What is the term for a group of prints that are identical and produced in a limited number?

The term lithography is derived from the Greek origins litho - meaning stone, and graphos - to write. Lithography is a planographic process, meaning that the image is created from the flat surface of a specially prepared limestone or aluminium matrix. Unlike intaglio or relief, there is no need for incision or direct physical alteration of the surface in order to create the image, as the technique relies on chemically treating the matrix to define oil-attracting “image areas” and water-attracting “non-image” areas.

The artwork is drawn with greasy materials of various forms, such as crayons, pencils, and washes. The drawing is then processed using an acidified gum arabic mixture which chemically de-sensitises the image area to grease and dramatically increases its attraction to water. By keeping the matrix dampened during printing, a greasy ink may be applied to the drawing and transferred to paper with a press.

The direct drawing process allows for a huge range of aesthetic freedom, from bold flats of colour to fine drawn lines and brushstrokes.

Aquatint: An etching technique that creates printed tonal areas. Powdered rosin is distributed across a metal plate and adhered through heating. When the plate is submerged in a corrosive bath, tiny areas unprotected by the rosin particles are “eaten away”, creating recesses. Once the rosin is removed, the plate is inked, and ink collects in those areas with uneven surfaces. Finally, damp paper is laid on the plate, and they are run through a press, transferring ink in the shape of these areas. Usually the more an area is eaten away, the more ink will transfer during printing, and the darker the tonal area will be.

Chine-collé: The process of adhering one piece of paper to another by using a liquid adhesive and running them together through the printing press. Chine is French for “China,” which refers to the thin Asian paper originally used with this technique, and collé means “glued.”

Collagraph: A technique of relief printing using any combination of actual elements such as cardboard, fabric, washes, carborundum (an abrasive powder), or found objects, which are adhered to a plate, inked, and printed.

Digital printing: A general term for any technique that involves digital technology. Until the mid-1990s, most computer-made images were transferred photochemically onto traditional printing plates or screens. Since then, many artists have used high-resolution digital printing processes on computer-controlled printers. Sometimes the terms Inkjet (a type of printer), Giclée (the French term for inkjet), or Iris (a brand of printer) are used to refer to the printing process.

Drypoint: An intaglio technique in which marks are cut directly into a metal plate using a tool with a sharp point. The drypoint needle is used like a pencil to incise lines into the plate, displacing ridges of metal called burrs. The plate is wiped with ink, which collects in the incisions as well as under the burrs. Damp paper is laid on the plate, and they are run through a press together, transferring ink from both the incision and the burr, resulting in the drypoint’s characteristic fuzzy line.

Engraving: A technique that creates precise lines which swell in the middle and taper at the ends. Lines are incised into a bare metal plate using a burin, a tool with a V-shaped blade. The plate is wiped with ink, which collects in the incisions. Damp paper is laid on the plate, and they are run through a press together, transferring ink from the incisions to the paper.

Etching: An intaglio technique that can create a wide variety of printed marks. A resist is first applied to a clean metal plate (such as zinc or copper).  The resist is selectively scraped off to reveal the bare plate beneath. When the plate is placed in a corrosive acid bath, only the exposed metal areas corrode. The plate is then inked; ink remaining on the surface of the plate is wiped away with cheesecloth, news print, or hand-wiping. Damp paper is laid on the plate; paper and plate are run through a press, and the ink is transferred from the recesses to the paper.

Intaglio: A term for the family of printing techniques which transfers ink from the recesses of a matrix, rather than from its surface. Techniques using intaglio printing include etching, engraving, drypoint, aquatint, and mezzotint. Intaglio comes from the Italian word intaglaire, which means “to incise.”

Letterpress: A relief technique for printing movable type (though blocks with images may also be used). Metal, wood, or polymer forms of a standard height are set in place in the bed of a press. Since ink is transferred from the surface of the blocks by the application of pressure, letterpress prints are recognizable for their embossed printed forms.

Linocut: A relief technique using a sheet of linoleum from which shapes are gouged away using chisels or knives, leaving the printing image as the raised surface. Ink is transferred from the surface of the block by the application of pressure. Linoleum is softer and therefore easier to carve than wood; however, it exhibits neither wood’s characteristic grain nor its durability.

Lithography: A planographic technique that can print a variety of drawn and painterly marks. Traditionally, a grease pencil or tusche (greasy watercolor) is applied to a flat slab of limestone, selectively filling the stone’s pores. A chemical mixture securely bonds the stone before water is used to fill the remaining pores. The oil-based ink used is attracted only to those areas that have retained grease. Damp paper is laid on the face of the stone, and they are run through a press together, transferring ink from the surface. Aluminum plates may also be used.

