If it’s Not a Painting is it a Print? Thirteen Types of Prints

A question we get asked frequently is, “What is the difference between a painting and a print?” It’s a great question that only requires a magnifying glass and some sunlight to answer (in most cases). We talk about about it here. The follow-up question is “What is a print?” Our gallery primarily focuses on paintings, however since this is such a frequently asked question we thought we’d give basic descriptions of thirteen various print types. Lets start off with a definition of what a print is –

Print describes three basic types of making multiple editions from a single image – relief prints, intaglio prints, and planographic prints. A print itself is a piece of paper or other surface, which holds a pressed-on drawing.

  • To make a relief print, the artist cuts away their chosen surface (usually wood) to create a drawing, and ink is spread over the raised surface. The wood is then pressed to paper and a drawing is transposed.
  • An intaglio print is created in the opposite way: the ink is spread over the surface (both the cut-out and remaining areas) and then wiped away. A piece of paper is pressed over the surface and the ink that remains in the dugout carvings transfers onto the paper.
  • For a planographic print, the artist draws on their chosen surface with a greasy crayon that resists water but holds ink. The surface is then cleaned with water, covered in ink and pressed to a piece of paper.

1. Lithograph is a form of printing whereby you use a very smooth plate usually made of stone. The plate is covered with acid and gum arabic, and drawn on with oil paints or sometimes wax. The success of lithography is based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. A piece of paper is placed on top of the treated surface and sent through a printing press. The pressure from the printing press transfers the image onto the paper. Here is an example of a lithograph by the artist Thomas Hart Benton entitled Swampland.

Thomas Hart Benton lithograph entitled Swampland

2. Engraving can be done on a variety of flat, hard surfaces. Metal is the most commonly used surface, and a sharp tool called a burin or graver is used to scrape away parts of the surface in order to create an image. Afterwards, ink is poured over the metal plate and then wiped away so that the remaining ink lies in the engraved lines. The plate is then pressed onto paper in order to form an image. This engraving by Albrecht Dürer of Adam and Eve is at the Smith College Museum of Art.

Albrecht Durer engraving of Adam and Eve

3. Etching Unlike engraving, where material is removed from the plate with a sharp instrument, etching uses acidic chemicals to remove a coating on the plate’s surface. Acid-resistant materials are layered over the plate, the artist then uses a sharp tool to draw a design through the over-layer without scratching the surface itself. The plate is dipped in an acid bath, which causes the drawn lines to be etched into the plate. Ink is then applied, and the plate is pressed onto paper. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses this etching by Anders Zorn.

Anders Zorn, Girl with Cigarette, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum

4. Mezzotint is a print technique used to convey the richness of paintings and often done on fabric (satin) and capable of holding a wide range of tones. The artist works with a tool called a rocker to roughen the surface of a copper plate. Sections of the plate can be smoothed with a burnisher. The rougher sections of the plate will hold ink more easily, and show up on the as darker areas. To accomplish this type of printmaking the artist must work from dark to light. The Hood Museum at Dartmouth College has en excellent teaching resource on how to look at and understand Mezzotints which can be found here. The example below, by the renowned mezzotint artist James MacArdell, is after a Peter Paul Rubens painting.

James MacArdell after Rubens Hood Museum of Art mezzotint5. Drypoint For a drypoint print, a sharply pointed tool, often described as a needle, is used to create a detailed drawing on either a copper or zinc plate by carving out the metal in selected areas. It is much easier to create deeper and denser lines when making a drypoint than it is in other forms of etchings, thus giving the print a much softer look. Here is James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s drypoint Weary part of the Smith College Museum of Art collection.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler Weary SCMA drypoint

6. Chromolithograph From the Bowdoin College Museum of Art collection comes this example of a chromolithograph entitled The Great American Waterlily of America by William Sharp. Chromolithography originates from lithography, and involves the drawing of an image into stone or zinc with grease-based crayons. Acid and gum arabic solution are added to the surface, on which the artists uses oil paints to fill in the color. A sheet of paper is placed onto the stone or zinc surface and will receive the colored image after going through the printing press.

William Sharp Water Lily BCAM chromolithograph

7. Linocut For a linocut, a drawing is carved into a sheet of linoleum affixed to a block of wood. The resulting relief image then has paint or ink rolled onto the surface. The relief print can be made by pressing the linocut onto paper by hand or through a press. Leopoldo Méndez made this linocut which is part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art collection.


8. Collotype/Photocollography is a photomechanical printing process. In order to make a collotype print, a metal or glass plate is coated in dichromate gelatin (light-sensitive), which is then exposed to light through a photographic negative. The gelatin hardens in the areas exposed to light, afterwards the artist will soak the plate in slightly acidic water, dissolving the remaining unexposed gelatin. The remaining hardened areas will accept ink and can be used to print large volumes with very high-resolution. It was a popular choice of printing for postcards as seen in this example from the Connecticut Historical Society.

Postcard of Rocky Neck State Park Connecticut Historical Society

9. Monoprint is one of a series made from the same plate made of metal, stone or wood. It shares many of the techniques of lithographs, etchings, intaglio and woodcuts. Bowdoin College Museum of Art has an excellent collection of works on paper, including this Untitled monoprint by Emily Nelligan.

Emily Nelligan Untitled BCMA monoprint

10. Screenprint/Silkscreen A printing method often favored by pop artists where ink is filtered through a stencil onto the chosen material with the use of a squeegee (a tool with a flat rubber end that helps move around ink). Andy Warhol’s Early Jackie is at the Wadsworth Antheneum in their contemporary collection.

Andy Warhol Jackie Wadsworth Antheneum

11. Photogravure Is a way of permanently reproducing a photographic image. It can be used both for reproductions of paintings or as a way to reproduce photographic images. A photo-sensitive gelatin, impervious to acid, is spread across a metal plate. Once the plate has been exposed it is washed in slightly acidic water which washes the exposed gelatin away, thereby leaving an image ready for printing. This photogravure view of Fifth Avenue is by Alvin Coburn and is part of the Montclair Art Museum’s collection.

Alvin Coburn Fifth Ave MAM

12. Aquatint Created by first covering the surface of a metal plate with an acid resistant substance (either a resin or a liquid) and then heating the plate so that the resin or liquid create a fine coat over the plate. The plate is subsequently dipped in acid so that it corrodes the resin and is able to hold ink. Thereafter the artist can begin outlining his or her drawing into the plate, continuing to dip the plate in and out of the acid in order to achieve the desired tonal effect. This process can give Aquatints a watery appearance. Here is an American White Pelican by Robert Havell after John James Audubon which combines etching and aquatint. Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Robert Havell Great White Pelican MFAB

13. Woodcut One of the earliest printing techniques, woodcutting is done by carving out a drawing onto a block of wood and then covering its surface in either colored or black ink. A damp piece of paper is placed over the cut-out image and the wood is either sent through the printing press or manually pressed using a flattening tool. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has woodcuts encompassing a wide range of artistic  periods. Nightscape Woodcut is by Yvonne Jacquette.

Yvonne Jacquette Nightscape MFAB

What about decorative prints, fine art prints, reproductions and posters? Commercially made prints, they are often copied from famous paintings so that the images may be enjoyed inexpensively by the general public.

– Print descriptions by Kira Romano

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