What Are The Four Main Printing Techniques?

Many experts agree that printmaking techniques can be roughly divided into four basic categories: relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil.

Printed materials are all around us, from newspapers and magazines to packaging and advertising. But have you ever stopped to think about what are the four main printing techniques?

Four main printmaking methods are commonly used in the industry, each with its unique process and characteristics. Let’s take a closer look at what these techniques are and how they differ from Cheryl G. Harris.


  • The four main printing techniques are relief printing, incised printing, lithography, and screen technique. 
  • Relief printing involves ink being applied to raised surfaces on plates or blocks.
  • The printing parts are then pressed to paper, transferring the image.
  • Intaglio printing works by incising images into plates, leaving engraved lines to hold ink.
  • The plate goes through a printing press and the image gets transferred to paper under high pressure. 
  • Lithography utilizes the mutual repulsion of oil and water to separate image and non-image areas on a plate. Ink adheres only to the image sections.
  • Screen printing, also known as serigraphy, uses stencils to block off sections that should not receive ink.
  • The stencil openings define the printed image.
  • All four techniques enabled new possibilities in art, design, and visual communication.

What Are The Four Main Printing Techniques?

The four primary printing processes cover the other printing techniques explained utilized in different sectors of the economy. Each method uses diverse materials, procedures, and applications to provide distinctive ways to transfer designs or images onto various surfaces. Relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil printing are the main printing methods.

Relief Printing

One of the four fundamental printmaking techniques, along with planographic, stencil, and intaglio. The earliest reproduction method is called relief pressing, and it includes woodcut, linocut, rubber stamps, hand-set type, and related techniques like potato prints. 

In intaglio, the dye is administered to the incisions on the plate or block, whereas here it is applied to the top surface. It is possible to print relief on incised plates, and occasionally cut in and relief inkings are mixed.

Advantages & Limitations 

SimplicityDetail Limitation
ReproducibilityIncompatibility with Continuous Tones
Bold and Graphic ResultsDifficulty with Revisions
Low-cost MaterialsLimited Color Range
VersatilitySurface Texture Limitation


Relief pressing is a traditional reproduction method where the design is sculpted or cut into a block’s surface, leaving the raised areas that will hold the dye. When stamped, these raised areas transfer the graphic onto the printing surface.

  1. Design Creation: In the preparation of the design, the artist has two options for sketching or transferring the desired design onto the printing block’s surface. This can be accomplished by either directly sketching onto the block or by transferring a separate drawing onto the surface.
  2. Block Preparation: When it comes to the selection of block material for relief presses, commonly used options include wood, linocut material, or rubber blankets. Once the desired material is chosen, the surface of the selected block undergoes a series of preparations, including smoothing, cleaning, and cutting it to the desired size.
  3. Carving or Etching:
    • Sculpting the Design: Using specialized sculpting tools such as chisels, gouges, or knives, the artist sculpts away the areas of the block that are not part of the intended design. This process leaves the raised areas that will hold the dye for printing.
    • Linocut material vs. Woodcut: Linocut material blocks are softer and easier to sculpt, whereas woodcut involves sculpting into wooden plates, which might be more durable but require more effort to sculpt.
  4. Ink Application: To ink the relief block, a dye is evenly applied to its surface using a roller known as a brayer. This method allows for the creation of a smooth and consistent wave effect. The dye selectively adheres to the raised areas of the design, while the carved-away areas remain clean and free of ink.
  5. Printing Process:
    • Placement of Paper: A sheet of paper is carefully positioned on top of the stamped block, ensuring proper alignment and coverage of the printing area.
    • Application of Pressure: The block and paper are printed on a press or hand-pressed to apply even pressure. This causes the stamped areas of the block to transfer the design onto the paper.
  6. Drying and Finishing:
    • Drying the Print: Once the print is made, the paper needs time to dry completely. This allows the dye to set and adhere properly to the paper.
    • Editioning and Finishing: Multiple prints, which exist in multiple versions, called an edition, can be produced. Each print is inspected, signed, and numbered by the artist before further finishing or framing to create unique works.

Common types of Relief pressing include Woodcut and Linocut. 

Relief TechniqueDescription
WoodcutThe earliest relief-printing method involves painting or pasting a design onto a wood block. The design is then sculpted using knives and gouges. 
Different types of wood are used, such as pear, rose, or pine. Printing is done with a press or by hand rubbing with a wooden spoon, using solid and sticky dye applied with dabbers or rollers.
LinocutLinoleum is used as the foundation. The design is sculpted into the linoleum surface, creating a mirror image of the intended print. 
Linocut material allows for clear lines and smooth areas when printing by hand or using a printer. This technique produces rich prints without the need for heavy pressure.

