Glossary

Acid
A water-soluble corrosive compound that erodes metal. It is used in intaglio platemaking in diluted strength to etch images into copper or zinc plates.
Aquatint
The most common method of creating tones in etching. Irregular grains of rosin (or another granular acid-resistant material) are applied to a plate, then the plate is heated, causing the grains to melt slightly and adhere to the plate. The acid bites around the individual grains, and the plate is left with a rough surface, or tooth, that holds ink. Rosin can be sifted onto the plate by hand, which results in an irregular bite, or it can be dusted evenly onto the plate in an aquatint box equipped with a fan or other means of creating a dust storm. Spit bite, soap ground, and sugar lift are ways of using aquatint.
Asphaltum
A paint-on acid-resistant varnish derived from tar used for protecting metal plates in selected areas to keep them from biting when the plate is exposed to acid.
Biting
The action of acid on a metal plate to incise an image. Also called etching.
Burin
A tool with a V-shaped faceted blade used for engraving marks into a metal plate. The blade’s two sharp sides remove the metal without leaving a burr and produce a wiry-looking clean line.
Burnisher
A bent, rounded tool, not a blade, for making changes in a metal plate after it has been incised. The burnisher, used with oil, smooths out marks after they have been diminished by scraping the metal with a tool called a scraper.
Burr
Displaced metal thrown up when any sharp point (usually a tool called a needle) is used to draw into a plate. In a method of platemaking called drypoint, the burr clings to the incisions and creates distinctive soft lines in the print.
Cancellation
The term for any method of assuring that a plate, or other matrix from which a limited edition has been printed, can no longer produce impressions. Sometimes the image is scratched or defaced; sometimes the entire plate is cut up and recycled.
Chine Collé
A method of printing in which an image is printed on a thin sheet of paper and the thin sheet is mounted on a backing sheet during a single pass through the press. The term also describes the process of using a press to mount paper or other collage material such as cloth to a backing sheet, sometimes with printing on it.
Color Printing
If the word color precedes the print description, as in “color etching,” more than one color was used in printing the image. This most likely involved multiple plates, especially if the colors overlap, but in intaglio printmaking (unlike lithography or silkscreen) different portions of a single plate can be inked in different colors (the process is called a la poupée). Also, a single intaglio plate can carry different colors in its recesses (intaglio) and on its surface (relief). If the word colored appears in a print description instead of color, it is a short form of “hand colored” and means that the color was added by hand to the print after it went through the press.
Direct Gravure
A term sometimes used to describe an image created using photogravure without a photographic image from a camera. The image is drawn by the artist on a translucent or transparent material (usually Mylar) or printed on that material from a computer, then put on a plate using the photogravure process.
Documentation
An information sheet supplied to buyers of a print. The minimum information in a documentation is the artist, title, date, printer, publisher, number of edition prints, number of proofs, and date that the plates were cancelled or destroyed. There may also be information about the number of plates, the print processes used in platemaking, the types of papers and inks used in printing, and other facts regarding the print’s creation.
Drypoint
A way of drawing directly into an intaglio plate without using acid. Any abrasive or invasive mark can be a drypoint mark, but generally the artist draws into a metal plate with a sharp tool called a needle. The displaced metal clings to the lines in what is called a burr. The burr is mostly above the surface of the plate and holds ink irregularly. A printed drypoint line is more or less fuzzy depending on how the plate is wiped.
Edition
The prints of any particular image that are offered for sale. Editions normally are printed from plates made to hold ink in the same way each time they are inked. Consequently, prints in an edition (even though printed by hand) are very similar to one another, if not exactly the same. Each limited edition print conventionally bears a fractionlike designation, with the number of prints in the edition on the bottom of a slash mark, and the serial number of the particular impression on the top. Most fine art print shops do not use the serial number to designate the order in which the prints were pulled.
Engraving
A way of drawing into an intaglio plate without using acid and without creating a burr that clings to the lines. Engravings have wiry-looking clean lines. The artist uses a faceted tool called a burin that he or she pushes, rather than drawing with it in a natural way. The blade’s two sharp edges remove the displaced metal from the plate. Engraved lines have tapered ends because the tool must enter and leave the plate gradually.
