Lithograph, Screenprint, Etching. Do You Know Your Art Print?

Art Terminology. What Does It All Mean?

Lithograph, serigraph, etching, screenprint…  What do all these art print terms mean and does it make a difference in understanding and buying art?   Well, yes… and no. It’s not an easy answer.  When it comes to art, nothing is straightforward. But in this essay, I’ll try to give some insights into these printing processes and how all this might play in your decision-making when buying art.


The History of Lithography

Lithography is a method of printing discovered in the late 1700s and the artist Goya was probably one of the first to make truly memorable use of this printing method.  The principle of lithography is rooted in the natural repulsion of oil and water, something we all understand.  An image is drawn on a plate with a special pencil or crayon, or it is painted with a brush using a grease base ink. The plate has been prepped to absorb water everywhere except where the artist’s image has been drawn or painted.  Then another ink is rolled onto the plate and absorbed only into the oil based ink. When paper is placed on the page and rubbed across the back, the ink offsets onto the paper, printing the artist’s original image perfectly.  Since only one color is printed from each plate, it’s not unusual for fine lithographs to be printed with 15 or more plates.  So when you see a description of a “20 color lithograph”, you know that a great deal of work has gone into creating that image with all the colors.

There may be no more famous a lithography printer than the French printmaker and art dealer, Aime’ Maeght. During his career, Maeght represented such leading European artist as Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Alberto Giacometti, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and George Braque, among others.  He liked working with lesser known artists and once said that he chose Giacometti over Picasso because Picasso was too demanding!


Joan Miro Exhibition Poster

Joan Miro, Lithograph Exhibition Poster by Galerie Maeght


Maeght’s first commercial venture into the art world arose somewhat by surprise. Pierre Bonnard had walked into his print shop and asked Maeght to print a program for a Maurice Chevalier concert with a Bonnard lithograph, which Maeght accepted. After the programs were produced, Maeght’s wife Marguerite placed one of the lithographs in the print-shop window.  One day, a man walked into the shop and asked her how much the program was.  She didn’t know if Bonnard wanted to sell it so to put the man off, she quoted him an enormous price. The man agreed! She ran to Bonnard and told him that she had made a terrible mistake, but he was pleased with her and said “That’ a very good price! If you want more paintings for the shop, take them with you and here’s a percentage for you.”  It was the beginning.

The Maeghts made their Paris debut with a gallery in the Rue de Teheran in 1945 featuring paintings done by Matisse during World War II.  At this gallery, Maeght encouraged his artists to produce lithographs in his printing atelier (workshop).   The city of Paris was booming at that time with the construction of millions of homes and apartments in the aftermath of the War and  to Aime’ Maeght, this equaled a lot of wall space that needed decorating. Maeght saw an opportunity and pursued it.  He once said, “I got the idea that great painters should do limited series of lithos so that the greatest number of people could buy it.”  The rest, as we say is history.  Lithography took off in Paris with Maeght editions and soon  these became art of high importance for the post-war era of art. Lithography was the method of printing used by many Modern Masters of this period.


Henri Matisse, 1951, "Bush"

Henri Matisse, 1951, “Bush”, Lithograph



What is an Etching?

The etching method of printmaking can be traced back to the 1600s when artists such as Rembrandt brought this method to popularity and it still is popular today. While there’s a variety of ways to create an image on a plate in the etching process, the most common  method is the use of the sharp etching needle (Burin) to draw lines into a flat copper plate through a coating of black wax or acid resistant varnish. When the metal plate is immersed in acid, only the lines that aren’t coated with wax or varnish are then “etched” into the plate by the acid’s burning.  The length of time the acid remains in contact with the metal determines the depth of the “bite”; the deeper the bite, the darker the print will be.  The art’s shading can be controlled by adding more or less varnish to certain areas of the image,  so that when the plate is immersed into the acid again the bites vary as the artist desires.

Another expression you might hear about etching is carborundum, aquatint, and intaglio. These are all forms of etching that are used to create texture effects.


Rembrandt, circa 1640, "The Windmill"

Rembrandt, circa 1640, “The Windmill”, Etching


What is a Woodblock, Linocut, Linoleum?

