The History of Printmaking

History of Printmaking:

The Diamond SutraThe first relief stamps were cut seals and brands used to mark animals and prisoners as property. Clay tiles, metals and wood were the first “plates” made to transfer images and symbols onto skin. The first actual “prints,” however are from China, where early Buddhists used text and images printed on paper to disseminate religious ideas via the sutra or, text.

In Europe, textile makers were using block prints to decorate cloth before the widespread use of paper in their part of the world. In about 1400 C.E., paper milling became a widespread phenomenon in Europe, making the printing and dissemination of their own type of religious images possible.

Medieval Christians used the printed image to spread their religion across the continent via fetish and sacred objects that the masses could utilize in daily religious practices. Often, images of saints were printed onto thin paper, to be consumed via the mouth and protect the person eating the image from illness or ill-wishes. Prints of saints were often pasted into boxes, to protect the contents from theft and damage.

The first European books were printed from woodblocks in Germany in the mid-15th century. Artists of the late 15th and 16th century in Europe used woodcuts to depict religious objects, illustrate books and reproduce one-of-a-kind imagery, such as paintings, making the images accessible outside of the homes of the wealthy.

The intaglio print, a process utilizing a metal plate, first developed among goldsmiths and engravers, but was soon put to use to print images of saints, moral tales and tarot and playing cards! The first printmakers were considered more craftsmen that artists, employed in creating copies of another artist’s image. A printshop Printmakers worked collectively in workshops, transferring the original images of artists onto plates and then printing an edition of them for sale. The terms Artist’s proof (AP) and Printer’s Proof (PP) emerged from this process.

The lithographic process, which is the only printmaking process whose origin is traceable, was stumbled upon by Alois Senefelder during the late 16th century. Literally meaning “stone writing,” Lithographs are produced by drawing with a greasy pencil on limestone and are then produced based on the idea that oil and water don’t mix. Lithography reached commercial success soon after its discovery and became popular with artists due to its integrity to the original image. A lithographic print is the exact replica of the drawing the artist places upon the stone.  Artists like Honore Daumier utilized Lithography in creating satiric illustrations and political cartoons.


In Japan, Printmaking developed through contact with China. By the early 18th century, Japanese printmakers were developing methods of color printing (ukiye-o), painting woodblocks by hand using water-based inks. Japanese printmaking dealt mostly with popular imagery such as the latest fashions in theater and clothing, but some artists used the woodcut to create landscapes and images of ideal feminine beauty.

Leopoldo MendezPrintmaking is the most common process utilized by artists in all cultures in creating and spreading ideas and quotidian images. In Mexico, Jose Guadalupe Posada used metal cuts to illustrate publications sold mainly to the poor. The Taller de Grafica Popular (Popular Graphics Workshop), established by Leopoldo Mendez, Luis Arenal and Pablo O’Higgins in 1937, continued this tradition. Recruiting young American printmakers like Elizabeth Catlett, TGP published a series of prints and books that created a sense of Pan-American unity among the working class and artists. In New York, Robert Blackburn founded The Printmaking Workshop in 1948, which focused on Intaglio and Lithography.

Printmaking has successfully developed into an equally aesthetic and commercial process due to its accessibility. The widespread use of screenprinting in the 1960’s–another planographic process utilizing stencils, a nylon screen and commercial printing ink–made the production of both commercial and political posters accessible to anyone with a screen and a squeegee. Rupert Garcia poster During the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, screenprinting was used to create beautiful and informative posters that called for equal rights, an end to war and the unity of all people who desired peace and justice. The Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles has an archive of both modern and contemporary posters with this aim.

The art of printmaking is alive and well today. Whether practicing relief, intaglio, lithography or screenprinting, printmakers are united under one aim: to make work that can be reproduced countless times in order to reach a wide audience. Contemporary talleres such as Self-help Graphics, La Mano Press and The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop continue to offer young artists the opportunity to apprentice in and then practice the art of Printmaking.


One Response to “The History of Printmaking”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: