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The Intaglio Print

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

"The Print Shop", 10"x12" Aquatint and aquaforte mix on zinc plate, by V.M.

Intaglio is the opposite to relief printing in that the image is achieved by the ink held in incised lines or surfaces that are cut, engraved, scratched or etched below the surface of the plate and traditionally it was done first on copper, then on zinc plates and more recently on Plexiglass or Mylar.

An important aspect of printing intaglio is the need of a press, since great pressure is required to push the paper into every fine line holding ink, one reason why it is less popular than relief printing, presses being rather expensive.

One way of getting around that is to have access to a studio that has all the presses and pay a “by-the-hour” fee or, if you or someone you know is crafty enough to build a press.

Intaglio can be done in several ways, each creating a different result.

The Dry point is usually done with gravers on the naked plate, creating grooves on the plate that will later hold ink. One can also use a roulette, a little wheel that leaves a texture on the plate that will reproduce on the print, mostly used for shading.

The Aquaforte is done on copper or zinc plates that are first coated with an acid resist (liquid asphaltum), the design is scratched into the coating with a stylus, exposing the metal, followed by immersion into an acid bath.

Depending on the length of time the plate is left into the acid, the lines will be etched deeper or more superficial. Consecutive workings with the stylus and immersions in the acid bath, will result in lines of different depths, in turn creating lines of different strengths, with the lines etched first being boldest and the fine ones being etched last.

The Aquatint is also done on copper or zinc plates which are first dusted with powdered resin, set on a hot-plate which will cause the resin particles to melt and fuse to the surface creating tiny dots that are acid proof. When immersed in the acid, this will “eat” at the spaces between the “dots”.

The design is obtained by “stopping out” certain areas with an acid resist and consecutive sessions of etching and stopping out, result in various degrees of depth which in turn will hold different amounts of ink, and when printed, will show gradations from faint gray to deep black. Often Aquaforte and aquatint are used together.

The Mezzotint is an altogether different approach where a tool called a mezzotint rocker is used to cover the surface of the plate with tiny regular impressions. If the plate thus prepared were to be printed, it would print a dark, velvety black. To work the plate, one uses scrapers and burnishers to create the design. Areas that are scraped or burnished, depending to the degree to which that is done, will print lighter. There are some good videos on youtube with the whole process.

The Monoprint. Unlike other printmaking techniques that usually yield multiples, the monoprint, as the name suggests, is a process that results in unique, one-of-a-kind prints.

While carving a block, engraving or etching a plate is a drawn-out, time-consuming process, mono-printing is quite spontaneous by nature and unlike the other printing methods that yield multiples, mono-printing, as the name implies, yields one-of-a-kind prints.

The basic technique consists of coating a sheet of Mylar or Plexyglass with ink using a brayer and manipulating the thin film of ink on the surface using various implements, even ones’ fingers. Monoprints can be printed both, using a press or a baren and the paper goes on dry.

An interesting variation (there are many), can be seen here: “printing with scrim”. Feel free to experiment and explore, you might just come up with a new way of expression!

“Accident is the midwife of Art”

Harry Pesin


Most of these are printed in one color, usually black and one way to add some color is to use “chine-colle”. For that, a piece of colored tissue paper (the Japanese tissues are excellent), is placed on top of the inked-up plate, then the printing paper and the sandwich is run through the press.

Prior to laying the tissue on top of the plate, some adhesive is applied on the top side of the tissue, this will ensure it will adhere to the printing paper. I have used Ph neutral Photo Mount Spray from 3M with good results.

Another way of adding color to the prints is using a method called “a-la-poupee”, where one makes little “dolls” of cloth and uses them to dab color on the plate after it was inked up with black.

In the past, some artists used watercolor washes to color their prints but the practice isn’t used much today.

A note about the size of the paper in relation to the image: since prints aren’t usually matted when framed, the paper is cut quite a bit larger than the image, the white around it acting in this way as a mat.

Lithography and The Collagraph are two other printmaking methods, the first is traditionally done on stone, and the second is a sort of collage that is inked up and printed. These too are profusely explained in several good youtube videos.

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