Graphic Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®


The term "graphic arts" usually refers to drawing and printmaking. It comes from the Greek graphikos, which means "able to draw or paint." The graphic arts include the techniques used to make prints. An artist makes prints when he wants several copies of a single drawing. He carves his drawing into a slab of metal or wood. He can also burn it into metal or stone with acid. He then inks the slab and prints it onto paper with a press. Many copies can be made, and each is an original work of art.

Pictures that we see in books or buy in printshops are not original works of art; they are reproductions. The original painting or drawing has been photographed and reproduced by mechanical methods. An artist's print, however, is original art because it has been made directly from the woodblock, plate, or stone that the artist himself prepared.

How Prints Are Made

There are three principal methods of making prints. The oldest is the relief method. In relief printing the print is made from a raised surface. Woodcuts are the most popular form of relief printing. The artist cuts from a block of wood with tools called gouges. He cuts away the background from his design. The raised design is then inked and printed.

A second printing method is called intaglio and is the reverse of relief printing. In intaglio printing, such as Etching, the print is made from the lines or areas which have been cut or burned away. After the drawing has been carved or etched into a metal plate, the plate is covered with ink, then rubbed with a clean rag to remove the ink from the raised surfaces. Damp paper is placed on top of the plate, and when paper and plate are run through the press, the paper lifts the ink from the lines.

The third method is known as the planographic process. The print is made from a flat surface that has not been etched or carved. Lithography is the most common type of planographic printing. Slabs of limestone are most frequently used, although lithographs can be made from metal sheets. A drawing is made on the stone with a greasy crayon. The stone is then treated with various materials that make all but the crayon lines resist ink. The greasy drawing absorbs ink. When the paper is printed, the image the artist drew is lifted from the stone.

Oriental Woodcuts

Woodcut printing is the oldest well-known graphic art. By the 7th century A.D. the Chinese had begun to make religious woodcut prints. However, Chinese artists never became print designers. Paintings of the Oriental masters were copied by highly skilled cutters, but original work was never designed especially for woodcuts. The Japanese learned woodcutting from the Chinese and Koreans. But unlike Chinese prints, Japanese designs were made especially for the woodcut. One man designed the print, another cut the block, and a third printed.

When Westerners think of Japanese prints, they most often have in mind those of the ukiyoe school. The first of these prints was created in black and white around A.D. 1660. About 80 years later the Japanese began printing in three colors. A separate block was needed for each color. Around 1765 the full color print, using 8 to 11 blocks, was developed.

The names associated with Japanese prints are those of the designers; the cutters and printers are unknown. The artist drew his design on thin paper that was glued to the block of wood as a cutting guide. After the cutter carved the block, the printer brushed on the ink.

One of the big differences between the Oriental and Western woodcut is the way changes of shade are made. In Eastern work, watercolor is brushed on the surface of the block as in a painting. In the West, shading is created by cut, or engraved, lines.

Early European Woodcuts

In Europe during the Middle Ages woodcuts were used to stamp fabric designs. The inked woodblocks were placed on top of the cloth and struck with hammers. Playing cards and religious pictures were the first products of European printers. After the invention of movable type, Bibles and history books were adorned with woodcut illustrations.

The Invention of Engraving

The art of engraving, an intaglio process, was developed around the beginning of the 15th century. In engraving, a pointed tool called a burin cuts lines into a copper or zinc plate. Decorative engraving on metal, such as armor, was an old practice, but it is not known who first pulled a print from an engraved plate. The process seems to have been discovered independently in Italy and Germany.

Italian goldsmiths used an engraving technique called niello, in which hollowed lines were filled with enamel. There is a legend that intaglio printing was discovered when a laundress set her wet wash down on some drying niello ware. When she lifted her wash, the enamel design had been printed on her laundry. It is more likely that the process came from the goldsmiths' custom of rubbing paper over their work as a record of the design.

The painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was the first great Italian engraver. A man who lived at the same time, Marcantonio Raimondi (1475?-1534?), became famous for his prints of the paintings of Raphael and other masters, and his copies of Dürer's prints.

Etching, Drypoint, and Wood Engraving

The leading graphic artist of northern Europe was Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a master of woodcut and engraving. In the second decade of the 16th century a new process, etching, was invented, and Dürer quickly tried it. Etchings are printed by the intaglio method used for engraving. But instead of the lines being gouged out by hand, the plate is covered with a solution called ground. When the ground dries, it protects the plate with a water-resistant film. The drawing is scratched through the ground with a needle, and the plate is placed in a bath of water and acid. Where the ground has been scratched away, the acid etches the metal. The first etchings were on iron and had lines of equal width. Today copper and zinc plates are used.

Dürer was among the first to try another new technique, drypoint. In drypoint a sharp needle scratches the design directly into the plate; no ground is needed. Drypoint is often combined with etching or engraving on one plate. It differs from engraving in that the line is printed from a rougher edge.

Wood engraving was also invented in the 16th century. It is relief-printed, as the woodcut, but the cross grain--the end rather than the top--of hardwood, such as box or cherry, is used. Also, engraving burins rather than gouges cut out the wood. A wood engraving usually is printed as white lines on black and a woodcut as black on a white background, but this is not a certain indication of the method used.