Etching
An image printed from a metal plate that has been incised by acid. The term also describes the activity of biting a metal plate in acid. In general, etching processes involve coating the plate with an acid-resistant ground, removing the ground in the image areas, then submerging the plate in a bath of diluted acid. Soft and hard ground etching are done in this way. Aquatint, also a form of etching, uses similar principles but plate preparation is more complex. Aquatint is often etched in a bath of acid, but also may be etched by spit biting, or painting the acid directly on the plate.
Flat Biting
Also called open biting, means biting areas of a plate without inserting tooth or texture. Tooth may be provided by aquatint, or in soft ground etching by paper grain or other material pressed into the wax ground, or in hard ground etching by closely spaced lines not drawn so close that the ground separating them erodes in the acid. Wide flat depressions without tooth, even if deeply bitten, will be wiped out as the printer clears the surface ink from the plate in preparation for printing. Ink accumulates at the edges of an image that is flat bitten, but in its center only the ink held in the grain of the metal remains after the plate is wiped. The image prints as an irregular gray with dark edges.
Foul Biting
Unintentional marks, usually fine dots, caused by acid biting through a faulty acid-resistant ground.
Gampi Paper
A thin, strong Japanese paper with a slight sheen. It is often used for chine collé.
Ground
Any acid-resistant material used to protect an etching plate from acid. The most common grounds are wax, asphaltum, shellac, rosin, and soap.
Hand Wiping
Traditionally the final stage in the process of preparing an intaglio plate for printing. In the first stage, ink is pushed into the indentations in the plate. Next, the excess ink is removed with a cloth pad made of tarlatan, an open-weave starched cotton cloth. Wiping the plate with the palm of the hand finishes the process. The plate must be re-inked and wiped for each print pulled.
Hard Ground Etching
A process that involves applying a ground traditionally made of beeswax and asphaltum to a heated plate and spreading it evenly with a brayer. The artist draws into the ground with a sharp tool and the plate is etched. The term is also used to describe the resulting artwork, a hard ground etching.
Impression
The word generally used instead of “copy” when speaking of a print conceived as a work of art rather than as a reproduction.
Ink
Etching ink is essentially made of pigment and oil. Since it must remain flexible enough to be wiped off the surface of a plate, additives such as varnishes and drying agents are not used as they are in other types of printing inks and in inks formulated for writing on paper.
Intaglio
A method of printing in which the image is printed from below the surface of the plate. Intaglio platemaking normally involves using etching, drypoint, or engraving processes. Intaglio is the only way of printing that can print ink in varying thicknesses. All other methods deposit ink in a uniform layer from the surface of a plate to the surface of the paper or other material. Intaglio is one of the four basic printmaking methods. The others are relief, stencil, and planographic.
Lithography
The most common method of commercial printing, also used for fine art printing. It is a planographic method of printing based on the antipathy of oil and water. The area that prints, the matrix, is created with oily material, and the nonmatrix area is differentiated by a chemical treatment that makes it receptive to water. Ink is rolled over the entire plate, which is sponged with water before each print. The oily ink sticks only to the areas marked to print by the oily material.
Matrix
A form or mold that can be filled. In intaglio printmaking, the matrix consists of incisions or indentations in a plate that will repeatedly print the same way if inked and wiped consistently. The word comes from the Latin for womb and generally means an enclosure from which something originates.
Mezzotint
A way of making an intaglio plate in which the entire plate is given a tooth so it prints black, then the tooth is scraped away by the artist to obtain the image.
Monotype
A printed drawing from a plate with no matrix to hold ink. Only one fully realized impression can be made from a monotype, but ink traces, called ghosts, are left on the plate and can be traced over to make additional similar images. In a variation of a monotype, often differentiated by calling it a monoprint, there is a partial matrix, and after it is inked and wiped the artist draws on the plate’s surface to make non-repeatable marks that in the print are added to the repeatable ones provided by the matrix.
