Techniques for Works on Paper
By Patrick Christensen
As so often happens when one seeks a topic to write about, the answer presented itself when a GasLamp colleague asked me about lithographs and then a customer asked me about engravings/mezzotints.
The process for each printing technique can be confusing, especially when other techniques for so-called "works on paper" also include etching and silk screening. There are several more printing techniques, such as intaglio, woodcut and dry point, but these are simply variations on the first four processes listed above.
Probably the most common printing technique is lithography. The first example that comes to mind is antique posters, such as the early circus or movie posters of the turn of last century. Such a process was used any time multiple colors were needed.
In lithography, a design is drawn with a grease-based medium, which is applied to a polished stone or metal plate. The areas on the stone that are not covered in the greasy medium will accept colored inks and this is what will be impressed on the paper. Each color in the picture is applied this way, with the artist being careful, or not, to overlap color fields with each successive impression. Depending on the thickness of the ink, different color values can be achieved, making the finished product vibrant with virtually unlimited colors.
Engraving/mezzotint is a relatively simple process, but it requires tremendous talent to execute. Basically, design is incised into a copper plate is incised with a tool known as a burin. This steel tool resembles a screwdriver except that the tip is V-shaped; it can lightly graze the copper sheet for a thin line or gouge deeply for a wider ink line. Once a design is created on the copper plate (in the mirror image of what will ultimately print on paper), the plate is inked with a roller and the plate in pressed onto the paper with great force.
Engravings/mezzotints will show an impressed border where the copper plate literally crushed the paper. Generally speaking, engravings are rendered in black ink. However, metallic inks are used as well. A piece from my personal collection is twice photographed (see, above right), and shows a 16" by 20" engraving/mezzotint by Kiyoshi Hasegawa (1891-1980), which exhibits the artist’s attention to the smallest of details and the use of difficult to achieve fine lines.
Etching involves a copper plate as well, except that it is covered in wax and the design is carved into the wax. The piece is then submerged in an acid solution, with the acid eating away only the exposed copper. The wax is then removed and the copper plate is used to print on paper, just as with engraving.
Silk screening is a great process for making multiples of a single image. Possibly the most prolific artist who used the silk screening method was Andy Warhol (1928-1987). This process involves using a rubber squeegee to force paint or ink through a silk mesh onto the paper, with non-inking areas protected by a template. Each colored pigment is screened separately, and in the case of Warhol, overlapped to great effect. Upon close inspection, the tiny squares of the screen can sometimes be seen in the printed ink. Also from my personal collection is Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper (photos, left, 29" by 47") with the two photographs beautifully showing the silk screening method while incorporating just four colors: blue, yellow, black, and apple-green.
Hopefully, the next time you are looking at a work on paper, you will be able to determine whether it is a lithograph, an engraving/mezzotint, an etching, or a silk screen and appreciate the work that went into its creation. Keep your loupe handy … the clues are in the details!