Printmaking Techniques Explained: What exactly is an 'original print'?

The term ‘original print’ can be a confusing one, not helped by the frequent use of the word ‘print’ when referring to mass reproductions.


Put simply, an original print is an image that has been transferred by hand from one surface to another. The image is drawn, etched or engraved into a surface such as a plate, block or stone, which is then inked up and printed by hand, transferring the image onto paper. There will typically be a small number of this same impression produced, and always in a limited edition; the number of prints in an edition is fixed and cannot be added to later down the line. Original prints are not a reproduction of an original - each numbered print is an individual, handcrafted part of the whole edition, each ever so slightly different from the last.


If you're a little stuck on the difference between an original print and a reproduction, a good question to ask yourself is ‘Where is the original?’ If you’re looking at a Picasso poster on sale in a gift shop, or a high quality photograph of an original painting, you’re dealing with a reproduction of an original artwork of which only one exists. With original prints, the original artwork is the print itself; the work does not exist elsewhere in any other form.


[Left]: Example of intaglio printmaking, Dolores De Sade RE. [Right]: Example of relief printmaking, Angie Lewin RWS RE.


Why should I buy an original print?

There are many reasons why original prints are the perfect way to start or add to your art collection. It is near impossible to achieve the same result of a print with any other medium; each printing method offers exciting, distinct and unique qualities that are unlike any marks that could be made through drawing or painting.


Additionally, as there are often several impressions, original prints are typically a much more affordable option to, say, a painting - making them a perfect solution if you're wanting to start an art collection on a budget.


Check out some wonderful original prints made by artists of the RE, available to buy in our online store.


What are the different printmaking techniques?

There are six basic printmaking methods: intaglio (eg. etching, engraving, mezzotint and drypoint), relief (eg. woodcut, linocut and engraving), screenprinting, lithography, monoprint and digital print. We'll walk you through each of these below...



An imprint produced by a method in which ink is rubbed into the grooves of a design made in a printing plate (usually metal or collaged). Printing is carried out, often on damp paper, using an etching press to force the damp paper into the inked grooves of the plate to pick up the impression. Developed since the 16th century, intaglio processes have been used by artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya and lend themselves to fine line work as well as to deeply textured or embossed images.


Relief Printmaking

An impression produced by carving away an image on the surface of a printing plate and applying ink over the top. The uncut surface is the area which is inked and printed; the cut (or indented) areas do not pick up ink and show as the paper colour.



Printing using a frame covered in a fine taut mesh through which ink is forced onto paper (or other material) beneath. Areas of the screen are masked off using handmade/hand-drawn or photographic stencils to define an image. Ink is dragged over the stencil on the mesh using a long rubber blade called a squeegee. The squeegee forces an even distribution of ink to pass through the open areas of the stencil and onto the paper/other material.


Multi-colour images are created by using a different screen with a new stencil for each colour. The technique was popularized as an artists’ medium by American Pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the 1960s, though the basic technique seems to date back to c500 BC in Japan.



A printing process developed in Bavaria in c1796 by Alois Senefelder, which relies on the antipathy of grease and water. The image is drawn onto a limestone block or special metal plate, using a greasy crayon or ink (tusche). The greasy image is chemically fixed to the plate allowing the colour of the crayon/ink to be washed off the stone/plate before printing commences. The plate is then dampened with water and rolled with oil-based ink. The oily ink adheres to the grease of the image areas and is repelled by the water in the non-image areas of the plate. Under the pressure of a special press, the image is printed onto paper. Each colour requires a separate plate and a separate print run. There are also photographic litho processes.


The technique became popular with French artists including Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s and was widely used by 20th century artists. The technique lends itself especially well to subtle painterly marks and effects made with crayons and brushes.


Monoprints & Monotypes

A monoprint or monotype is essentially a one-off print. A monoprint is an impression printed from a reprintable block, such as a lino block or etching plate, but printed in such a way that only one of its kind exists, e.g. a printed image incorporating unique hand colouring or collage or monotype.


A monotype is a one-off print, a unique impression printed off card, glass, perspex, metal or any other flat surface; it cannot be repeated in identical form as it is not made from a block or other semi-permanent printing matrix.


Typically, the artist makes a drawing in printing ink onto a Perspex, metal or card plate. When the drawing is complete and before the ink has time to dry, he/she lays a sheet of paper on top of the wet ink and transfers image from plate to paper via a printing press or by rubbing the back of the paper with a spoon. Monotypes allow the artist to work in a very spontaneous, direct manner and often have a painterly look.


Digital Printmaking

A digital print is any print produced on a computer. An artist’s digital print is not a reproduction but a limited edition work of art that does not exist in any other form. Artists create the image using computer software or, more often, they scan in a drawing, photograph, painting or traditionally generated print, then manipulate the image on computer screen to create an entirely new image which is then printed using a computer printer of some sort.


Prints initially created digitally can also be printed as etchings, lithographs, screenprints etc using photographic processes.



For a more in depth exploration of the different printmaking techniques, head over to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers' website: Printmaking Explained.


More like this on the Blog...

Read: What does 'RE' mean anyway? ...and more FAQ's about the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers

Read: The Printmakers Glossary: Screen & Stone

Read: Straight from the printmaker's mouth

Quiz: What type of printmakers are you?

Read / Watch: Linocut Printing: In the Studio with Anita Klein

Read / Watch: Relief Printing: In the Studio with Trevor Price

October 27, 2021