by Joelle Steele

Collecting reproductions and graphic art prints can be confusing for the novice collector. There are many kinds of printmaking techniques, and knowing which is which can help you better understand what you are buying. The following is a list of the various print processes and other terms that you might encounter in your pursuit of that next great collectible print for your collection.


Printing, in general, is a variety of processes that are used to create multiple images of art on paper (and sometimes other surfaces) in color or in black and white. Mechanical reproductions are essentially a form of commercial printing, which includes the use of printing presses, photographic processes, and computerized scanning. Reproductions, such as calendars and posters, are usually made in large quantities of 5,000 and more.

Offset Lithography (chromolithography). The most common form of photo-mechanical reproduction is offset lithography or "offset litho" for short. This is a four-color process that produces an image that is half-toned (tiny dot patterns of ink appear on the paper). Each color used in the final image necessitates a different original plate that is a reverse image of the original. Offset lithography is most commonly used in the publishing industry to produce posters, calendars, magazines, catalogues, and brochures.

Canvas Transfer Prints. Some mechanical reproductions are those in which an image is duplicated onto canvas, as in a giclée or iris print. A canvas transfer is one in which an offset litho print is lifted from the paper (making it transparent) and then placed onto a canvas, making it look like the picture was painted onto the canvas because the texture of the canvas shows through.

Giclées or Iris Prints. With giclées, an image is scanned into the computer and is then duplicated or printed using vegetable dyes, pigment-based inks, oil paint, or acrylics that are sprayed onto canvas or paper (or almost any surface) from a large inkjet printer called a plotter. This process allows for a finished product with millions of color possibilities and the ability to adjust the color digitally before printing in order to improve or enhance the original image. Older giclées can pose a problem, since the dyes used in the early years of this process were fugitive and faded after only a short time. With some newer dyes being less vivid that the older ones, it can sometimes be hard for the novice to determine whether the print they are viewing is old and faded or merely newer and faded or just less brilliant in color.

Cibachromes or Ilfochromes. Ilfochrome prints are easily made by taking a transparency (slide) of an original work and then exposing emulsion-covered photographic paper to the image. The color in this process is brilliant and permanent. While fading and discoloration is inevitable with time and exposure to normal light, these are very beautiful prints. As with any other form of reproduction, the original slide must be clear in order to reproduce the original art work with good clarity and color-correctness.


Printmaking, also known as graphic art, is the term applied to prints that are hand-printed, signed, and numbered in pencil by the artist. Prints, such as etchings and serigraphs, require the direct involvement of the artist, and are normally made in very small quantities of about 500 or fewer copies, with about 250 being average. Many of these types of prints have been around for centuries. Most have changed very little during that time. Some have seen distinct improvements, such as serigraphs, while others are completely new processes, such as giclées, which come to us courtesy of the technological age in which we are living.

Etchings, Intaglio Prints (gravure). One of the oldest forms or graphic art printing, etchings are made by incising a copper or zinc plate with acid through a wax ground, a process also called intaglio or gravure. The plate is then dipped into a bath of nitric acid until an image is carved (eaten) into the metal. The longer the acid bath, the deeper the image appears. The plate is then dressed with ink, paper is soaked in water and placed on the plate, and then both are passed through a heavy hand press. The prints should have a plate mark to identify them. A variation on this method is the plaster print, which is made onto plaster instead of paper. Etchings have an embossed edge or dip made by the hand press around the image area.

Engravings, Chalcography (gravure). These are similar to etchings. The metal plate is gouged with tools that leave grooves to hold the ink. Any rough drypoint burrs are removed before printing. Chalcography refers specifically to engraving on copper or brass. A line engraving is one in which a "burin" (a small sharp-pointed chisel) is used to etch lines onto the metal plate. Like etchings, because they are placed in a heavy hand press, engravings have an embossed edge or dip in the paper around the engraved image area.

Mezzotints, Carbographs (maniére noire). These prints were made with an intaglio engraving process on steel or copper plates that are roughed or pitted to create gradations of mid-range contrast. The process was popular for reproducing paintings, portraits in particular. A variation is the carbograph or carborundum mezzotint, in which carborundum crystals are used to texturize the copper plate.

Drypoints. This intaglio engraving process involves using a steel needle or diamond point to create rough edges or "burrs" that will hold the ink. The result is an image with soft, deep black lines. Drypoint is often used in conjunction with the etching process.

Aquatints (aquatinte). These watercolor-like images are a type of etching or intaglio in which rosin dust is used to block out the non-print areas on the plate.

Woodblocks, Woodcuts, Xylographs, Cellocuts, Chiaroscuros (gravure). Woodcuts are among the very earliest of relief print processes. They are similar to etchings and engravings in that the wood is carved or gouged out, but unlike the other processes, the areas gouged out do not hold ink at all and do not even print. Ink is applied instead to the raised areas that remain, and they form the image. A variation is the cellocut, in which a layer of wood covered with hardened liquid plastic is used. Another variation is the chiaroscuro, printed in color, using two or more blocks to effect areas of dark and light.

