Printmaking Explained III: a guide to printmaking by Brendan Flynn

in the final part of our series on printmaking, RBSA Art Historian Brendan Flynn explores the different methods involved in relief printing.

Relief printing is a process where the artist cuts or etches a surface so that all that remains is the design to be printed.

You’ll find contemporary examples at our forthcoming Print Prize Exhibition, which is on until 1 September. Many works are for sale – browse prints and prices at our Flickr album ahead of visiting!

Wood cut

Peter Ford, 'Finding Filonov'

Peter Ford, ‘Finding Filonov’, Woodcut Monoprint on handmade paper, £1,200

Wood cut is based on the principle that areas the artist removes will print white while the uncut areas of the block will pick up the ink from the roller and print black (or whatever colour is used).

It is one of the oldest forms of printmaking and uses a smooth piece of pine or other softwood. Unlike etching, it does not require a printing press and the image from the block can be easily transferred to paper using hand pressure or by burnishing with a smooth implement like the back of a dessert spoon.

Many artists prefer to use a press, especially when editioning, but the press can be relatively low pressure. The method was ideal for use with letterpress and for this reason was used to illustrate early printed books.

Wood engraving

Hilary Paynter, 'Herculaneum'

Hilary Paynter, ‘Herculaneum’, Wood Engraving, £240

Some of the techniques are the same as wood cut, but instead of knives and gouges, engraving tools are used to remove areas of wood to create extremely fine lines, textures and details. Very hard end grain wood is used, often pearwood. Like wood-cut, it is often combined with letterpress for book illustration.

The most famous practitioner was Thomas Bewick (1753 – 1828) and today Hilary Paynter Hon. RBSA is considered one of the leading artists in the field.


Roy Willingham, Ile de la Citie, linocut, £170

Roy Willingham, ‘Ile de la Citie’, Linocut, £170

The lino, about 6mm thick, is gently warmed to make the surface soft and the image is created by cutting away the surface, like woodcut using blades and gouges. The ink is applied using a roller and the image transferred to the paper using hand pressure or low-pressure printing press.

Linocut lends itself to multi-colour printing with the block sub-divided to receive separate colours or several blocks made to overlay the image which is held in position by clips or pins to obtain accurate registration.


Tom Harforth, 'Spruce and Ridge 3', Screenprint and Collage, £360

Tom Harforth, ‘Spruce and Ridge 3’, Screenprint and Collage, £360

Also known as serigraphy, screen-printing is a popular method of printmaking which has only been accepted as a Fine Art medium since the 1960s. Prior to that it was used for industrial packaging, advertising and signage.

In its simplest form, cut-out stencils are applied to a tautly stretched screen of silk or acrylic. The screen is laid onto the paper or textile surface and fluid ink is placed onto the back of the screen and forced through the silk onto the paper using a wide rubber squeegee. The stencilled areas print white (or the colour of the paper).

During the 1960s, artists like Andy Warhol perfected the method of using photographic stencils by projecting the design onto a photo-sensitised screen which is then fixed and can be used repeatedly. All the British Pop artists used it – notably Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Joe Tilson and  Peter Phillips (Hon RBSA).


Niamh Fahy, 'Across Borders' Relief, Lithography and Digital Embroidery, £690

Niamh Fahy, ‘Across Borders’ Relief, Lithography and Digital Embroidery, £690

The term lithograph means drawing on stone and the technique relies upon the resistance of oil to water.  The artist draws the design upon a flat slab of limestone using an oil-based crayon. The stone is then soaked in water which sinks into the surface but is resisted by the waxy crayon. It is then inked up with an oil- based ink using a roller and the ink will stick to the crayon lines but be repelled by the damp areas. The stone is passed through a press and the image transferred to a rubber roller from which it is printed onto the paper.

This is called an “offset” process which allows the artist’s drawing to be reproduced the right way round and captures every nuance of the drawing style. It is a low-pressure method of printing and is good for producing large quantities without obvious deterioration of quality which is why it was used for printing theatre and concert posters. Textured zinc plates are often used nowadays instead of limestone.


David Spurrier RBSA, 'Fractured Landscape', Collograph, £195

David Spurrier RBSA, ‘Fractured Landscape’, Collograph, £195

An image is created using textured materials glued down onto a flat base of board or heavy card. All sorts of low-relief materials can be used:  sandpaper, tissue, string, textiles, leaves and feathers. Once the glue is dry it can be inked up or painted with a brush, sponge or roller and passed through a press or burnished by hand.

The collage can be partially wiped so that only the ink trapped in the lines or textured surfaces will print. The effects can be dramatic, and if treated with a household varnish the plate is robust enough to be reused to create small editions.

The artist Suzie Mackenzie who has been a frequent exhibitor at the RBSA is one of the leading exponents of collagraph in Britain.

Susan Mackenzie, 'End of the Line

Susan Mackenzie, ‘End of the Line’, Collograph and Chine Colle, £185

The works featured above are part of our forthcoming Print Prize Exhibition, which opens on 26 July.

The RBSA Permanent Collection includes works by notable printmakers, including the late Paul Hipkiss – considered a master of linocut – and Harry Eccleston, one of the greatest engravers of his generation.

Banner Image: Niamh Fahy, ‘Growing Further’, Relief and Lithography, £750

Our biennial Print Prize exhibition aims to champion and celebrate the exciting range of contemporary printmakers producing original printed artworks within the UK. Selected artists also have the opportunity to be rewarded for their talents, with a top cash prize of £1,000! Entries will be judged by Leonie Bradley, Editor of Printmaking Today, and Mychael Barrett, past president of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.

#woodcut #screenprinting #linocut #printmaking #woodengraving

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All