Intaglio printing

Intaglio printing is a group of printing and plate-making techniques in which an image is carve-out into a surface and incisions or depressions hold the dye. It is the direct opposite of embossed printing in which sections of the matrix cause the image to float on the main surface.

Intaglio printing and plate-making techniques in which an image is carve-out into a surface and incisions or depressions hold the dye.

Advantages & Limitations 

Fine DetailingComplex Process
Tonal RangeEquipment and Materials Cost
LongevityChemical Handling and Safety
Handcrafted AestheticPlate Preparation Time
Variety of MaterialsLimited Editions and Revisions


This printing is a versatile reproduction method where the design is cut, scratched, or cut in into a plate below the surface. The plate can be made of various materials such as copper, zinc, or plastic. Dye is administered to the plate and then wiped clean from the surface, leaving pigment only in the cut-in lines. 

  1. Plate Preparation: The choice of plate for creating prints typically involves using metal sheets, such as copper, zinc, or steel. These materials provide a suitable surface for the image creation process. Before proceeding, the plate is carefully polished and thoroughly cleaned to ensure a smooth and flawless surface. This step is crucial in achieving optimal results during the image creation process.
  2. Image Creation:
    • Incising or Etching: Artists use various tools and techniques to create the image on the plate’s surface. For etching, a protective acid-resistant ground is applied to the plate. The artist then uses a needle or etching tool to draw the image by removing this ground to expose the metal beneath.
    • Aquatint or Tone Adding: For creating tonal areas, an aquatint technique involving resin dust or granules is applied to the plate before incising to achieve various tonal values.
  3. Chemical Treatment:
    • Etching the Plate: The plate is immersed in an acid solution (such as nitric acid for copper or zinc plates) that bites or etches into the exposed metal areas, creating the recessed lines or textures that will hold the pigment.
    • Cleaning and Preparing the Plate: Once the desired lines and tones are sculpted, the plate is cleaned and dried.
  4. Ink Application: During the inking process, a dye is applied to the entire plate surface using a brayer. The artist works the dye into the carved lines and textures, ensuring thorough coverage. Excess ink is then carefully wiped off the surface, leaving a precisely inked image in the carved areas.
  5. Printing Process:
    • Paper Dampening: Special printmaking paper is dampened to make it more flexible and receptive to the dye.
    • Plate and Paper Alignment: The stamped plate is placed on the press bed, and the dampened paper is carefully positioned on top of the plate.
    • Pressing the Print: The plate and paper are run through a carved-out printing press under high pressure. The pressure forces the paper into the carved-out lines and textures, transferring the pigment onto the paper.
  6. Drying and Finishing:
    • Drying the Print: The freshly printed paper is carefully removed and allowed to dry completely.
    • Editioning and Finishing: Multiple prints or editions can be produced, with each one carefully inspected, signed, and numbered by the artist before further finishing or mounting.

Common types of Intaglio pressing include Etching and Engraving. 

Intaglio Printing ProcessDescription
EtchingCreating lines or textures with acids involves covering a metal sheet with an acid-resistant coating. The design is scratched or pressed into the coating to reveal the metal underneath. The plate is then submerged in acid, incising the exposed metal to achieve the desired lines or textures.
EngravingMaking grooves on a plate without using acid involves using a burin, a tool with a v-shaped blade. The artist pushes the burin through the metal, gradually removing material to create engraved lines. These lines have a slight swell and tapering “v” shape, adding depth and texture to the artwork.


Planographic printing means printing from a flat surface, as opposed to a raised surface (as with relief pressing) or carved-out surface. Lithography and offset lithography are planographic processes that rely on the property that water will not mix with oil.

This printing is one of the four basic methods of printmaking, which also include relief, intaglio, and stencil. In this printmaking, mainly the exploring offset lithography methods, the image is not sculpted out but is printed from a single plane that has been treated chemically so some areas hold the pigment and others refuse it.

Advantages & Limitations

Pros Cons 
Versatility in Image CreationSpecialized Equipment and Skills
High-Quality ReproductionsPlate Sensitivity
Cost-Effectiveness for Large RunsCostly Plate Preparation
Wide Range of MaterialsLimited Compatibility with Some Dyes and Surfaces
Eco-friendly ProcessComplexity in Color Printing


Planographic printing refers to a method of printing where the printing surface is flat and level, distinguishing it from relief or intaglio processes. 