Wood is one of the earliest materials employed by artists to make prints. Easily cut to create a printing pattern or image this method nevertheless requires considerable skill to create fine images.

Woodblock, Linocut, and Linoleum are all examples of relief print where all surface that is not to be inked is gouged or chiseled from the block. When the block is then inked and pressed onto the paper, the printed image is only that of the raised surface.  (Like a stamp? TM)

A linocut is a process of placing and mounting a sheet of linoleum on a woodblock to create the relief surface for an image. Picasso was well known for his linoleum block prints, especially seen in his  “Heads” series of linocuts.


Pablo Picasso, 1958, "Portrait of a Young Girl"

Pablo Picasso, 1958, “Portrait of a Young Girl”, Linocut


Screenprint, Silkscreen, and Serigraph.

The three terms, Screenprint, silkscreen, and serigraph are all terms for the same method of printing. Most art dealers and artists use the word “screenprint”  while referring to the pop art from the 20th century to pop art of today. The term silkscreen was used early on because of the fact that, the screen was made from silk.  Today, a hybrid of nylon and polyester is often used because it’s both less expensive and easier to use.  Any one of these terms is correct to describe this method of printing.


Robert Indiana, 1996, "Heliotherapy Love"

Robert Indiana, 1996, “Heliotherapy Love”, Screenprint


The earliest reports of silkscreening can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) of China.  The crude printmaking technique of that time was later refined by the Japanese, who introduced the process to European traders in the 1700s.  It was in early 1900 when an Englishman named Samuel patented the screen making technique that he used primarily to make quality custom wallpaper or to print on silk or linen for the very wealthy. If the fellow only knew what a big hit, his wallpaper idea would become in the 1960s with Andy Warhol’s Cows and Mao! We can only wonder if Warhol got his idea from researching the longer history of silkscreening.


Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga silkscreening the background onto a Flowers painting.

Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga silkscreening the background onto a Flowers painting.


We do know that Warhol’s printmaking efforts were dominated by his use of the silkscreen and its rise in popularity as a printing technique can clearly be attributed to Andy Warhol and his screenprint works.  He explained his personal process of silkscreening perfectly with the following comment. “The rubber-stamp method I’d been using to repeat images suddenly seemed too homemade; I wanted something stronger that gave more of an assembly-line effect. With silk screening, you can pick a photograph, blow it up, transfer it in glue onto silk, and then roll ink across it so the ink goes through the silk but not through the glue. That way you get the same image, slightly different each time. It all sounds so simple – quick and chancy. I was thrilled with it. My first experiments with screens were head of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month (August 1962), I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face.”


Andy Warhol, "Marilyn" portfolio of 10 prints

Andy Warhol, “Marilyn” portfolio of 10 screenprints


The history of Andy Warhol and the Pop Art revolution is compelling and important enough to be the sole subject of another essay in the future. Stay tuned.


The Importance of Printmaking

Sometimes,  I get clients asking if a lithograph is better than an etching or a screenprint and I try to explain that this is not the right question. They are all printing methods for the artists, and no one method is superior to the other.  But one method of printmaking can be more important for a particular artist or period of time.  For instance, if you’re looking for pop art, silkscreening method is highly representative of the pop art era. Though Andy Warhol did create some lithographs, silkscreening is quintessential for most of Warhol’s art, and it is widely agreed that he used silkscreening for his most important works.  If you’re looking for works by one of the modern masters, lithography will be the method most commonly used. And depending on the artist, etching was also an important method used.  The method of importance generally comes down to the artist and the period of their work.

Today, you may also encounter the term giclee. Giclee is the process of printing digital art images with an ink printer.  The jury is out as to whether we should consider this to be a legitimate form of printmaking in the artistic sense, but we should recall that the jury was out when Warhol introduced his amazing silkscreening techniques in the 1960s. Who knows? We’ll have to await the jury’s decision.

Tomas Rut, "Unica II", Giclee on canvas

Tomas Rut, “Unica II”, Giclee on canvas


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