Recently updated on January 27th, 2023 at 11:37 am
It is hard to imagine a world without the printed image. In our modern world of screens, images seem to bombard the senses. From Instagram to cereal boxes, our world is filled with printed images. Yet, if we step back even a hundred years ago, printed media has changed dramatically. From the way we consume images to the way they are produced, the evolution of printmaking has run in tandem with shifts in culture and ideas. Today, we’ll be examining the history of art and photography printing and image reproduction to discover how printmaking has developed through the centuries.
What is Printmaking?
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Before we go back to the origins of printmaking, let’s briefly discuss what print is. Printing is a process in which ink transfers from a matrix (the original image) onto a substrate, such as paper, to make multiple copies of the same image. Each printing technique uses matrixes of different materials resulting in distinct characteristics. For example, woodblock printing uses wood, while etched prints employ metal plates. This ability to make multiple copies from an original image has served as an accessible means of sharing ideas and art throughout history.
While many in Westen Europe think Gutenberg’s Bible started printing, examples of Han Dynasty printed silk have been dated from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. Woodblock printing is the oldest form of printing. With roots in ancient China, woodblock printing has been used throughout Asia for centuries to print on textiles and paper.
Woodblock printing entails creating a relief print that is carved into a block of wood. First, designs are sketched directly or transferred to the block on paper. Then, the artist carves out the image using chisels, gouges, or knives. Large prints may use multiple blocks which are put together during the printing process to create the final image. Once the woodblocks have been prepared, ink is thoroughly rolled over the wood. The raised elements of the carving absorb ink and then transfer the image to the desired substrate, such as silk or paper.
Woodblock printing paved the way for the invention of movable type. First introduced by the Chinese between 1041 and 1048, movable type enabled individual symbols, letters, or numbers to be combined and printed to create a single printed work. This revolutionary idea would spread across the world in the coming centuries, making book and printmaking much more accessible.
15th Century: The Western Printing Press
Printmaking came to Europe in the 15th century. Several technological innovations would see the proliferation of printed works possible. Prior to this time, most books in Europe were made from vellum, an expensive material made from animal hides. The silk road introduced Europeans to the Arabian and Chinese tradition of creating paper from wood pulp. Europeans of the 14th century improved on these methods by introducing water mills to stamp and pound the pulp more efficiently. The silk road also introduced Europeans to movable type, enabling the invention of Gutenberg’s famous printing press. Now printed books would become available to a growing number of people.
As literacy was not widespread, artists soon began to embellish printed works with bold, illustrative figures. Metal engraving, or intaglio printing, developed during this time. Intaglio printing uses tiny dots and cuts to engrave the negative image into the surface of a metal matrix. Working inverse to woodblock printing, ink is held in the matrix’s sunken areas and transferred to the paper substrate.
16th Century: Renaissance Printing
Image source: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/
The 16th century saw the rise of the master printmaker. As prints replaced medieval manuscripts, artists looked to antiquity for inspiration. From architectural models of ancient Roman buildings to ornamental designs, prints offered artists a new outlet to explore their creativity. The proliferation of the printed image popularised painters spread knowledge and facilitated new styles.
By far the most prominent engraver and printmaker of the age were Albrecht Dürer. Born in Germany, the artist traveled throughout renaissance Italy, working in a variety of print mediums, including woodcuts, etchings, drypoints, and metal engravings. Dürer’s influential work covered a vast range of subjects, including religion, history, mythology, and portraiture.
17th Century: Etching
The 17th century saw the rise of Raphael, another technical master, and engraver knew for creating etched reproductions of his famous works. Etching uses a metal matrix of copper, iron, or zinc as a base. First, the plate is polished before being coated with acid-resistant wax. Next, the artist uses an etching needle or stylus to draw the image on the wax surface and thus exposing the metal. Once complete, acid is applied to the surface, eating away at the exposed areas to create grooves. The depth and color of these lines can be altered based on how long or at what times the acid is applied. After the acid has done its work and the wax is removed, the plate is inked and run through the press like an engraved print.
18th Century: Pamphlet Society
The 18th century saw the proliferation of the pamphlet throughout Europe. The cheap and readily available pamphlets were used to spread political and social ideas, news, art, and satire. One of the most famous printmakers of this time was Britain’s, William Hogarth. Born in London to an unsuccessful schoolmaster, Hogarth apprenticed as a goldsmith, where he first began producing his own engraved designs. Best known for his works on modern moral subjects, Hogarth sold engraved prints of his work on subscription leading to a devoted following and influencing fellow artists and printmakers such as Thomas Rowlandson and William Blake.
19th Century: Lithographs
The turn of the 18th century would see a new printmaking technique rise to prominence. Lithography was introduced by German playwright Alois Senefelder after accidentally discovering he could duplicate his scripts by writing them with crayons on a slab of limestone.
Its ease of production and affordability made lithography an attractive printing style for a broad range of applications. These innovations in printing technology made color printing in increasingly larger sizes commercially viable. Bright posters could now be used for advertising, proving an effective means of distributing the graphic image.
20-21st Century: Modern Printing
Photography, screen printing, and digital innovation have all helped to define modern printmaking. As a result, today, artists have more options than ever before when it comes to printing and reproducing their work. Digital printing has made art reproduction faster and easier than ever before. C-type printing, first used for creating color photographs, can now be used to create stunning color images in large formats.
Giclee printing, first introduced in the 1990s, has become the gold standard in fine art reproductions. Using state-of-the-art inkjet printers, Giclee produces strikingly colorful works with an archival lifespan. As artists find new ways to incorporate technology into their work, we will continue to see printmaking experiment and evolve.