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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students.

What makes all of these interesting to me is that all can be done with simple materials and no commercial printing press. These printing plates can be inked and printed by hand. What this means is that anyone with the interest can do any of these techniques with a fair amount of success. Moreover, there’s nothing that makes you understand the artistry in current, automated, commercial printing like a personal experience with one of the hand-printing techniques. After all, custom printing is both an art and a craft.


The word “collagraphy” (also spelled “collography”) is derived from the Greek words for “glue” and “writing.” The process was developed in 1955 by Glen Alps. Collagraphy starts with a printing plate made of wood or paperboard (bristol or perhaps chipboard, for instance). You add materials to build up texture (and/or subject matter). Then you paint ink or roll ink onto the raised areas of the plate (to produce a “relief” or raised print), or you use a roller or paint brush to flood the plate with printing ink, and then you wipe the ink off the raised areas. (This yields an “intaglio” print in which the recessed areas of the plate transfer the ink to the paper substrate.)

What makes this interesting is all the materials you can use. In addition to gluing down pieces of cardboard, you can build up texture with gesso or other acrylic media, or you can glue leaves or even banana peels, textiles, string, or sandpaper to the plate. In this way you can create patterns or textures.

Overall, this process will allow you to create dramatic tonal variations due to the depth (i.e., thickness) of the relief plate and the textures you can create.

(If you think about it, this is not that different from the raised areas that are built up for creasing and scoring paper using the Highcon Euclud digital machine. With this equipment, you can use digital data to produce raised areas on a plate that will then crease and score press sheets.)

One thing I have read about collagraphy in some art books is that once you make the plate, you can shellac it. This will seal the plate and provide an impermeable surface that you can more easily wipe clean as you change or add ink colors.

Once you have created the plate, you can print it. Since most of you (myself included, actually) won’t have access to an art printing press, you can just lay the printing paper on top of the inked plate and then burnish it with the back of a wooden spoon. When you peel off the printing paper, the image will transfer from the collagraph plate to your printing sheet.

(To refer back to the art therapy work my fiancee and I do, we once made tribal masks using the fluting of corrugated board for texture. Our students glued pieces of this fluting to flat corrugated liner board, creating relief sculptures of the masks. Although we didn’t have time to do any printing, we could easily have used these relief mask sculptures as collagraph plates and printed the masks onto press sheets. In fact I hope to do this same project again sometime and have the students not only make the masks but use them as custom printing plates as well.)

Andy Warhol’s Blotting Techniques

I studied Andy Warhol’s work for a recent art class with our autistic students so I could provide background information as the students drew and then painted shoes. Early in his career, Andy Warhol, who was actually born Andy Warhola, did illustrations for Glamour magazine. If you look him up online, you will find many of his drawings of high-fashion shoes. My fiancee and I used these shoe illustrations as a starting point for this week’s art therapy painting project.

While Warhol was drawing and painting shoes, he came up with a technique called the “blotting line” technique which involved drawing a line in ink and then blotting it while it was still wet. This changed the texture of the line and was in a very basic way a printing technique (transferring an image from one flat surface to another by blotting). As simple as this sounds, it developed over time into not only Warhol’s signature style of advertising art but also the photo-silkscreen printing for which he is so well known. In both cases (and in his use of photocopy machines and tracing), Warhol explored the artistic effects of repeated images. (You may have seen Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or multiple images of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face.) All of this, plus the initial “printing” quality of the “blotting line” technique, was incorporated into Warhol’s artistic style.

Monotype Printing

Here’s another technique you can do at home without a commercial printing press. It’s called monotyping, and you can do it in a number of ways. You can paint an image onto a non-porous plate (such as a plexiglass, glass, or—as was done historically—copper plate). Then you place the printing paper over the inked plate, and you burnish it with even pressure all across the back of the sheet using the back of a wooden spoon to press the paper into the ink. You can do this with a printing press as well, but in this case, you can’t use a glass plate, or it will shatter from the pressure.

Another way to make a monotype (in this case called a transfer monotype) is to first ink the plate completely in a single color. Then you lay the printing sheet over the ink and carefully draw an image on the back of the sheet with a pencil or stylus. (If your fingers touch the paper, even slight pressure will transfer ink from the plate to the printing paper.) When you peel the press sheet off the plate, the areas you have drawn will be in color (the pressure of the pencil picks up ink from the printing plate), and everything else will be the unprinted paper.

A third way to approach monotypes is to ink the plate completely and then use paintbrushes, rags, and/or a stylus to remove ink selectively from the solid background prior to printing.

Monotyping yields one good print. However, the transfer from the plate to the substrate changes the nature of the lines and solids in subtle ways (the pressure does this to the ink film). Therefore, you wind up with a single, somewhat uncontrolled but nevertheless unique image. If you try to print the plate again, you will usually get only a faint image.

(If you do some research, you’ll find that the British Romantic poet William Blake made monotypes to illustrate his poetry.)

Choosing the ink is an important step. I have read about printing with watercolors, but I have had more success with actual oil-based printing inks. If you choose oil-based inks you can print the substrate either wet or dry. If the printing stock is dry, there will be more contrast in the print. If the paper is wet, you’ll get a greater range of tones.

Once you have printed the plate, you can go back into the image with watercolor, ink, or any other medium to embellish the work.

What you get out of this is the serendipitous accidents akin to watercolor painting. Since you can’t control every element of monotyping, you incorporate the elements of chance and irregularity into your work, and this often makes the art print more unique.

How Does This Pertain to Commercial Printing?

Even though some artists consider fine arts to be superior to commercial art, if you do the research you’ll find that such famous artists as Toulouse Lautrec (posters), Piet Mondrain (Mondrain layout grids for graphic design), Andy Warhol (screen printing and illustration), and N.C. Wyeth (magazine illustrations) all worked in both the fine arts and graphic (or commercial) arts. After all, the principles of good design cross over from one discipline to the other.

If you are a graphic designer or a printer, it can only enhance your appreciation of your craft to see how famous artists have approached custom printing. Understanding the history of the arts broadens and deepens your own knowledge and skill in your craft.

As noted before, learning to hand-print images will help you understand the art and craft that underlie the automation of contemporary commercial printing. You will understand, for instance, what it means for images to be “in register.” This concept comes into play whether you’re using a million dollar press or printing colors from a glass printing plate, using a wooden spoon to rub the image from the plate onto the paper.

So the short answer is that nothing empowers us like knowledge and personal experience. Moreover, knowledge and experience can enhance our love for our craft.

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