Printmaking 101

By Eric Hope on January 30, 2014
Photo from Eric Hope courtesy of East City Art.
Eric Hope trying his hand at silkscreening at Open Studio DC in Trinidad NE.  Photo by Eric Hope courtesy of East City Art.


By Eric Hope

Originally published in the East City Art Winter 2013-2014 Quarterly Guide to the Visual Arts


Whether for yourself or for others, art makes the perfect gift.  Isn’t browsing a gallery or artist market much more stimulating than a trip to the mall?  Or perhaps you’re not in the gift-giving frame of mind, but are intent on starting your own art collection.  In either case, there are relatively inexpensive options for you in the world of printmaking.  Prints often offer the budding collector a softer price point than paintings or sculptures and can be just as unique and visually edifying.   Making sense of the world of prints can be confusing, so to begin explaining the different types, we’ve turned to artists in the field to discuss their preferred techniques.

The basement of Jenny Freestone’s Takoma Park home is a contraption-laden space that fills several rooms with ink rollers, various presses and shelves of heavy paper.  A graduate of Humberside University in England, Freestone moved to the US in 1996 and is currently a Vice President of the Washington Printmakers Gallery in Silver Spring, MD.  She’s amassed a wealth of technical tools over the years, but what strikes me most are the walls around the basement covered in photographs, drawings and natural materials like dried flowers and lonesome twigs.  Looking around the room, I begin to get inklings of Freestone’s aesthetic, which she describes as images rooted in small pockets of the natural world perhaps overlooked by the harried observer.  Freestone seeks to convey emotional sentiment embedded in visual imagery, and she uses different techniques to convey those feelings, including etching, drypoint, lithography and photogravure.

Freestone intuits (correctly I’m afraid) that I’m getting lost in all these terms, so we start with the basics.  Printmaking at its core involves four components as follows:  ink, paper, a matrix (the surface upon which the ink is placed) and pressure exerted by a press or hand.  While inks and the choice of paper can be widely used across print types, it is the matrix — its type and treatment — that roughly define the end technique that is used.  Typical materials for a matrix include copper or zinc (used in various types of etchings) to stone (lithography) or even wood (for the aptly named woodcut).  Also considered by the artist are the three ways in which ink can be applied to the paper:  directly from the surface of the matrix, from grooves dug into the surface of the matrix, or from raised (relief) areas of the matrix.

The end “look” or affect the artist envisions determines which type of process s/he utilizes.  Freestone notes that, “there’s a huge difference between a crisp, etched line and soft lithographic line.”  To illustrate this notion, she walks me through the steps of two of her preferred techniques. Those “soft lines” in a lithograph begin with a matrix of stone upon which the artist creates the desired image in a layer of wax.  Once the image is complete, Freestone then wets the stone and applies her ink.  The waxed sections of stone attract ink while the bare, wet surface repels it.  The paper is then placed on top of the stone and run through a lithographic printing press, creating a mirror image from the waxed stone surface.  The process can be repeated with different colors to create a multi-hued image.

For a different visual effect, Freestone uses a variety of intaglio techniques (from the Italian word “to carve”) that involve the removal of surface area and/or the gouging of lines into the metal.  A drypoint involves using a burr or other sharp instrument to shape a groove within a metal matrix.  Freestone also works in etchings where the entire matrix is coated with a wax layer called a ground that is cut away, revealing the metal underneath.  When the matrix is placed in an acid bath, the acid eats away at the metal, while leaving the waxed parts intact, creating a similar effect to that of the drypoint.  The matrix is then inked and wiped clean, leaving ink only in the gouged areas of the plate.  Intense pressure in the etching press forces the paper up into those impressions, drawing out the ink and creating an image on the paper.

Freestone’s preferred techniques have a lengthy history of fine art traditions from which to draw inspiration.  To sample what I believed was a more modern take on printmaking, I turned to screen printer Carolyn Hartmann, owner of the Open Studio DC, located just off the H Street, NE Corridor.  Open Studio DC provides access to its specialized equipment to local artists, and hosts workshops to teach the fundamentals of screen printing.  In addition to running Open Studio, she also teaches screen printing techniques at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Hartmann was quick to dispel my incorrect assumption that screen printing is a 20th century upstart.  According to Hartmann, the screen printing process has been used in industrial applications for hundreds of years, chiefly in the creation of patterned textiles.  What did occur in the twentieth century was the introduction of water-based inks that made the process much safer to use, which in part led to its adoption in the mid-twentieth century by artists such as Robert Raushenberg and Andy Warhol.  “It became a method of making fine art rather than just a commercial process,” Hartmann tells me.   What is slightly unique to this process is how creating the screen print matrix lends itself to contemporary media such as photography and graphic design.  Also, it is in some ways a faster process for a new artist to grasp; indeed, she had me creating my own (albeit simple) screen print during our interview.

The screen printing process will resonate with someone versed in the intaglio process.   First, the artist designs a stencil — as simple as a paper cutout or as complex as photograph or similar image digitally manipulated with computer software – which is transferred onto transparent plastic.  Next, a fine mesh screen is covered in a water-based, light sensitive emulsion and allowed to dry.  The screen and stencil are vacuum-sealed in a specialized light box (think of it as a tanning bed for art) and the light “bakes” the emulsion creating a tough, impenetrable coating on the screen.  Areas of the emulsion covered by the stencil are not hardened, and a high pressure water spray is used to wash the stenciled areas off the matrix.

The matrix is now ready for use.  The screen is placed on a work surface and with a technique known as “registration” a test print of sorts is made on a sheet of plastic which serves to subsequently line up the paper for printing.  Using a squeegee, the artist applies pressure, “pulls” the ink down across the screen and voila, a print is made!  I was surprised at how quickly one could go from stencil to basic screen print, and Hartmann notes that this is one reason why a particular artist might favor this process over other printing types.  “It comes down to personality,” she tells me, noting for example that an artist who takes pleasure in detailed drawing might gravitate towards etching over screen printing.

While the basics are easily grasped, screen printing can involve highly complex processes.  Around the studio are projects in various stages which hint at screen printing’s sophistication.  Hartmann shows me works I assume are photographs until she points to subtle lines left in place by the artist to underscore its handmade nature.  Other pieces explode in riots of color, the result of an elaborate mix of multiple screens and colors.   Screen printing’s strength as a process lies in its almost limitless versatility and adaptability to the artist’s vision.

So where does this leave the budding collector? Both Hartmann and Freestone point out that one attribute of printmaking most beneficial to buyers on a limited budget is the fact that artists generally create multiple impressions from a single plate (known as an edition).  The production of the same image in a series leads to a lower price point.   While an edition has a limited number of runs, each image in the edition will vary slightly, making each impression unique.  In this regard, the collector will indeed have his/her own, discrete piece.   Both professionals advise potential collectors to engage with artists and learn more about their practice before purchasing work. Hartmann wisely notes the importance of determining if the print is “hand-pulled” by the artist or digitally reproduced by a machine printer.   Shop critically, and you’ll be on your way to an art collection that fills your walls while still being friendly to your wallet!

For more information about the Jenny Freestone and/or classes at Open Studio DC, we encourage you to visit the following websites: