or stone as he would do on paper, so there are relatively few technical constraints. It is the technique, where the artist’s hand is most visible as you see from our print Seated Woman (Dora Maar), executed in 1955. Between 1945 and 1969, Picasso made almost 400 lithographs of which almost half were of Françoise, his partner at the time and mother of his two last children. In 1946, Françoise becomes the “Woman-Flower”, with our drawing Fleurs of 1948 epitomising this metamorphosis.

Pablo Picasso
Fleurs [Flowers], 1948


Between 1958 and 1963, Picasso fully embraced linocut, which like woodcut is relief printing technique.The linocuts reflect the artist’s new home in the south of France, where he settled in 1947. They capture his joy of life & Mediterranean heritage through playful mythological creatures, bullfighting scenes of corridas he attended with his family and friends, and the portraits of Jacqueline, his second wife and last muse.He is quoted as saying ‘It is strange, in Paris I never draw fauns, centaurs, or mythical heroes… they always seem to live in these parts’

Pablo Picasso
Bacchanale avec Chevreau et Spectateur, 1959

Contrary to woodcut, Picasso experimented widely in linocut, which was a seldom known medium in France. Hidalgo Arnéra, Picasso’s Vallauris printer, introduced him to the possibilities of this medium and taught him the reductive technique alongside the conventional technique of as many blocks as many colours.Picasso’s major contribution is to elevate the reductive technique to a level that had at the time never been attained.Our progressive series of four impressions of Le Banderillero of 1959 is an example of this artistic virtuosity and allows the viewer to follow Picasso’s creative methodology to achieve a final image.

Pablo Picasso, Le Banderillero, 1959 (Stage one)

Pablo Picasso, Le Banderillero, 1959 (Stage two)

Pablo Picasso, Le Banderillero , 1959 (Stage three)

Pablo Picasso, Le Banderillero , 1959 (Stage four)

Text by Anne-Françoise Gavanon

Art Historian

Courtesy BASTIAN