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The Art of Printmaking

The act of printing has always seemed to me a miracle, just such a miracle as the growing up of a tiny seed of grain to an ear—an everyday miracle, even the greater because it happens every day. One drawing is sown on the stone or the etching plate, and a harvest is reaped from it.   

–Vincent van Gogh

In an age when information is copied and shared instantaneously, it is easy to forget that the reproduction and distribution of an artwork, document, or idea was once viewed as miraculous. Printmaking developed as a medium to meet this most human of desires: to document and communicate images and ideas, and disperse them to regions far beyond their origin. A print is created by incising an image into a matrix—a metal plate, a block of wood or a stone—inking the image, and then running it through a press onto a piece of paper. By repeating this process, multiple impressions of the same image can be produced. Before cameras, copy machines and scanners, the reproducibility of prints allowed thinkers and artists to disseminate their work, and over time prints became an art form in their own right.

As Artsy continues to add more prints, we have recently made an effort to separate out different kinds of printssomething not often donein order to educate users about the diversity of printmaking practices. Our first effort has yielded new genes for Woodcut/Linocut, Intaglio, Etching/Engraving, Monoprint/Monotype, Lithography, as well as Silkscreen/Screenprint, Digital Print and Transfer.

What differentiates these new categories? Let’s take a look...

Woodcuts are created by carving an image into wood and rolling the surface with ink. Look at the raw lines produced by this method in Käthe Kollwitz’s The Living to the Dead. In Memory of January 15, 1919. (Mourning the death of Karl Liebknecht). Josef Albers’s Tlaloc calls attention to the wood block matrix by exposing the grain of the wood block.

The Intaglio technique refers, in a most general sense, to prints produced by rubbing ink into an incised image on a metal plate and wiping away the ink on the surface. There are many different types of intaglio, from etching and engraving to spit-bite and mezzotint, each of which are characterized by slight variations in technique. For one, etching is made by drawing onto a metal plate covered in wax and placing the plate in acid to eat away exposed areas, leaving a groove into which ink is rubbed. In an engraving these delicate trenches are made by cutting directly into the plate with various tools. Take a close look at Francisco de Goya’s etching Manner of Flying or Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s The Sawhorse.  These fine lines may look similar to those made by an ink pen on paper but the raised velvety line of the impression—created when the paper is pushed into the groove of the incised image, and best observed in person and up close—is richer.

Lithographs look very similar to drawings made with pencil, crayon or ink, for example, Henri Matisse’s Nu au coussin bleu. In fact, lithographs employ these exact tools, only they have a slightly different chemical makeup. Lithographs were developed with the understanding that water and oil repel each other. After drawing onto the surface of a stone with grease-based drawing materials, water is applied to the surface of the stone, clinging to places that do not hold a drawing. An oily ink which is repelled by the water and clings only to the drawing material is then rolled onto the surface of the stone. Since the 19th century lithography has been widely used by commercial and fine artists as a means to mass produce images and information. Compare color lithography from this time with Édouard Vuillard’s La Patisserie, in comparison to the work Yellow Stone by contemporary artist Terry Winters. 

These last two images show how printmaking is a world of infinite possibility. With an image inscribed permanently on a matrix it may be modified countlessly by changing the ink color, creating new plates and layering images, cropping the image, incorporating various media or other printmaking methods, and using different paper colors. In this way printmaking is like an endless meandering experiment in which the final print may be unrecognizable from its original state, or end up right where it started.

-Brittni Zotos, Intern on The Art Genome Project

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