What is a print?

It’s Print Week here in New York, so that means it’s time to focus on a lesser known and definitely under-appreciated form of making art, which is called printmaking.

Now I’m sure most of you have already closed your browsers or are mid-yawn, but we’re here to make the claim that printmaking is actually exciting. And not just today. It’s been exciting all along!

what is a print

Some of you may be thinking, I know what a print is … it’s when you take a photo of a painting and then print out a copy on an Epson. That’s a print, right? Well, technically yes, but let’s refer to those as Reproduction Prints. Reproduction have their advantages, allowing artists to reach a wider audience with their work at a more accessible price point. However, in this post, we’re going to focus on traditional printmaking, which has a much richer history, is much more closely tied to the hand of the artist, and has a vastly more complex taxonomy of processes.

Let’s hit the top of the trees in traditional printmaking and cover the four main types: Woodcut, Etching, Lithography, and Screen Printing.

Want to learn more about printmaking? Speak to a Sugarlift Art Expert about  adding it to your collection!


Perhaps the earliest form of printmaking, woodcuts have been used for over 2,000 years to create fine art, playing cards and communications. The process begins with a wood block, into which an artist carves an image using a gouge. The artist actually is carving away space she would not like to print ink so that when the plate is inked and then printed onto paper, the areas that are carved away do not transfer any ink. Woodcuts can range from bold, single-layered prints like German Expressionist Emil Nolde, to multi-layered gradient woodblocks like Japanese ukiyo-e style works.

Here are some of our favorite examples of Woodcut prints:

what is a print

Christiane Baumgartner, “Schkeuditz IV”, Woodcut, 2005

what is a print

Emil Nolde, “Prophet”, Woodcut, 1912

what is a print

Katsushika Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, Polychrome Woodblock Print, 1830-32

what is a print

Edvard Munch, “The Kiss IV (Kyss IV)”, woodcut, 1897-1902


Etching was invented about 1,500 years after the first woodcut. As the story goes, armor smiths wanted to find a way to store the information of beautiful designs etched into their armor. One way of accomplishing this was to ink the armor and then press paper against it, causing the ink to transfer the design so that apprentices could keep up their trademark styles for generations. The basic process of etching involves a flat, metal plate -- typically either copper or zinc -- which is coated in a waxy material called a ground. An image is drawn into the ground, revealing the surface of the metal, which when dipped into an acid bath, eats away at the metal, forming a trough. When the plate is inked and wiped, the ink remains in the trough and can then be transferred to the paper when run through the press.

Etching can capture delicate line quality such as these contemporary prints by Julie Mehretu and also beautiful gradients of shading through a process called aquatint (Sugarlift is actually a form of aquatint!) like these examples from Picasso and Goya.

Here are some of our favorite examples etchings:

what is a print

Pablo Picasso, “The Frugal Repast (Le Repas Frugal)”, Etching, 1904

what is a print

Francisco Goya, “Giant Seated in a Landscape”, Burnished aquatint with scraping strokes of 'lavis', 1818

what is a print

Rembrandt, “The Three Trees”, Etching with drypoint and engraving, 1643

what is a print

Julie Mehretu, “Auguries”, 12 panel 10 color etching, 2010


The term lithography is derived from the ancient Greek “lithos” meaning stone and “graphy” meaning to write. It was invented just before the turn of the 19th century in Germany as an inexpensive alternative to print images or text. The process of lithography is pretty complicated, so we won’t get into the weeds here, but think of it as the 19th century equivalent of Screen Printing. The Warhols of the time, like Toulouse-Lautrec were using this form of commercial printing (think Martini and Rossi) to create their own works of art that could reach a wider audience as a more accessible price point.

Here are some of our favorite examples of Lithography:

what is a print

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “The Seated Clowness", Crayon, brush, splatter lithograph with scraper printed in five colors, 1896

what is a print

Robert Rauchenberg, “Accident”, Lithograph, 1963

what is a print

Ellsworth Kelly, “Yellow over Dark Blue”, Lithograph on Paper, 1964-5

what is a print

David Hockney, “Lithograph of Water Made of Lines, A Green Wash, and a Light Blue Wash”, Lithograph, 1978-80


Another commercial printing process appropriated by the fine art community, screen printing (aka silk-screen printing or serigraphy) is the newest to the scene and probably the most abundant example of printmaking today. In fact, it’s still heavily used in commercial printing -- that t-shirt you got for completing that half-marathon, yep, screen-printed. The process involves creating a screen with a form of stencil on top. The stencil blocks certain areas of the screen, so when ink is applied to the screen, it only makes its way through certain areas. Like other forms of printmaking, this method can be layered to create very complex works.

Some of our favorite screen prints include:

what is a print

Ed Ruscha, “Standard Station”, 1966, Color screen print

what is a print

Andy Warhol, “Marilyn Monroe”, 10 screenprints, 1967

what is a print

Ryan McGinness, “Geometric Primitives (Painting 2)”, Acrylic on Canvas, 2012

what is a print

James Nares, Thump, 10 Color Screenprint, 2009


So that is a brief intro to printmaking. There are many combinations of the above styles and many new processes being invented every day. Next time you are in a museum and see a work on paper, make sure to take a closer look and try to figure out how it was made. And look out for prints from contemporary artists -- many of the best artists are also printmakers. Prints are a great way to start collecting contemporary artists at a more accessible price point.

Want to see more printmaking this weekend? Check out these two print fairs, up through this weekend:

IFPDA (The International Art Fair for Prints & Editions)

E/AB (Editions and Artist Books Fair)


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