  1. Plate Preparation:
    • Surface Preparation: A flat, smooth surface is prepared for printing. Traditionally, this involves using a lithographic stone (limestone) or a metal sheet (usually aluminum) with a finely-grained surface.
    • Application of Emulsion or Treatment: The plate surface is treated with a mixture of gum arabic and acid to make it water-receptive in non-image areas and ink-receptive in image areas.
  2. Image Creation: The image creation process involves direct drawing or transferring onto the plate using tools like crayons, pencils, or pigment. Alternatively, artists can transfer images from separate drawings or through photography. These approaches offer different ways to bring desired images onto the plate surface.
  3. Chemical Treatment: A chemical process involving incising with acid or other chemicals is used to fix the image onto the plate. The treated areas retain the dye, while the non-image areas repel pigment.
  4. Ink Application: Dye, typically oil-based or special lithographic dye, is applied to the entire plate surface using rollers or a pressurized system. The dye adheres only to the image areas due to its affinity for oil-based substances.
  5. Printing Process:
    • Transfer to Substrate: The plate is then placed on a printing press. A dampened sheet of paper or other substrate is brought into contact with the pigment surface.
    • Application of Pressure: The press applies pressure uniformly across the surface, transferring the stamped image from the plate onto the substrate.
  6. Drying and Finishing:
    • Drying: The printed material needs time to dry completely, allowing the pigment to adhere properly to the substrate.
    • Finishing Touches: Once dried, the printed material may undergo additional processes such as trimming, folding, or other finishing techniques, depending on the intended use.

One example of Planography is Lithography:

  • the process of offset lithography is based on the principle of using oil and liquid that do not mix.
  • The image is drawn or painted on a stone or metal plate using greasy litho crayon or pigment.
  • A carve-out is applied to fix the drawing and protect it from water.
  • A mixture of gum resin and nitric acid, called etch, is used to protect the drawing and desensitize the non-drawn areas.
  • The gum Arabic surrounds the greasy sections, creating an insoluble film that repels water and establishes a grease reservoir.
  • The greasy drawing attracts dye but repels water.
  • When the stone is dampened and dye is rolled over it, the pigment adheres to the greasy drawing but not the wet areas.
  • The term used for this process aims to closely duplicate the drawing on the final print.
  • It is a complex method but can result in a deceptively simple and direct print, making it appealing to artists who prefer a more straightforward approach compared to other overview of primary printing methods.


The technique of stencil printing involves applying solder paste on printed wiring boards (PWBs) to create electrical connections. The component placement stage comes just after it. A template, solder paste, and a printer are the tools and supplies utilized in this step.

Advantages & Limitations

Pros Cons 
Simplicity and AccessibilityLimitations in Detail
VersatilityDesign Complexity
ReproducibilityStencil Durability
CustomizationDye Bleeding and Seepage
Speed and EfficiencySingle-Color Limitation


This printing is a versatile technique used in various artistic, commercial, and DIY applications. It involves creating a design on a stencil material and applying dye or paint through the template onto a surface to reproduce the design. 

  1. Design Creation:
    • Selection of Material: Stencils can be made from various materials such as paper, cardboard, acetate, plastic, or metal. The choice of material depends on the intended use and the desired durability of the template.
    • Creating or Tracing the Design: The desired design is drawn or traced onto the template material. This can be done manually by cutting out the design using a craft knife or by using a cutting machine for more intricate designs.
  2. Preparation:
    • Cutting: Using a craft knife or cutting tool, the design is carefully cut out of the template material, leaving behind the areas where dye or paint will be applied onto the printing surface.
    • Multiple Layers (if necessary): For more complex designs with multiple colors or layers, separate templates are usually done and created for each color or element of the design.
  3. Surface Preparation: The surface to be printed on (such as paper, fabric, walls, etc.) is prepared by ensuring it is clean, dry, and suitable for receiving the dye or paint.
  4. Ink or Paint Application:
    • Securing: The template is positioned and secured onto the printing surface using adhesive or weights to prevent movement during printing.
    • Applying Ink or Paint: Ink or paint is applied over the stencil using a brush, roller, spray, or sponge. Care must be taken to apply an even layer without allowing the dye to seep under the edges of the template.
  5. Printing Process: After applying the dye or paint evenly, the template or stencil is lifted to reveal the printed design on the surface. Multiple layers, if used, are applied separately, allowing each layer to dry before applying the next.
  6. Drying and Finishing:
    • Drying the Print: The printed surface is allowed to dry completely. Depending on the inkjet or paint used and the material being printed on, drying times may vary.
    • Finishing Touches: After drying, the printed material may undergo additional finishing touches such as heatset (for fabric prints), sealing, or framing for display.

Common types of Stencil pressing include Screen printing, Spray Painting and Hand-Cut. 

Stencil Printing ProcessDescription
Screen PrintingIt creates templates on a mesh screen using methods like emulsion or direct film positives. The pigment is forced through the template onto the surface with a squeegee. Popular for textiles, posters, signage, and more.
Spray Painting It uses templates made from various materials to spray paint or dye designs onto surfaces. Popular in street art, graffiti, and DIY projects.
Hand-Cut It involves manually cutting designs on various materials using knives or scissors. It’s versatile and widely used in arts and crafts.

