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What is a Print?

"It's a Tom Thomson" said my parents in unison staring proudly at their purchase hanging on the living room wall. "Oh, a real one?" I said, feeling confused. Even though this was many years ago, I knew my parents could not afford to buy an original painting by the iconic Canadian artist. Then, they told me it was a print. It had been numbered and had a shining red seal of authenticity stamped on the bottom left corner. Tom Thomson's signature was even on it. It was framed beautifully and remains on their wall to this day but I'll bet the original will outlast it by years. This was my first introduction into the wild world of digital print reproduction.

There are many printing techniques so when purchasing a print it is a good idea to know which type you are buying - it could effect your decision.




Julio Ferrer

Screen or Silk Screen Print

A mesh screen is used to transfer ink onto a substrate, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil. A blade or squeegee is moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the substrate momentarily along a line of contact. This causes the ink to wet the substrate and be pulled out of the mesh apertures as the screen springs back after the blade has passed. Think Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.


Katherine MacDonald


Frequently considered to be the most difficult printmaking method, lithography involves drawing directly on flat surface (usually stone or metal plate) with an oil-based implement, then coating it with a water-based liquid. When oil-based ink is applied it is repelled by the water, inking in just the image and allowing it to be transferred onto a paper ground. Lithography can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or other suitable material.


Edgar Degas


Unlike most other printmaking techniques, this process produces unique editions. They are made by drawing or painting on glass or a plate of smooth metal or stone with a greasy substance such as printer's ink or oil paint. Then the drawing is pressed by hand onto a sheet of absorbent paper or is printed on an etching press.


Christiane Frenay


To create an etching, artists incise (“draw”) a composition onto a wax-coated metal plate, then soak the entire plate in acid. The acid corrodes the exposed lines and leaves the wax intact, so that when the plate is inked and pressed, the paper absorbs the image in reverse. Rembrandt is one of the original masters of this technique.


Gary Newton


This is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations. This technique was mastered by Albrecht Dürer.


Katsushika Hokusai

Wood Engraving or Woodcut

The oldest printmaking technique, woodcut involves carving an image into a wooden surface, which is then inked and printed—leaving the carved-out image in negative, as well as occasional traces of the wood’s grain.


Wallerant Vaillant


This was the first tonal method to be used, enabling half-tones to be produced without using line- or dot-based techniques like hatching, cross-hatching or stipple. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening the plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a "rocker." In printing, the tiny pits in the plate hold the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. A high level of quality and richness in the print can be achieved.


Pablo Picasso


Linocut is a more modern variant of woodcut and is made using linoleum. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, V-shaped chisel or gouge, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal (mirror image) of the parts to show printed. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller (called a brayer), and then impressed onto paper or fabric. 


(Courtesy of

Digital or Giclée

Digital prints are created on or scanned into a computer and printed onto various papers, canvas, or vinyl using an inkjet printer. The best type of digital print are those printed on a Giclée printer. Giclée printing is meant to produce a product at a higher quality and longer lifespan than a standard desktop inkjet printer.

Millions of people around the world own and purchase prints every year and many buy digital reproductions. Why? Because they are affordable. The problem is that many of these prints have been mass produced with low quality ink. Therefore the print fades with time. Also be aware that because digital printing is very fast and needs much less human sweat and muscle, the number of prints created can be significantly higher. So you, your neighbour, and your dear Aunt Mary might all own the same piece (think IKEA, Home Sense). There are some contemporary artists working today though who are producing a small run of digital or Giclée prints and successfully selling.


If you would like to buy a piece of art that will not fade, increase in value over time, be a low print edition, i.e. 2/10, or you would like to add to your collection, then I would advise against purchasing a digital print and go the traditional print route. If you choose to go the digital route, I would make sure it is at least a Giclée print printed on high quality paper. 


By Kelly Drennan


Printing Processes: Courtesy of Wikipedia. 

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