There are two main processes of early print making: relief and intaglio. Lithography was invented in the 18th century as a cheaper process of mass printing. In relief processes the negative is either cut or etched away, leaving the design, or positive image, standing in relief, and that is the printing surface. In intaglio printing the opposite is the case; the design is cut or etched away. Printing ink is applied to the surface then wiped clean, leaving ink in the incisions or grooves. Enormous pressure is then required to press the paper onto the printing surface. In lithography the image is applied to a printing surface, usually a stone surface, with fat, oil or wax.
- Woodcut, also called Woodblock. The print design is carved in relief along the grain of a block of soft wood. When the design is inked and pressed onto paper, it leaves an impression of itself. This is the oldest method for producing prints – it was used to impress designs on ceramics and textiles in ancient Egypt, Babylon and China. The first Woodcut prints appeared in Europe at the beginning of the fifteenth 15th century. It is possible to pick up some wonderful antique woodcut prints for reasonable prices, though the classics of the genre, by Pfister, Dürer and Holbein the younger are astronomically expensive. By the 18th century, wood cut technique was no longer being used.
- Copper Engraving. An intaglio print-making method – in other words the design is engraved into the plate using a graver or burin. Then the plate is inked and cleaned, but some ink remains in the engraved lines; when the plate is pressed onto paper under high pressure, it is this ink which is absorbed by the paper to produce the print impression.
- Mezzotint. Method of copper or steel engraving which enables prints to benefit from tones. Mezzotint was invented by a Dutch military officer, Ludwig von Siegen in the middle of the 17th century, and popularised in Britain in the 18th century. It involves engraving the whole surface of the plate with a curved, sawtoothed tool. Every shade from black to white is achievable, but there is no line drawing, so mezzotint technology was ideal for producing reproduction prints of famous artworks. Mezzotint was superseded by photoengraving.
- Wood Engraving. A print-making technique in which prints in negative, popularised in Britain by Thomas Bewick. Gustave Doré was the leading French exponent of the art in the 19th century, and some of William Blake’s most famous book illustrations were wood engravings. In England, John Swain and the Dalziel brothers were the most prolific producers of wood-engraved prints, and in 19th century US Alexander Anderson, William Linton and Timothy Cole were the leading engravers.
- Steel Engraving. In the 19th century, the price of copper was driven sky-high by new electrical applications for the metal, but the price of steel was dropping. So from 1820 printers switched from copper engraving to steel engraving. Steel had the added advantage of being much harder than copper, so the plates lasted much longer and more prints could be produced before they wore out. However, by the second half of the nineteenth (19th) century, steel engraving was threatened by the much cheaper process of photoengraving to produce prints.
- Photoengraving. The subject of the print or illustration is photographically recorded on a sensitised metal plate, which is then etched. Halftone effects are achieved by photographing through a wire screen to create a dotted patern. Larger dots hold more ink, and so are darker, areas with small dots are lighter. The finer the screen, the better quality the photo-engraving: 65 lines per inch is coarse, 150 lines per inch is fine.
- Etching. The process of etching uses acid instead of a burin to engrave a metal printing plate. Antique prints produced by this method are also called etchings. A layer of acid-resistant varnish is applied to the plate, which is made of zinc or copper. The artist uses a needle to expose the metal. When the plate is submerged in acid, the exposed lines are eaten into the plate. Light lines can be achieved by removing the plate part-way through etching and re-coating them with varnish. Dark lines occur when the acid eats most deeply. The plate is then cleaned, coated with ink, and used to produce prints.
- Drypoint. A similar print-making technique to etching, except the design is scratched directly into the plate, rather than into a varnish layer. Unlike engravings, drypoint lines are very shallow, but the burr raised by the needle is left, imparting texture to the print until the plate is worn. Dürer, Rembrandt, Whistler, and Picasso used drypoint technique, but if their prints are what you are looking for, you’ve come to the wrong website, I just do normal antique prints.
- Aquatint. Aquatint is a form of etching which looks very similar to a wash drawing. It can be combined with hard-ground etching
- Lithograph. The drawing is transferred to a stone plate with a greasy crayon or tusche. Ink sticks to the drawing, but not to the plate, so when the plate is pressed onto paper, the ink is absorbed, leaving an impression of the original drawing. Invented in the 18th century.
- Chromolithograph. A chromolithograph is a color lithograph in which each of many colors is printed by a separate stone.