Needle
A sharp tool used to incise a metal plate to make an etching or drypoint.
Offset
A system for right to left reversal of an image. It is essentially a print from a print. After a print comes off the press, while the ink is still wet, it is pressed against another surface. In offset lithography, that surface is a rubber-blanketed roller that then is used to print the image on paper. In intaglio platemaking, offsetting is used to make multiple plates for the same image. A freshly-printed image is pressed against a clean plate and run back through the press. The resulting image on the plate, called an offset, is used by the artist as a guide in drawing the new plate. The original plate and the new plate will later be printed one on top of the other on the same sheet of paper to create the finished image.
Paper
The paper generally used to print intaglio prints is made from rags or another acid-free material and is very durable. The paper sheet is dampened before it goes through the press so it can mold into the plate’s indentations. It is then dried under weights so it will be flat. Paper continues to breathe through its entire life, and a print sometimes will ripple if it takes on moisture from the air. In that case, it can usually be redampened and flattened again.
Photoetching
A method of etching an image into a plate using a commercial light-sensitive ground. The image may come from a photograph or a drawing or printout on transparent material like Mylar. An aquatint or commercial halftone screen is used to provide tooth to the plate. An image made by photoetching is of uniform depth in the plate.
Photogravure
A method of etching an image into a plate using a light-sensitive gelatin ground. The image may come from a photograph or a drawing or printout on transparent material like Mylar. An aquatint, or sometimes a halftone screen, is added to the plate to provide tooth. An image made by photogravure etches to varying depths in the plate.
Planographic
One of the four basic methods of printmaking, which also include relief, intaglio, and stencil. In planographic printmaking, mainly lithography, the image is not incised but is printed from a single plane that has been treated chemically so some areas hold ink and others refuse it.
Plate
A flat piece of metal, usually copper or zinc, used to create an image that can be printed.
Platemark
The indented impression of the edges of a plate in the paper. If the plate edges have been wiped clean of ink, the platemark will be simply an indentation. Otherwise it will hold ink unevenly and print as an irregular line. The presence of a platemark is a sign that the print was printed in intaglio, but all intaglio prints do not show a platemark. Sometimes the paper is the same size as (or smaller than) the plate, or the print is trimmed inside the platemark after printing.
Print
A term used for a variety of printed images, most commonly reproductions of artworks, and also (depending on context) for printed images made as art. Sometimes “Original Print” or “Fine Art Print” is used to formally differentiate prints created as art from prints created as reproductions, but this may no longer be necessary. The third-listed meaning of the word “print” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition is as follows: “An original work of art (as an etching, woodcut, or lithograph) intended for graphic reproduction and produced by or under the supervision of the artist who designed it.”
Printing
Etchings and other intaglio prints are printed on an etching press, normally consisting of a flat bed between two heavy rollers. The inked plate is laid on the press bed and covered with damp paper and several layers of felt called blankets. When the bed carrying the plate passes between the rollers, a great deal of pressure is exerted, which pushes the damp paper into the indentations of the plate to make the print.
Proof
A print outside the edition but not necessarily different from it. Proofs generally fall into three categories: artist’s proofs, trial proofs, and working proofs. Artist’s proofs are the same as the edition and are retained by the artist, printers, and others connected to the production of the print. Trial proofs are usually pulled in advance of the edition and in most cases do not differ from it, but the definition of a trial proof changes somewhat from printshop to printshop. Working proofs (sometimes called state proofs) do not match the edition. They are pulled during the course of the development of the plates. Artist’s proofs and trial proofs are listed on the print’s documentation or print information sheet provided by all reputable publishers.
Registration
A system to ensure that several plates can be printed in accurate alignment, one on top of the other, to make a single print.
Relief
One of the four basic printmaking methods, which also include intaglio, stencil, and planographic. Relief printing, the oldest print process, encompasses woodcut, linocut, hand-set type, rubber stamps, and related processes like potato prints. The plate or block is incised, but the ink is applied to the top surface rather than to the incisions as in intaglio. Intaglio plates can be printed in relief, and sometimes relief and intaglio inkings are combined.
