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The principles of prints

Prints give art lovers the opportunity to own an original work of art for a more affordable price than a painting might be, allowing new buyers the opportunity to dip their toe into the world of art collecting.

What exactly is an original print?

The Tate gives a broad definition: “A print is an impression made by any method involving transfer from one surface to another” that gets us started. Essentially, when an artist has created a work of art on a surface, with the sole intention of printing it using hand-crafted techniques, that is classed as an ‘original print’.

The selection of the chosen imagery, use of colour and carefully selected paper or stock on which to print, all combine to communicate an artist’s aesthetic and emotional message via this diverse medium. The printmaker is free to make countless creative adjustments to the various printmaking processes thus creating an entirely unique piece. And while the very nature of printmaking means that multiple prints can be made from the original source (known technically as a matrix or plate); printed artworks are generally produced in limited editions to make each series unique to a small volume of pieces.

Contemporary and multi-layered in their production, printmaking enables artists to experiment, with many using a wide range of techniques in their practice or even in a single piece to create prints that span from the simple to the intricate, geometric to linear, graphics to abstract and everything in between… 

Key printmaking processes

Under the banner of prints sit a huge number of printing methods. Do you know your screenprint from your linocut? Or your etching from your aquatint? The plethora of printmaking categories and technical terms can be somewhat overwhelming so here’s our guide to the printmaking processes to help demystify the medium and help you understand exactly what you’re looking at!


A twentieth century, multicolour printmaking technique developed in America. The stencil process involves placing designs on a silk or nylon mesh screen that is attached to a wooden or metal frame. Colour is poured into the frame which is placed in contact with the surface to be printed on. The colour is scraped over the stencil with a squeegee and deposited on the paper.


This is the oldest printing technique and refers to the cutting away of part of the surface of a block of material so that the image area to be printed stands out in relief. 

Woodcuts or woodblock prints are made by cutting into the surface of a smooth piece of hardwood with a knife, and V and U gouges are used to create more delicate lines. When printed, the area that has been cut away remains white and the raised surface prints. A separate block is required for each colour in a multi-colour print. Printmakers rarely use more than three or four colours for aesthetic reasons.

The linocut, a twentieth-century adaptation, uses linoleum in place of wood and while it easier to work with, it will not take the delicate very delicate or subtle cutting. 


These two terms are often incorrectly assumed to be the same, but there are important differences. A Monoprint has a single underlying image (such as an etched plate or screen) that is made unique through a process of hand colouring or surface alteration to the printed image. A series of monoprints may be similar, but they are never identical.

Monotypes are unique images and do not have a repeatable matrix (etched plate or screen). Instead, a thin even film of ink is rolled onto a plate which the artist then manipulates by drawing into it, or by rubbing sections off. The print image is taken directly from the plate.


Intaglio prints can be created through a number of processes, the common element is that the printed area is recessed. The recessed areas are filled with a greasy printer’s ink and then the surface is carefully wiped clean so that the ink remains only in the incised design. These include: 

Etching using metal plates immersed in an acid bath, which ‘bites out’ or etches the exposed area, Drypoint where the image is drawn directly onto the plate using a steel stripped ‘pencil’ that produces an added richness due to the burr and Aquatint which allows large areas of varying tones to be printed by means of a textured plate. 

Mezzotint is perhaps the most labour-intensive intaglio process and involves a plate being ‘rocked’ with a curved, notched blade until the surface is entirely and evenly pitted, creating a rough surface that prints black. 

Finally, Collagraphs, derived from the word ‘collage,’ Collagraphs are created by building up an image on a plate surface (cardboard, metal, or plastic) with glue and other materials thereby creating recessed areas where the ink is retained.


A digital C Type (Chromagenic) is a traditional photographic print, made from a digital file rather than a negative. The photographic print is exposed using digital technology, rather than traditional analogue (otherwise known as ‘darkroom’) techniques. 

In an analogue setting, an enlarger, an optical apparatus similar to a slide projector, projects the image of a negative onto a sheet of photographic paper whilst controlling focus, intensity and duration of light. With a digital C Type (Chromagenic print) this part of the process is controlled from a computer and the paper is exposed using lasers or LEDs rather than a bulb.


The word Giclée (“g-clay”), is derived from the French verb gicler meaning “to squirt or spray”, Giclée, is used to describe a fine art digital printing process combining pigment based inks with high-quality archival quality paper to achieve an inkjet print of superior archival quality, light fastness and stability.

Choosing a great print

So, what should you look for when buying prints? Firstly, as always, buy artwork that you love and that you are drawn to. Look for a striking image – something that captures your imagination and that is well balanced, whatever the subject. 

Also, look for craftsmanship. A level of technical skill demonstrates the printmaker’s commitment to their art and hopefully a good career ahead of them. Talk to the print dealer or the artist to find out more about them, asking whether they print their own editions, about the artist’s reputation and their creative inspiration. 

Look after your print…

Finally, a couple of points on caring for prints. Until framing, try to keep prints flat, always keep them away from damp or humid areas and as with all artworks try not to hang them in direct sunlight. A good frame will bring the print to life and complement the piece, so chat with your framer about the options available or buy a good quality ready-made frame.

Whether you are new to buying art or an established collector, good quality original prints make an excellent addition to any art lover’s collection. And who knows…you may be investing in a Warhol of the future!

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