Did you know?  Check our Rare Books Page

Print Making Processes: Relief and Intaglio

By Shelley Kelber. Jun 11, 2019. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Making

There are four major classes of printmaking techniques: relief printing, intaglio printmaking, stenciling, and lithography. Let’s look into some detail about the relief and intaglio printmaking processes. These are the two oldest and best known of the major classes of printmaking techniques.


Encheiresin Naturae, published by Nawakum Press

Relief Printing

Relief printing is a generic term describing the process of printing from a raised surface where the non-image areas have been cut away. Water-based ink is rolled over the raised areas and the image is transferred to paper. Traditionally the matrix is wood or linoleum. A woodcut is probably the oldest and simplest form of relief printmaking. It reached full maturity in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Both hand tools and power tools are used to cut the image to be printed. The image is raised above the surface of the block. The block material is cut away, leaving the print image. After the image is inked, paper is placed over the inked surface and rubbed by hand or passed through a press to transfer ink from block to paper to create the image.

When linoleum is used, it is generally mounted on a block of wood for stability. Linoleum is soft and easily carved with knives or gouges. The image is then printed as with a woodcut. The fragility of linoleum makes large editions problematic.

Intaglio Printmaking

Intaglio printmaking includes a number of related techniques generally done on a metal plate. Copper, zinc, or steel plates are used. Grooves or pits are incised into the plate using either a sharp instrument or the action of a strong acid solution. Greasy ink is worked into these depressions, and the surface of the plate wiped clean. The high pressure of a press enables soft, dampened paper to reach and take on the ink. Basic intaglio processes include etching, engraving, drypoint, and mezzotint.

labour_vertue_glorieLabour Vertue Glorie published by Heavenly Monkey

  • Etching: This process uses acid to bite an image into a metal plate coated with an acid-resistant ground. The ground is a coating used to protect the plate from the action of the acid. Typically the hard ground is drawn through with a needle, exposing the metal to form the image to be printed. Etching is also used as a catch-all term for any intaglio process employing an acid bath in the production of an image.
  • Engraving: Developed in Europe in the 15th century. In engraving, the image is created by the burin, a wedge or lozenge-shaped tool, directly on the plate.
  • Drypoint: This is another process where marks are made on a plate using a sharp, pointed instrument. However, in drypoint the curl of displaced metal that forms as the line is cut, called the burr, is not removed. It is inked and creates a velvety appearance. Soft copper plates are generally used for drypoint printing.
  • Mezzotint: This technique became particularly popular in 18th century England for reproducing portrait paintings. The process involves indenting the printing plate by rocking a toothed metal tool across the surface. Each pit holds ink. If printed at this stage the print image would be solid black. The printmaker creates tones by rubbing down or burnishing the rough surface to varying degrees of smoothness to change the ink-holding capacity of chosen areas on the plate.


What materials are used in these processes?

Relief printmaking materials and supplies include a block (wood or linoleum), various size gouges and knives, ink, a brayer or roller, and paper.

Intaglio printmaking materials and supplies include plates for etching and engraving; etching inks and conditioners; tools for etching and engraving; etching blankets to press the paper into the grooves of a plate to absorb the ink; films, plates, and screens; etching grounds and stop-outs; solvents; and acids and other corrosive substances called mordants.

What are the similarities between relief and intaglio processes?

  • In both processes, the print is produced from a plate or block by inking the design and printing on paper.

What are the differences between relief and intaglio processes?

  • Relief prints are of the raised surface design on the block, the rest of the surface is cut away, only the raised portion is inked. Water-based inks are used.
  • Intaglio prints are a result of ink being retained by the gouges that are below the surface of the plate retaining the ink and transferring the ink to the paper. Greasy inks of varying viscosities are used.

Among the well-known artists who have produced prints using these techniques are Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Rembrandt, Henri Matisse, Francisco Goya, Vincent Van Gogh, M.C. Escher, Edvard Munch, Roy Lichenstein, and Marc Chagall. This list is only a beginning to show you the incredible range of possibilities inherent in the art of printmaking.

Get your free Guide to Rare Book Care

Shelley Kelber
Shelley's been in Seattle practically since the dawn of time. She enjoys having fun (seriously) with research and writing. In her off hours she reads and walks, although not at the same time -- because tripping over sidewalks is embarrassing.


comments powered by Disqus


  • There are no suggestions because the search field is empty.

About this blog

How can I identify a first edition? Where do I learn about caring for books? How should I start collecting? Hear from librarians about amazing collections, learn about historic bindings or printing techniques, get to know other collectors. Whether you are just starting or looking for expert advice, chances are, you'll find something of interest on blogis librorum.

Get blog notifications per email:

Download the James Bond Dossier

Recent Posts

Book Glossary
Get your free Guide to Book Care

Blog Archive

> see older posts
A Guide to Historic Libraries Part I