Comparison of Techniques

The comparison of techniques between relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil printing methods is crucial for businesses, especially those in the packaging industry and printing industry. Each technique involves the creation of a printing plate to produce a product, whether it be digital prints, works of art, or packaging materials.

Incised printmaking, one of the oldest types of printmaking techniques, uses methods like incising and engraving onto a metal plate or original surface, while relief pressing, such as wood engraving, is one of the simplest and can also be used to create monotypes. 

The comparison of techniques between relief, intaglio, planographic, and stencil printing

Planographic techniques, like the lithographic process, involve printing from a flat surface, while stenciling involves scraping or applying dye onto the surface of the matrix, such as wood and linoleum. 

These different techniques of printmaking have been utilized by famous artists like Andy Warhol and can be applied to a variety of industries and purposes. 

Factors for Comparison


  • Relief Printing: Generally considered less complex due to its straightforward process of sculpting or etching process the design onto a surface.
  • Intaglio Printing: Involves intricate plate preparation and chemical processes, often considered more complex than relief pressing.
  • Planographic Printing: This can involve moderate complexity due to the chemical treatment of plates and the need for precision in creating and processing the image.
  • Stencil Printing: Relatively simple compared to other techniques, especially with hand-cut templates, but complexity can increase with more intricate designs or multiple layers.


  • Relief Printing: Usually cost-effective as it requires minimal equipment and materials, suitable for beginners and small-scale projects.
  • Intaglio Printing: Often involves higher costs due to specialized materials, chemicals, and equipment required for plate preparation.
  • Planographic Printing: Moderate cost, varying based on plate materials and chemical supplies used.
  • Stencil Printing: Generally low-cost due to minimal equipment and material requirements, suitable for DIY and small-scale projects.


  • Relief Printing: Bold and graphic results with potential limitations in fine details compared to other techniques.
  • Intaglio Printing: Known for high quality reproductions with intricate details and a wide tonal range, suitable for fine art.
  • Planographic Printing: Offers high-quality reproductions with intricate details and continuous tones.
  • Stencil Printing: Capable of producing bold designs but may have limitations in achieving fine details or complex multicolor designs.


  • Relief Printing: Versatile in creating bold designs but limited in intricate detail compared to other methods.
  • Intaglio Printing: Offers versatility in creating detailed prints with various tonal values and textures.
  • Planographic Printing: Versatile in producing complex designs, continuous tones, and fine details.
  • Stencil Printing: Flexible for creating designs on various surfaces but may have limitations in achieving intricate detail.

Selection of Technique based on Specific Needs and Applications

  • Relief Printing: Ideal for bold and graphic designs, suitable for small-scale projects, posters, illustrations, and block printing.
  • Intaglio Printing: Preferred for fine art, editions, and reproductions requiring intricate details, suitable for artists seeking high-quality prints.
  • Planographic Printing: Useful for complex designs, continuous tones, and fine details, suitable for commercial printing, lithographic processes, and large-scale projects.
  • Stencil Printing: Versatile for custom designs, signage, fabric printing, and DIY projects with simpler designs and bold effects.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Woodcut is a printmaking technique where the image is sculpted into a wood block, leaving the image areas raised, which are then inked and printed onto paper.

Etching is a printmaking technique where an image is drawn onto a metal plate coated in an acid-resistant, waxy substance. The plate is then submerged in acid, which bites into the exposed metal, creating the image.

Engraving and collagraph are printmaking techniques where an image is sculpted into a metal plate using a tool called a burin. Ink is then applied to the plate, and the surface is wiped clean, leaving ink only in the carved-out lines which are then printed onto paper.

It is a printmaking technique based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. The image is drawn with a greasy substance on a smooth limestone or metal plate, then inked image and printed onto paper.

In addition, comparing lithography and offset printing, it is evident that the lithographic process allows for artistic control based on the grease-water principle, while offset printing excels in high-speed production through image transfer on a rubber blanket.

A monotype is a unique printmaking technique where only one strong impression is made from an image painted on a smooth plate, resulting in a single print.


The four main printmaking methods are raised printing, carved-out printing, planographic printing, and template printing. Each method involves a specific order to print, using a different surface such as the surface of the wood or a stone or plate. Prints are produced using a variety of tools and techniques, such as an etching press or a burin. 

These techniques result in unique visual qualities and are often combined to create intricate and detailed images. Printmakers, such as Albrecht Dürer, use strong acid to create etchings, while woodblock prints are produced by sculpting using a separate block. The paper is placed on the ink-blocking template, and the image is painted directly onto it. 

Overall, each technique has its key characteristics, and they all offer a diverse range of graphic images for those who want to learn and explore the art of printmaking. 

Please contact wlo-usa.org for assistance if you have any queries or would like to learn more about how offset printing works. We are pleased to support every one of you as needed. with us to receive assistance.

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