How Is Printmaking Important to Artists?

by Chuck Robert
Printmaking made many forms of artwork more widespread.

Printmaking made many forms of artwork more widespread. Images

Printmaking is the creation of art by pressing paper or another medium against an inked engraving or carving that bears the image made by the artist. Artists have used this process since prehistory; archeologists have found evidence of printmaking on cave paintings in Spain and France. The Chinese were the first to use printmaking on paper, in 600 A.D. This benefited artists because the new technique was used to put patterns on the fabrics owned by the wealthy, allowing artists to earn incomes through printmaking. The Japanese were responsible for creating commercial forms of art trade. Artists in Europe created playing cards in Europe and religious images through printmaking.

Increases Artist Value

In printmaking, the artist picks a specific hand-produced technique, then either produces all the prints himself or directs others to create the prints. These prints have more value than photomechanically reproduced pieces of artwork, allowing the artists to make more money. Many artists in the first half of the 20th century became famous through their printmaking works, including Alexander Archipenko, Thomas Hart Benton, Lucienne Bloch and Asa Cheffetz.

Relief Painting

One form of printmaking is relief painting, which is done on a raised surface. The original relief paintings were on woodcuts. Wood engraving is similar to woodcuts, but artists perform it on the end grain of the hardwood blocks, which prevents the wood from splintering. Linocut printmaking is like wood engraving, but it is performed on linoleum rather than wood. Many artists did not work in linocut because it was not considered challenging enough. But it was used by some famous artists, including Matisse, as well as less experienced ones.

Metal Printmaking

Artists could create artwork on metals by either engraving or etching. Engraving relied on the artist gouging the metal sheet, and etching uses acids to eat away parts of the metal to create images. Engraving and etching became distinct artistic mediums that expanded the ways in which people could use artwork commercially.

Cultural Value

Printmaking played a major role in popularizing both art and writing. Literature gave publishers a reason to contract artists to create illustrations, often to depict scenes in the literature. Illustrations also helped make books more appealing. Artists reached the peak of their popularity in the 19th century and produced a very large number of prints. Printmaking played a large role in the romanticism of the era, which was a fascination with nature and the countryside.


The 20th century saw a very large increase in the printmaking varieties, with cubism, surrealism and expressionism. American 20th century prints focused on urban life, which was an uncommon subject in European prints. In the latter half of the 20th century, printmaking artists increasingly relied on studios full of sophisticated equipment that allowed them to diversify their artistic skills.

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