Prints in the 17th and 18th Centuries

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) kept a stable of engravers making plates of his work. He corrected the proofs but did none of the cutting. However, he may have made several etchings. His talented pupil, Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), etched the Iconography, a portrait series of the hundred most famous men of his day.

The Dutchman Hercules Seghers (1589?-1640?) is known for the imaginative and emotional quality of his work. He was a great technical experimenter, especially in color etchings. His work was admired and owned by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), considered by many to be the greatest etcher who ever lived. Rembrandt produced many works on various subjects: portraits, nudes, landscapes, religious themes, and still lifes. Before Rembrandt, prints were usually first designed in another medium, such as pencil or ink. But Rembrandt began working directly on the plate. This allowed him to express his ideas in one creative act. He was also a master of the drypoint.


The mezzotint technique of printmaking was invented in the middle of the 17th century in Germany. With a many-toothed tool called a rocker, the artist covers an entire copper plate with tiny dots. The plate then prints a solid black. Next the grain is ground away; the more an area is rubbed, the lighter it becomes. Mezzotint portraits were popular in England in the 18th century, and the technique was called "the English manner."

Soft-Ground Etching

In the 17th century a technique developed using soft ground. Soft ground is made of a wax or some other nonhardening substance. With this ground the artist can make softer lines than with hard ground. He places a piece of paper or fabric on top of the ground-coated plate and draws on it. The drawing lifts the ground from the plate. When the plate is etched, fuzzy lines are made.


Aquatint was a major advance in intaglio printing. Developed around 1768, this process produces a range of grainy values from silver-gray to intense black. A coating of special powder is dusted onto the plate and heated. The plate is protected by the powder, but the metal in between the grains of powder can be etched. The plate is etched a number of times until the desired darkness is achieved. Because the method was adaptable to color printing, it almost completely replaced the mezzotint color process.

Graphics in the 19th Century

The leading graphic artist at the beginning of the 19th century was the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746-1828). He perfected the aquatint and combined it with other techniques to create many powerful prints. His Disasters of War, a series of prints, depicts the evils of the Napoleonic wars. These prints are unusually vivid comments on misery and cruelty. Goya was an experimenter: late in his life he was among the first to try lithography, a new technique.


Lithography was invented about 1798 by Aloys (or Alois) Senefelder (1771-1834), a German. He made his discovery while seeking an inexpensive method of reproducing plays and musical scores. Lithography was first used for commercial purposes.

The lithograph first won popularity in France. It was less complicated and less costly to use than woodcuts or the intaglio process, and better suited to mass production. The new merchant class used it to print political propaganda, decorations for walls, and illustrations for books.

The hero of lithography is the French artist Honoré Daumier (1808-79). He drew more than 4,000 cartoon lithographs for the newspapers. Daumier understood human behavior very well. He attacked anyone who made him angry--lawyers and kings included. He went to jail in 1832 for his caricature of King Louis Philippe. The great French romantic painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) also produced a number of fine etchings and lithographs. But otherwise lithography fell into disuse.

Toward the end of the 19th century, three other French artists—Pierre Bonnard (1867- 1947), Jean Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), and especially Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)—put new life into color lithography. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters for the famous café the Moulin Rouge ("Red Mill") influenced later lithography, printing, and even painting.

Modern Graphics

The invention of photography and photo-engraving ended the use of prints to reproduce paintings. Techniques such as mezzotint are seldom used anymore. Other processes, such as line engraving, are now used to make original prints.

Since the end of World War I there has been a trend toward experimenting with the graphic techniques. By exploring all the possibilities of a process, artists make prints that are more than just reproduced drawings. The United States has been a center of this interest, but much of its force has come from Stanley William Hayter (1901-88), an Englishman. Located in Paris from 1927 to 1939, his Atelier 17 (Studio 17) encouraged experimentation, especially in intaglio. Hayter began to influence American graphics when he moved to the United States in 1940.

The main emphasis since World War II has been on color printmaking. Prints are made with combinations of techniques: one color may be printed from a woodblock, and another from an aquatint plate. Countless materials are used for printing: plaster, linoleum, rough-textured fabrics, and even dried glue. Glue prints are easily made at home on a piece of wood or heavy cardboard. A design is drawn with a tube of Duco cement or white wood glue. When the glue is thoroughly dry (which takes a day or two), it is inked with a roller. A piece of absorbent paper—such as newsprint or Japanese rice paper—is placed on top of the design and rubbed with the back of a wooden spoon. The design then appears on the paper. Many copies can be made in this way.


The newest printing medium, serigraphy, or silk screening, developed from one of the oldest, the stencil. On a tightly stretched silk screen the areas not to be printed are blocked out with glue or lacquer. Ink is then forced through the parts of the screen that have not been blocked out. A separate stencil is needed for each color.

Most 20th century artists have made prints. Prints are seldom made today in great quantities, since they are no longer created for mass-produced publications. A print—designed, carved, or etched, and printed by the artist himself—is a precious work of art. But unlike a painting, of which there is only one "original," a print yields 25 or 50 originals. For this reason an artist's print usually costs less than one of his paintings. Many great art collections have been started with the purchase of a single print.

Richard W. Ireland
The Maryland Institute College of Art

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