Linoblocks, Linoleum Cuts. These are the same as a woodblocks or woodcuts, except that linoleum is used instead of wood.

Metal Cuts (metalschnitt). These are the same as woodblocks or woodcuts, but metal plates are used instead.

Plaster Prints. These are the same as woodblocks or woodcuts, but the plate is a block of dental plaster.

Serigraphs, Silk Screens (sérigraphie). In the old days, a serigraph stencil was produced on fine meshed silk screens using ink stains. Today, these labor-intensive prints are made with paint films and polyester or other synthetic fabric screens so that the stencils can be re-used. The fabric or screen is stretched out over a frame which is then placed over a piece of paper. A squeegee with ink or paint is pulled over the screen stencil leaving ink on the paper wherever the stencil is open. Many different screens may be used to produce however many colors are in the image. The type of ink used determines how much texture the serigraph will have when it's done. In addition, a serigraph can be produced on canvas to expand that texture further.

Pochoirs. This process, which originated in Asia in the 15th century, results in very fine art prints made from a series of stencils that are hand-colored. In fact, the term is French for stencil. Pochoirs are produced in very limited editions and were popular in Europe during the early part of the 20th century for fashion plates. Picasso and Miró made prints in this style for book illustrations, as did Braque and Utrillo. The process is closely associated with Art Nouveau and Art Deco prints.

Lithographs, Stone Block Lithographs (lithographes). In the old days, lithographs were made from impressions on limestone; later replaced by zinc plates; and these days are produced with metal plates. The wax-resist process is done by drawing or painting with grease or grease pencil on the metal plate, and then treating the plate to stabilize the image. Water is then dabbed onto the surface and ink is rolled onto the image. The greased areas hold the ink. A piece of paper is laid on the plate and then the two are run through a press. Many plates may be used for each color. The image is quite flat, so the only texture available comes from the paper itself. A variation is stone block lithography, which uses sets of two stones that are rubbed together to clean them and keep them flat for each consecutive print.

Clichés-Verre. In this process, a glass plate is covered with a dark emulsion, and a stylus is used to draw an image that removes emulsion and allows light to pass through the glass. Or, an image is drawn or painted directly onto the glass. From this point on, the glass plate becomes a photographic negative of sorts, and is processed like a photograph onto photographic paper. The French term for this process translates as glass picture, and landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot used this method in some of his art work.

Monotypes. These images are made by applying ink to a flat, nonporous surface, such as glass, and then applying a sheet of paper over the wet ink.

Oleographs. This is a 19th century process in which color lithographs are made to look like oil paintings by varnishing them and impressing them with a grained surface that resembles canvas.


The following terms refer to certain types of prints and some of the marks found on prints.

Relief Prints. These are any prints that are made from a raised printing surface, such as that found in a gravure plate made on wood for a woodcut.

Enhanced Prints. Almost any kind of print can be hand-enhanced by the artist painting onto the print to give it some texture in the form of brush or knife strokes. It is a slow process in some cases, and it can even result in a "new" original work of art.

Embossed Prints. These prints have areas on the paper that are raised or impressed (embossed), often to frame the printed image in some way.

Remarque. This is a small design or drawing that the artist creates and then inserts under the print, usually towards the bottom or base of the print in the margin (the white area). It was popular practice during the 19th century and can add value to a print.

Pointille, Stipple. English prints with dotted patterns, produced in the 18th century.

Proofs. A proof is usually the first or an early print done when the plate or the stencil was in perfect condition. It can also be the print made that is used by both the artist and the printer as a sample of what the work is supposed to look like. An artist's proof is one that is owned by the artist; a printer's proof one that is given to the printmaker. A trial proof (also called a BAT or "bon à tirer") is one that is signed by the artist to verify that the proof is the one that the artist believes is the best representation of their work, and the one to which all future prints should be compared for quality control purposes.

Editions. An edition is an authorized number of prints of a particular image, and includes any engraver's proofs, artist's proofs, printer's proofs, etc. The individual prints in an edition are numbered. For example, 27/250 would be the 27th numbered print in a print run of 250 total prints. It may not necessarily be the 27th print made. If the 250 prints are going to be the only ones ever made, then it is a limited edition. Many prints may have letters on them that designate where they were sold, such as EE for "European Edition" or AE for Asian Edition. If you see a print with roman numerals, they may also be older items that were sold outside of their country of origin. Other designations that reflect the age of the item are HC or "hors commerce," prints that were of the same quality as the rest of the edition but were used only for display purposes to promote the work.

This article last updated: 03/27/2014.