#PrintingProcesses: Relief Printing

We are starting our new series #PrintingProcesses with the original, first-ever printing process: Relief Printing. With this technique you cut an inverted version of your intended print into a plank of wood, linoleum or metal plates, apply the ink onto the plate and press it down on paper to create the image, like a stamp.

Printing Processes

After our #PrintingProfessions series has now come to an end, we are focussing our attention on another area of our basic education in print: Printing processes. Are you a newcomer to the world of printing and don’t know where to start? Or maybe just a devoted print enthusiast who wants to freshen up on the basics? Then you’ve come to the right place! With this segment, we’re introducing you to all the basic yet very important techniques and fundamental knowledge of the print technologies, we know and utilize to this day.  

Accessible All Around the World

The first printing process we’d like to introduce to you, is a process you all probably already know from your childhood or an art class back in school: Relief printing. It applies the same basic principle as the potato print you might have done with your parents at your kitchen table as a child and can be done by hand with only a small array of tools. It could even be executed entirely without a printing press. The image is created by cutting, carving away, or etching a printing surface of your choice so there is only the design left on the block and the areas of the original surface that are supposed to remain empty on the final print are taken away. The process is basically creating a stamp to transfer the desired image from one surface to another. Commonly used processes include the woodcut, anastatic printing (also known as relief etching) or linocut by hand, or a metal cut. This is also a popular print method among artists, as it is easily accessible all around the world and allows them to create bold graphics with strong blacks, as well as fine detailed lines, for texts as well as images.

While materials like wood and linoleum are mostly used in art printmaking, the metal cut is a more industrialised method, used especially for printing texts. Traditional text printing with movable type, usually made out of lead or type metal, is also a relief technique. Gutenberg’s printing press works with the same principle of stamping the combination of letters on the plates onto the pages. The earliest example of a metal cut known today is a 15th-century technique called dotted manner, or manière criblée. It displays a characteristic use of dots to form the design. 

From Stone Seals to Flexographic Printing

Relief printing is the earliest printing process, originating in China around 255 BC. As it was a cheap material, Chinese artists started carving their seals into stone, others, with better access to softer materials like wood, opted to create pictures and writings on wooden planks. Later, they used this technique for a collection of pictures and texts called “Sutra of Diamond” (868 AD). From there on, the printing process was introduced to other cultures, like the Arabs, who brought it all the way to Europe. Of course, during that time images and texts were made only by monks, so early examples include religious orders and texts. Secular pictures of heroes and chivalrous deeds only appear much later, around 1420.

With Gutenberg’s printing press, texts and pictures that previously had to be printed together, could now be created separately. Later, relief printing was mostly abandoned in favor of new printing processes that allowed for a larger edition of prints and shades of gray or color imitating paintings. With relief printing, every shade had to be printed separately on the paper again and again, which had become unnecessarily complicated. Relief and intaglio techniques can also only be mixed with others of the same family in the same printed page in one printing process. Relief printing therefore became less of a universal print technique and more of a unique print method for a particular art style. In the 20th century, quicker print methods like serigraphy, photogravure and offset completely replaced relief printing techniques in the print industry, causing printmakers’ workshops to disappear entirely. A modern version of this pioneering printing process is flexographic printing, which is still a popular printing method today, especially in the packaging sector.

Want more information on the history of print? We recommend checking out our articles on Gutenberg’s inventions and other Pioneers of Printing.