A Few Things Every Collector Should Know About Prints

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art
Jul 28, 2018 6:42PM

If you entered a well appointed home in the second half of the 20th century, you were more likely than not to see prints hanging on the walls. Unlike posters, a print is a real artwork, produced in multiples and signed by the artist but sold for fraction of the cost of a unique piece.

In the digital age, computers screens and home entertainment systems have taken over much of our visual wall space. Nonetheless, the lowly print still has its place and is, now, more than ever a powerful art form with the potential to effect great changes in society and to bring art into the lives of the many. In this issue, I cover the different kinds of prints and how they are made. Next month I will continue the series with a discussion of the role of prints in the art market and how to go about collecting them.

Printmaking techniques

Printmaking refers to any technique that involves transferring an image from one medium to another for stylistic reasons or for the purpose of making multiples of the image. In broad terms there are seven different categories of printing techniques that can then be sub-divided further. These are relief prints, intaglios, lithographs, stencils, monotypes, photographs, and digital prints. I will avoid discussing photography here, as it has been dealt with in a previous issue.


The two most common kinds of relief prints are woodcuts and linocuts. The woodcut is one of the simplest and oldest forms of printmaking. It involves carving an image into a piece of wood, inking it and pressing is onto paper or some other medium. The ink adheres to the parts of the carving that protrude from the background - or are in relief. The recesses do not receive ink and appear as the light areas of the print. Linocuts are similar to woodcuts except that the carving is done in sheets of linoleum instead of wood.


Intaglio prints are the inverse of relief prints. The ink adheres to the recesses of a carved plate rather than being applied to the relief areas. The plate must then be pressed under great pressure onto damp paper to make an image. Engravings, mezzotints, etchings, and aquatints are all variations of intaglio printing.

Engraving involves carving intricate images directly into the metal plate using a stylus-like a tool called a burin. The artist can manipulate the burin to create lines of varying thickness, and can create shading using cross-hatching.

Mezzotints allow the creation of a continuous tonal range through the use of special carving tools. First the entire plate is scored with a tool called a rocker, which leaves pinpoint holes over the entire surface of the plate. This produces a background surface that would, if inked, print as a solid colour. Then, the artist creates an image by burnishing or scraping away areas of the background into shapes and tones like a shaded drawing.

Etchings involve laying down a layer of wax on a metal plate. The soft wax is carved into using a stylus, much like an engraving. Acid is then poured onto the plate, etching grooves into the exposed metal where the wax was carved away. The remaining wax is then removed and the plate can be inked and pressed like other intaglios.

The aquatint is a variation on the etching that uses melted rosin powder on the plate instead of wax. As the powder melts the plate’s surface is covered in drops of rosin with miniscule areas of exposed metal in between them, like dots in a screen. These exposed areas affect the tonal range of the print depending on how long they are left in the acid bath. The shape of the image is formed by painting onto the rosin with an acid resistant substance. The result looks like a cross between an etching and a mezzotint.

A series of old engravings adorning the wall of a narrow hallway.


Lithography relies on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. The artist draws an image onto a smooth stone surface using wax crayons. The stone is then etched with a mild acid that leaves the wax-covered areas unaffected. This creates a relief. The stone is then dampened with water and an oil-based ink is rolled onto it. The waxed relief area will accept the oily ink but the rest of the wet stone will reject it. At this point it can be pressed onto paper.

A large 2001 lithograph by Tino Zago hangs above a living room mantel, together with a grouping of small sculptures.


There are two basic forms of stencil printing, the pochoir and the serigraph (also known as the silkscreen). The pochoir is just a straightforward stencil that is laid down on a surface and painted over. The artist Banksy makes most of his prints and street art using this technique.

The serigraph or silkscreen is one of the most popular print making techniques today because of its ease of production and the high level of control it allows. A piece of porous silk or nylon is stretched over a frame to create a screen and a design is then drawn on it. The area of the design is left untouched as other parts of the screen are blocked with an impermeable substance. Once the screen is prepared this way, ink or paint can be applied with a squeegee through the permeable design portion of the screen onto a printable surface.


A monotype is any print of which only a single, unique edition is made. Often artists will use a printing technique purely for its stylistic qualities, with no intention of creating more than one imprint of the image.

Digital prints:

With the advent of digital imaging an increasing number of artists are turning to the new technology as a replacement for and improvement over more traditional printmaking methods. Photographic technology aside, digital prints are made using an inkjet printer. The highest quality printers use fine dry pigment sprays instead of ink. Those prints are often referred to as “Giclee” prints. Many artists now find that they get better results by photographing or scanning an original artwork and printing it digitally on a fine art paper than they would from producing a traditional print. Artists are rapidly catching up with the technology.As usual, I would love to hear from you. I’m always happy to answer my readers’ questions and comments or to be of service if you need advice. Please do not hesitate to contact me through the website listed at the top of the column.

Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art