Methods of print have evolved alongside art for centuries, with artists continually searching for and experimenting with ways to duplicate images and fabric designs in the most efficient and accurate way possible. From simple stencils through to modern, highly tuned and computer controlled printers there have been many iterations of the ideal methodology for art printing. A few of them stand out though, whether for their quality, or for the artists who adopted them to create some of the most well known works of art we have, and to help bring art out of the art gallery and into every home.
Screen printing; simple stencils and inks
Though still often used today by many artists, particularly those looking for a more organic and hand-made feel to their art prints, silk screen printing was first created over a thousand years ago in China; it is quite unusual amongst printing techniques for not using any kind of printing plate or stone.
Screen prints are created using stencils, which can be made as simply as cutting an image into a piece of card. This stencil is then laid against the paper or fabric, a fine mesh screen is placed on top of it, and the ink is spread across the screen with a tool similar to a squeegee, creating the art print. Often used by pop art artists including Warhol and Lichtenstein, the method has continued to evolve with technology, such as exposing a light sensitive emulsion to a negative print; this allows highly detailed and photo-accurate creation of stencils often used in products such as clothing and merchandise.
Etching; acid burning an image into a plate
The first etchings created for print were developed by artists in the 1500s, and though it is a method rarely used today, for a long time print was only possible through methods such as etchings or woodcuts. Unfortunately these required the artist to become skilled in the technique themselves rather than being able to hand it over to a printer.
Etching is one of many plate-based printing techniques, and shouldn’t be mistaken for engraving, which requires the artist to etch a design directly into a metal plate to hold the ink. Etching requires the plate to be covered with a waxy coating, and the artist then draws a design into that, revealing the metal plate beneath. This is then placed into an acid bath which eats into the uncoated metal leaving an etched design.
This improves on engraving various ways; the wax is easier to work with than the metal, even allowing some mistakes to be remedied, and the strength of the acid and length of the bath allow for variations in depth and width of the etched marks, enabling basic shading. Many old master painters used the technique and you can see exceptional examples of it in any London art gallery; perhaps most famously the work of Rembrandt who attained exceptional ability and craftsmanship in creating etched art prints.
Lithographic printing, sometimes referred to as offset print, uses plates which are coated in inks to create an image on paper or other materials; however the process of creating the printing plates is highly intensive and exacting to draw exceptional quality print reproductions.
Created in 1798, pioneered by Toulouse-Lautrec, and used by artists like Miró, Hockney, and Jasper Johns, the lithographic process traditionally uses a stone printing plate, carefully ground to a flat surface and treated with an acid wash. An image is then created on the plate by drawing on it with grease based tools such as lithographic crayons or inks. The stone then goes through layering and washes of talc, resin, liquid-etch solutions, gum arabic, and mineral spirits. At the end of this process ink applied to the stone will stick wherever the grease was laid, and be repelled by other parts of the stone, enabling use as a printing plate.
Whilst delivering beautiful results, the incredibly complicated process makes lithographic art printing a highly skilled process, which still excluded most artists from utilising it. Modern technology such as photography and computers have simplified the process and made it much more affordable in the modern age, though now it is often eclipsed by a newer method.
Giclée Printing; the peak of digital techniques
Heading up the modern digital methods of printing is Giclée, which developed in the early 1990’s as digital was starting to become a very cost efficient alternative to traditional printing technique, but sometimes at the cost of quality.
The Giclée method (named after the French for nozzle; gicleur) uses a highly calibrated and colour controlled high resolution digital printer. Using it with archival inks and papers delivers a superb standard in digital printing which remains very cost efficient compared to the art print alternatives available for fine artists and illustrators.
Of course there are also specialist modern techniques such as lenticular print; all the pieces in our art gallery are printed on-site at our workshop in Kent, just outside London, digitally printing specialist UV inks onto lenticular lenses.