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Art Movement In Focus : Printmaking – An Introduction

Welcome to Art Movement in Focus! In this section, we explore significant art movements in history through a series of articles dedicated to each movement. Here’s looking at Printmaking.

Printmaking – An Introduction

Printmaking is an art form that requires a blend of creativity and technical skill. It requires meticulous handiwork to create visually interesting work. Soon after its invention, the importance of printmaking became realized. It gave society a valuable art form that allowed images and text to be reproduced.

Prints could be distributed to people who couldn’t afford one-of-a-kind oil paintings. Additionally, printmaking allowed societies to disseminate information en masse. This included books, religious illustrations, and maps. This was a singular development in the history of art.

A Little bit of History

There are different sources that record the history of the unique medium. One source says that the oldest woodblock known was in the Han Dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD.

However, archaeological findings confirm that the technique of duplicating images goes back thousand years to the Sumerians (c. 3000 BCE). These skilled work smiths engraved designs and cuneiform inscriptions on stone cylinder seals. When rolled over soft clay tablets, it left a relief impression.

Also, woodblock prints were profusely used as early as the eighth century in Japan to publish Buddhist scriptures. The designer and painter Tawaraya Sōtatsu (c. 1640) used wood stamps to print designs on paper and silk. On a side note, silk was the popular medium for prints till paper gradually became more popular.

With so much development in technology could the Egyptians be far behind?

They made their first woodblock prints for textiles in the 6th or 7th century. The earliest printed image with an authenticated date is a scroll of the Diamond Sutra (Buddha scripture) printed by Wang Jie in 868 CE, which was found in a cave in eastern Turkistan.

Engraving is one of the oldest art forms. They have been found on prehistoric bones, stones, and cave walls. The idea was of multiplication, also following the mechanical principle, the roller. The more sophisticated form would develop into the printing press.

So What is Print Making ?

Printmaking is an art form that involves transferring images from a matrix, or template, onto another surface, typically paper or fabric. A printmaker creates the base out of wood, metal, glass, or other material using tools. Carving away from the wood creates negative space on the print after the ink was transferred onto it. Then, using chemicals they work it onto the surface into an image. The artist then inks the template in order to stamp another surface.

Traditional printmaking methods, including woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography, requires applying even pressure. The process allows artists to create many replicas of the same image. Throughout history, it’s served as a reasonable way to communicate and share art.

When the Chinese introduced movable type (c.1041 and c.1048) and improved on the design over the coming centuries, bookmaking became much more possible. So post the developmental stage it assumed great importance. Here is the next leg of the journey.

The History of Printmaking through the Centuries

In European prints date back to the beginning of the 15th century, where woodcut prints were used to make paper playing cards in Germany. Artist soon adapted the technique to render bold figures against blank backgrounds. Soon artists began creating more complex designs involving backgrounds and borders.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized the art form and the culture in the 15th century.  His most famous works, remains the 1,300-page Gutenberg Bibles. Containing masterful prints that used printed gothic type designed to look like hand calligraphy.

Subsequently in the latter half of the 16th century, skilled artisans took over the revolution. Printed maps became more popular as people began traveling frequently. Publishers would also buy plates from their original artists and print them in massive quantities. The commercialism sometimes led to ruining the original plates in the process.

This century saw the emergence of the Japanese art form ukiyo-e, marking a break from the culture’s heavily Chinese-influenced works. These refined and highly stylized woodcuts illustrated daily life. Hishikawa Moronobu was the first master of the form was, who used street scenes, peddlers and crowds as subject matter. (17th c) Then in the 18th and 19th century as technology developed it grew to a veritable form of art.

India and Printmaking

In India woodcut as an artform flourished particularly under the Mughal Empire. Its impact in the western parts of the country still remains strong. Many Indian artists would gradually take up the style and make it their own.

“Printmaking became popular in India during 1921 with Nandalal Bose introducing it to Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan. From his visit to China and Japan in 1924, he brought back Chinese rubbings and Japanese colour woodcut prints. Owing to this, the students of Kala Bhavana thus established direct contact with original prints of the Far East.” – KNN – Knowledge News Network (September 2014)

Amngst them was Benodebehari Mukherjee and Ramkinkar Baij who experimented with the medium in the 30s & 40s. Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore used linocuts and woodcuts to disseminate reformist concerns. They used it for their socio-political critique of events like the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Tebhaga movement.

The Influence Spreads to Europe

Though known for mastery of colour, Impressionists Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro created distinct etchings, lithographs, and monoprints. Soon, Japanese woodcuts made their way into Western consciousness. The exoticism, simplicity, and abstractions influenced Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt.

Japanese artists continued to develop new printmaking techniques. The woodcut master, Hokusai, was prolific, with a body of work encompassing 35,000 drawings and prints. His series “The 36 Views of Mount Fuji” and “The Breaking Wave off Kanagawa” are still referred to reverentially.

In the 21st century artists like including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Georges Rouault, too experimented with the form. We bring this cumulative history to showcase the reach

There are three basic techniques

Relief printing: Here the background is cut down, leaving a raised image that takes the ink.

Intaglio printing: Here a metal plate is used. The selected image is either engraved into the metal with a tool known as a ‘burin’. Alternatively, the plate is coated with a waxy acid-resistant substance called ‘ground’ upon which the design is drawn with a metal needle.

Planographic: The entire surface is involved, but some areas are treated to retain the ink. The best-known example is lithography. The design is drawn onto the matrix with a greasy crayon. Ink is then applied to the whole surface, sticks only to the grease marks of the drawing.

Others: Other surface printing methods include stencil printmaking – where the image or design is cut out and then printed by spraying ink or paint through the stencil. The Planographic technique is also used for mono-typing, digital prints, screen-printing, and pochoir.

OUR TOP 6 Printmaker Artists

  1. Pablo Picasso
  2. Andy Warhol
  3. Roy Lichenstein
  4. Banksy
  5. Chittoprosad : Bengal Famine
  6. Suzuki Harunobu


Apart from the immense practicality of the form, there was something that drew people to printmaking. The freedom of working with the dimensions was novel. The ability to craft and mold negative spaces was unique. The Japanese style of woodcut and transference was only a starting point.

Artists from different genres as we can see have been drawn to experimenting, developing it to versatile forms. Traversing a journey of 5000 odd years, it seeped into pop culture with famous street artists incorporating these techniques in a form, like Banksy.

Pablo Picasso
Tete de Femme

Tete de Femme 1962, Pablo Picasso(1881 – 1973)
Image courtesy:

Andy Warhol
Marilyn Monroe (FS II.27)

Marilyn Monroe (FS II.27) 1967, Andy Warhol(1928-1987)  
Image courtesy:

Roy Lichenstein

Brushstroke 1965, Roy Lichenstein (1923-1997)
Image courtesy:

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction 2002, Banksy
Image courtesy:

Chittoprosad Bhattacharya
Beggar Brother & Sister

Beggar brother & sister 1952, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya
Image Courtesy: Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Mumbai, India

Suzuki Harunobu
Lovers Walking in the snow (Crow and Heron)
c. 1764 -72

Lovers Walking in the snow (Crow and Heron) c. 1764 -72, Suzuki Harunobu

For more such quick introductions and lists regarding Art History, visit Art Movement in Focus.

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