Making an impression: Your quick guide to understanding print types

Dear Collectors,

Prints represent some of the richest opportunities for collectors today. The medium is accessible, always evolving and as diverse as can be, but it’s also nuanced. With all the terminology and technologies, the world of printmaking can be bewildering. To help you busy collectors, we’ve devised a super quick breakdown of the five kinds of printmaking. Read on to nail the basics.

Relief Printing

Think: woodblock and linocut prints.

Relief printing is like using a stamp. Where the artist gouges away the matrix (the surface which bears the artist’s design), is where the paper is left blank – meaning the design is transferred by the untouched areas of the wood or linoleum.

Check out these relief prints if you like… vital, bold but pared back design. In the canon sits Eric Thakes's endearing linocut 'The Plume Hunter', and David Frazer’s tiny wood engraving ‘Night Train’

Intaglio printing (pronounced in-ta-lio)

Think: etching, engraving, aquatint and mezzotint.

Intaglio printing involves an artist making indentures onto a plate. Ink then sits in these crevices and transfer to the page during the printing process.

Check out these intaglio prints if you like… distinctiveness. There’s the blissful figure of Mark Schaller’s multi process soft and hard ground etching and aquatint ‘The Tempest – Sanguine’ (above), and Charles Blackman’s etching and aquatint ‘Dancing Children – blue’ (below), the former cast in tangerine, the latter in celestial blues.


Lithography utilises the incompatibility of water and oil. Artists draw with grease crayons then dampen the plate. Because water repels oil, the ink only adheres to the drawing and that is where the design will impress.
Check out these lithographs if you like… complexity. With lithography, ready yourself for some intricate images. In James Gleeson’s colour lithograph  ‘Judgement of Paris V’ disembodied bodies gather, while in Euan Macleod’s ‘Person Walking by a Red Mountain (Black)’ there is only one figure – part immersed in thought, part immersed in the landscape.

Serigraphs (pronounced ser-i-graf)

Think: Screen printing and stencil graffiti.

Serigraphs are produced by an artist cutting a design to make a stencil. This is then placed over the paper and covered with ink or paint. Where the paper is exposed is where the print will be. One color is printed at a time, so several screens can be used to produce a multi-coloured image.

Check out these serigraph prints if you like… impact. Serigraphs are all about delivering a bam with minimal colours and detail. Just see Brett Whiteley’s poetic screen print ‘Lavender Bay in the Rain’ printed with four colours. There’s also John Coburn’s divine seasonal abstraction ‘Spring’ printed with nine colours.

Fine Art Digital Printing

Think: Archival pigment print on paper.

The newest edition to the printmaking family – digital printmaking – uses the latest technology and archival grade materials. Digital printing allows for the output of digital art of all types. Some artists use photography as their starting point while others create within the computer, or a combination of both.  Digital printing may refer to an original or reproduction process. Originality is not inherent in the medium as it is with an etching for example. That being said, many digital prints are indeed original and very contemporary works of art. 

Check out these digital prints if you like… clarity. One of the advantages of digital printing is how crisp and rich the image can be. In Peter Bainbridge’s ‘Valentina’, a woman made of rolling shapes fills the frame while Tim Silver’s conceptual work of art  ‘Untitled (Adrift)’ flirts with ephemerality.

We’ve kept it super brief, so if want to know more hold tight for our series profiling each technique. In the meantime, there’s this gorgeous animated handbook from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

So, what’s your favourite technique?

Happy Collecting!

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