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Print or Poster?

Images printed on paper. They're everywhere; printed images adorn our surroundings and broadcast information. But the word itself, "print," is vague and overarching. The word is self-explanatory by nature of its verb-form:"a print is what you get when you *print* a marking substance onto a surface." But there are many types of prints, only a few being etchings, lithographs, screen-prints, and wood-cuts. This is where things can get confusing. How do we tell the difference between these types of prints? And what, then, are posters, perhaps the most common form of print available? Answers to these questions can be found in the processes by which different types of prints are made. To best explain the difference between types of prints, it can be helpful to organize printmaking techniques into broad camps, such as intaglio, relief, planography, and stenciling. Let's start with intaglio printing.



A printing technique that involves making indents or incisions into a plate; the incisions hold the ink which is then transferred to a surface when put through a press.


Etching: "a picture produced by printing from a metal plate that has been etched with acid."

An etching is produced by covering a copper or zinc plate with a layer of acid-resistant "ground". Lines are drawn through the ground with a pointed instrument which then exposes the metal plate beneath. The plate is then immersed in acid which "bites" into the exposed metal, creating incised lines. The resist, or "ground," is removed, ink is applied to the incised lines, and the excess is wiped away. The plate is then put through a press which transfers the ink from the incised lines onto paper.

Etching as a means of printmaking was most prominent during the sixteenth century, utilized by such artists as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The medium was later mastered by artists like Rembrandt during the seventeenth century. Etchings are often black and white, or sepia toned, but artists can choose to introduce different colors of ink (and different techniques such as 'spit-biting' and open-biting') to vary the composition.

Rembrandt Van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669)

The Three Trees


Etching, Engraving, Dry-point

8 3/8 x 11 in.

Estimate: $245,865 - $327,820.00

Sold: $590,076.00



A printmaking technique in which the printing surface is cut away so that the image alone appears raised on the surface.


Woodcut: "A method of relief printing from a block of wood cut along the grain."

The woodcut, or woodblock print, is "a relief process in which knives and other tools are used to carve a design into the surface of a wooden block." The negative space is carved away, after which the remaining raised surface is inked and pressed into paper, either by hand or printing press. Woodcuts can accommodate a great many styles; Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints are renowned for their serenity and level of stylized detail, while German Expressionist prints, like those by Emil Nolde and Hermann Max Pechstein, exhibit dramatic, expressive emotion.

Woodcuts should not be mistaken for wood engravings, an intaglio printing method using a wooden block instead of a metal plate.

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760 - 1849)

Fugaku Sanjurokkei, Vues du Mont Fuji

c. 1831

Woodcut in colors (oban yoko-e)

26.10 x 38.20cm

Estimate: $1,391,040 - $1,788,480.00

Sold: $1,341,360.00



The process (such as lithography) for printing from a plane surface.


Lithography: "the process of printing from a plane surface (such as a smooth stone or metal plate) on which the image to be printed is ink-receptive and the blank area ink-repellent."

A lithograph is produced by applying an image to a grained surface (stone or aluminum) using a greasy medium such as tusche, crayon, pencils, or lacquer. A solution of gum-arabic and nitric acid is then applied over the surface, producing water-receptive non-printing areas and grease-receptive image areas. The printing surface is kept wet, so that a roller charged with oil-based ink can be rolled over the surface, and ink will only stick to the grease-receptive image area. Paper is then placed against the surface and the plate is run through a press.

Lithography was invented in the late eighteenth century, and its invention made it possible to print a much wider range of marks and areas of tone than possible with earlier printmaking relief or intaglio methods. French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made great use of the lithograph with his depictions of Parisian Belle-Époque nightlife. Joan Miró, Alphonse Mucha, Käthe Kollwitz, and Marc Chagall too utilized this printing method during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864-1901)

The Seated Clowness (Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o) (from the series Elles)


Lithograph (Suite of 10)

20 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.

Estimate: $500,000 - $600,000.00

Sold: $800,000.00



An impervious material perforated with lettering or a design through which a substance (such as ink, paint, or metallic powder) is forced onto a surface to be printed.


Screenprint: "also known as silk screening or silkscreen printing, is the process of transferring a stenciled design onto a surface using a mesh screen, ink, and a squeegee (a rubber blade)."

Screenprinting has been used commercially since the 1920's; only by the 1930's was the technique adopted by American artists. The term 'serigraph' was initially used to denote an artist's print, as opposed to commercial work. This method of printing was used most notably by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein during the mid-twentieth century.

Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997)

Brushstroke Still Life with Lamp


Screenprint, magna/aluminum

49 1/2 x 67 3/4 in.

Estimate: $357,840 - $497,000.00

Sold: $755,440.00

Now, how do you tell the difference?

Well, that's where we come in! It can be difficult to identify types of prints without an experienced eye, but there are clues you can look for. Etchings and other intaglio prints can often be identified by the deep indentation surrounding the image caused by the plate being pressed into the paper during the printing process. Woodcuts will sometimes retain the wood-grain of the block in the printed surface, while the ink should appear raised on the paper of fine lithographs and screen prints.

It's also important to differentiate between an original and a reproduction print. An 'original' print is a unique work that is printed, typically numbered, and often signed/stamped by the artist. Original prints can be either a single unique work or a vast edition of multiples printed from the same plate or block, all signed and numbered by the artist. Even if your original print is unsigned, some artists stamp their work or incorporate their signature into the print itself. You could hold a limited edition or a rarity because of stamping mistakes or color variations identified in the artist's catalogue raisonné. While not common, mistakes in the printing process do happen and some artists choose to publish them anyway, making them quite the commodity.

Reproduction prints, on the other hand, are often mechanically produced and digitally printed not by the hand of the artist. While they will likely lack edition numbers and signatures, you can still find high quality reproductions in the form of Giclee prints (a technology for fine art or photograph reproduction using a high-quality inkjet printer to make individual copies) printed on thick archival paper.

So after all this, what is a poster? Well, a poster can be any printed announcement or artwork used for advertisement or decoration. And they can be made from any printing method, original or reproduction! It really depends on the intent of the printer whether to call their print a poster. For example, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's lithographs of the Moulin Rouge were originally created to be advertising posters. Today, they are considered works of fine art! Nowadays, contemporary corporate posters are typically mass-produced on an industrial scale; they are often unsigned and hold little monetary value, though sentimental value or niche interest can outweigh such concerns; that doesn't mean they're not beautiful or collectible!



“Collecting Guide 11 Key Things to Know about Prints & Multiples.” 2019. Christies. June 3, 2019.

“Definition of LITHOGRAPHY.” 2019. 2019.

“Definition of PLANOGRAPHY.” n.d. Accessed August 11, 2022.

“Definition of STENCILING.” n.d. Accessed August 11, 2022.

“Lithograph.” 2021. 2021.

“Poster | MoMA.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed August 11, 2022.

“Relief Print | MoMA.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed August 11, 2022.

“Screen Printing: How It Works, Benefits & Applications | Ynvisible.” n.d.

“Woodcut.” 2021. 2021.

Cambridge Dictionary. 2022. “Etching.” @CambridgeWords. August 10, 2022.

Tate. 2017. “Etching – Art Term | Tate.” Tate. 2017.

———. “Lithography – Art Term | Tate.” Tate. 2017.

———. “Screenprint – Art Term | Tate.” Tate. 2017.

———. “Woodcut – Art Term | Tate.” Tate. 2017.



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