What Is Printmaking?
Printmaking is actually an umbrella term for several different methods. At the most basic level, it is when ink is applied to some sort of surface, which is then pressed onto paper, leaving behind a print. The exception to this is screen printing, which is a stencil method.
Most prints operate like stamps. A design can be physically cut into wood, linoleum, or another material soft enough to hand-carve. The surface level gets covered in ink while the cut-out areas are passed over. The block is then pressed onto paper, leaving a print of the inked areas. Other methods involve etching fine lines into a metal plate with acid (intaglio printing), or using an oil-based ink on a flat stone (lithography).
The benefit of printmaking is that the “plate” or “block” can be re-inked to produce multiple copies of the same image, but one printmaking processes can’t do this. Monotype printing is a method in which an image is fully created on a smooth plate, and then printed onto paper. Because the plate itself is not altered (it is merely a holding surface for the ink), there is no way re-ink the image for identical copies. However, since it doesn’t require any chisels or acid, monotype printing is one of the easiest and quickest methods.
For woodblock and linocut (linoleum) prints, the artist must cut away all the negative space (the areas they don’t want to be printed). Special tools called gouges allow the artist to slice thin furrows into a wood or linoleum block. It takes a lot of thin slices to clear out larger areas, and the gouges naturally leave behind slightly raised ridges. These are sometimes tall enough to get inked and printed along with the rest of the surface.
Here is a detail from the cover of Eric Rohmann’s My Friend Rabbit. He painted in the colors, but take a look at that printed black line. See the “floating” bits of black? See the shape of the grass? Rohmann had to carve out the space in between each blade of grass.
When ink is transferred from surface to paper, not all of it will stick. This results in a visible texture. Also, some printing techniques require each color in the image to be printed separately. If you look closely, you can see how the colors have been layered to create the final image (and final colors!).
Below is a detail from the cover of Two Little Trains by Margaret Wise Brown. Artist Greg Pizzoli used custom rubber stamps to create the illustrations. Can you see where the different color prints overlap? Can you see the natural texture of the print? Does Greg Pizzoli have a cat? Even tiny imperfections in the printing ink (like a stray bit of pet hair!) can affect the way it prints.
These days, it’s rare to see a book wholly illustrated with handmade prints. Artists working traditionally will often use a paint wash to fill in colors, while the print makes a distinct looking outline. Or, sometimes, print textures can fill in background space while pen or pencil take care of the details. However, it’s now most common to see hand-printed elements incorporated into digital compositions. No matter where you find them, you can count on printmaking to deliver visual interest and organic textures!