Rosin
The hard, friable pitch, or resin, of pine trees that is ground into particles and used in the aquatint process as an acid-resistant ground.
Scraper
A wedge-shaped tool with a knife blade at each edge that is used to scrape away metal, usually to remove marks incised in the plate. The scraper leaves marks of its own that must then be burnished and polished if the formerly marked plate area is to be made smooth enough not to hold ink.
Signature
The artist’s signature on a print indicates that he or she has examined and approved that particular print. In fine art or original prints the signature is also a personal guarantee by the artist that this is an artwork of his or hers, but in reproductive printmaking if there is a signature it is simply an autograph. A straightforward way to tell the difference is to ask for a documentation of the work and note if it is presented as a copy of a painting or other work or if it is clear that the artist’s intention was to make an original work of art. In this regard, it is also helpful to consider the reputation of the artist, the publisher, and the selling agent.
Soap Ground Aquatint
Soap ground, also called white ground, is—like all grounds—a way of protecting portions of a plate from the acid. Soap, however, is imperfectly acid-resistant. The acid penetrates it in varying degrees depending on its thickness. The artist draws with a paste made of soap flakes, linseed oil, and water. Next, an aquatint is added to provide tooth to the nonimage portions of the plate. The resulting image has tonal gradations, but is essentially white against a dark background.
Soft Ground Etching
A process that involves applying a beeswax ground made soft by the addition of tallow or petroleum jelly evenly over a heated plate with a brayer. After the plate has cooled, the artist draws on paper laid over it. The soft wax comes off on the back of the paper exactly where the artist has pressed, exposing the metal in the pattern of the grain of the paper. More pressure in drawing removes more wax and produces a darker line after the plate has been bitten. In general, soft ground lines look like lines made by the drawing instrument, usually a pencil or crayon. Soft ground can also be used to take a direct impression of any flexible material—a fingerprint, a leaf, a piece of cloth, for example.
Spit Bite Aquatint
An alternative to bath etching as a way of biting an aquatint. The artist paints a mixture of acid, water, and gum arabic on a plate that is prepared with a rosin ground. The acid bites wherever it touches the plate, showing brushstrokes if the artist so desires. Spit bite aquatint resembles watercolor in the finished print.
Stencil
Printing A method of printmaking in which ink is forced through a matrix. It’s main use is in screenprinting and pochoir. In screenprinting, also called silkscreen or serigraphy, the stencil is attached to a fabric or wire mesh screen and the ink is pushed through with a squeegee. In pochoir the ink is hand-painted on paper or fabric through a stencil. Stencil printing is one of the four basic printmaking methods, which also include relief, intaglio, and planographic.
Step Biting
Also called step etching, is the way plates are etched to varying depths. When a plate is etched, the nonimage areas are protected by an acid-resistant ground. In step biting the plate is periodically removed from the acid and more ground is applied. Then the plate is put back in the acid for a deeper bite.
Stop-Out Varnish
A fast-drying alternative to asphaltum, often shellac based, used to protect portions of the plate from acid. Painting on an acid-resistant material is called stopping out.
Sugar Lift Aquatint
An aquatint technique that allows an artist to paint a dark form on a white background. The artist draws with a sugar syrup, then an aquatint ground is substituted for the syrup before biting. To accomplish this, asphaltum is painted thinly over the entire plate including the image. After the asphaltum is dry, the plate is put in a bath of warm water until the sugar swells and lifts, leaving the metal exposed in the image area. Rosin is then dusted over the plate, and the plate is etched.
Tooth
A closely spaced texture that keeps ink from wiping out of non-linear areas in an etched plate.
Water Bite Aquatint
A gradual tone created by preparing a plate for aquatint, then submerging it in a bath of water and slowly adding acid as the bath is tipped to allow the acid to move gradually across the plate’s surface.
Woodcut
The earliest printing method, invented in China in the eighth century. Woodcuts are printed in relief. The image is cut into wooden blocks, and ink is applied to the top surface rather to the incisions as in intaglio.

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