Mezzotint: An intaglio technique in which the surface of a metal plate is first uniformly pitted using a rocker. A mezzotint rocker is serrated on the bottom and must be rocked back and forth by hand, a demanding task. A rounded metal tool called a burnisher is then used to gradually and selectively smooth out areas, causing them to retain less ink. Damp paper is laid on the plate, and they are run through a press together. The fully pitted areas transfer more ink than the burnished sections, creating mezzotint’s characteristic gradations of tone.

Monotyping: A technique involving the painting, rolling, or scraping of ink onto a uniform surface, which is transferred to paper by the application of pressure. Because the monotype matrix is unaltered and each unique inking is transferred in a single printing, the print cannot be duplicated, hence its name.

Offset printing: A technique commonly used in commercial printing where an image is transferred first to a rubber cylinder on a mechanized press, from which it is then printed onto paper. An indirect process, offset printing is beneficial because it does not reverse the image from the matrix, nor does the matrix deteriorate quickly. A common use of this technique is offset lithography.

Photogravure: A general term for any metal plate process in which an image has been transferred to a metal surface by photographic means. A corrosive bath is used to incise the image into the plate before inking and printing. Photoetching is a term alternatively used.

Screenprinting: A technique using stencils made of silk or a synthetic fabric, which has been stretched over a frame. Areas of the screen that are not part of the printing image can be blocked out using a variety of methods. In one common method, the screen is first evenly coated with a water-soluble, light-sensitive liquid. A transparency bearing a printed image prevents projected UV light from hardening parts of the screen. Unhardened areas are then washed out with water before a squeegee is used to press ink evenly through the screen, directly onto paper or fabric. This technique is also known as silkscreen or serigraphy.

Woodcut: A relief technique using a plank of wood from which shapes are gouged away using chisels or knives, leaving the printing image as the raised surface. Ink is transferred from the surface of the block by the application of pressure. Woodcuts are characteristic both for the grain that is often evident in the printed image, as well as for their durability.

Wood Engraving: A relief technique requiring a hard plank of wood, which is incised with fine lines using sharp tools. Unlike the woodcut, a wood engraving requires a harder plank whose face is cut perpendicular to the grain. Ink is transferred from the surface of the block by the application of pressure.


Acid: A term sometimes used to refer to the corrosive solution in which a metal plate is etched for intaglio printing. The concentration of this bath is precisely measured, as is the period of a plate’s submersion.

Baren: Hand tool used to firmly rub the back of the sheet of paper in order to pick up ink from the matrix.

Brayer: A roller used to spread ink on a matrix.

Matrix: A physical surface that can be manipulated to hold ink, which is then transferred to paper. Most, though not all, matrices are able to print the same image many times. Matrices used in printmaking include blocks of wood, sheets of linoleum, metal plates, sheets of Plexiglass, and slabs of limestone.

Relief Carving Tools: Tools, such as chisels and knives, used to carve into a matrix of wood or linoleum.

Resist: An etching resist (such as hard ground or asphaltum) is applied to the plate in order to prevent an acid solution from corroding the surface. The artist scratches off the resist using a variety of etching tools: these lines are etched into the plate by exposing the bare metal to acid.

Artist Annotations

Artist’s Proof (A.P.): A print reserved for the artist and not included in the numbered edition. An artist’s proof can be identified by the inscription “A.P.” found in the lower left-hand margin. Alternatively, printer’s proofs are reserved for the printer and are inscribed “P.P.”

Bon à Tirer (B.A.T.): A print that is not included in the edition, but which indicates the standard a printer tried to duplicate for the edition. A print which is bon à tirer (translated from French as “ready to pull”) can be identified by the inscription “B.A.T.” found in the lower left-hand margin.

Edition: A set of identical prints made from the same matrix (or set of matrices). Often a number of other prints – artist’s proofs, printer’s proofs, bon à tirer, and hors commerce (“not for trade”) prints – are made at the same time but are not considered to be part of the numbered edition. Each print in a limited edition is usually numbered in the lower left-hand margin. The form of this inscription is as follows: number in the edition/size of the edition (i.e. 15/50). To guarantee a limited edition, the artist or printer can “strike” the plate by incising an X on the printing face after completion.

Impression: Any numbered print from a completed edition.

Printer: The specialist who provides technical aide throughout the printing process. A master printer may have a group of assistants. Historically, printmaking has been characterized by a divided production process, where artist and printer work collaboratively but accomplish different tasks.

Proof: A print that is not considered to be part of the numbered edition. Examples include prints made in advance of the edition – known as “trail proofs” – as well as those made at the time of the edition, but which are reserved for the artist or printer.

Publisher: The entity responsible for funding the development and production of an edition. Commonly, this is in exchange for either a percentage of the edition or of the profits from its sale. Some printshops publish their own editions.