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Lithograph, Intaglio, or Screen Print?

What's the difference?

Fig. 1: After S. Strakoff, Casino de Vichy [...] Tournoi International de Danse, lithograph in color, 20th century, printed by Richier-Laugier, Paris. Dimensions are: 31.5 inches tall X 22.5 inches wide; 79.5 cm tall X 56.5 cm wide.

A poster we were recently cataloguing sparked a lighthearted but increasingly academic debate about the techniques used to produce works on paper in the 20th century. While trying to determine the specific technique used to create the poster in question, we found ourselves describing to one another the differentiating factors among lithographs, serigraphy, intaglio, to name a few. We closely examined the elements that we had in front of us: paper used, texture of the paper, how the ink adhered to the sheet, viewing the image edges to look for embossing, ink transfer on the edges, and how uniform the lines were throughout the piece, eventually deciding that the poster was, indeed, a lithograph from the 1920's.

Situations like the one described above occur fairly frequently here at Oakridge, as our team of specialists and cataloguers strives to accurately and thoroughly describe each piece going into one of our sales. In this blog post, I will explain the different printing techniques used for 20th Century works on paper, to better understand the signs that we were looking for in each printing technique. 


Lithographs utilize a polished Bavarian limestone for the foundation of the artwork platform. Artwork is drawn on the stone with a resist which will repel the acid wash and water from areas to be printed. This resist is drawn using a grease pencil or a liquid resist is brushed on for broader areas, both have the same chemical composition. After the artwork is drawn or painted on the stone, it is lightly etched with acid, producing a slight relief or indentation that defines the art to be reproduced. After the image is created the stone is inked up and medium pressure is applied to transfer the ink to a sheet of damp paper stock. Color can also be added to these prints but require additional stones to be prepared for each color needed. Lithography is the precursor to modern day printing which uses thin emulsion coated plates with a UV photosensitive coating to produce images on the plates with ultraviolet light. Images and typography are created in reverse on the stone and will print right reading.

“Girl With A Dream”

Lithograph By Angel Botello.


Intaglio printing uses a ⅛” zinc or copper plate as a base for the artwork. The zinc plate is coated with asphalt and a drypoint or a sharpened stylus are used to inscribe the image through the asphalt on to the metal plate in reverse. The plate is then placed into an acid bath which etches the image through the lines drawn in the asphalt which creates barbs, ridges, and channels for the printers ink to adhere to. When the artist is satisfied with their design, which may require multiple etchings in acid, the plate is inked up and damp museum quality acid free arches paper is used to transfer the image under high pressure. This high pressure pushes the paper deep into the plate etch to transfer the ink, and creates a slight embossing effect in the paper. Color can also be an added part of this process by painting the printed sheet using watercolors or multiple plates can be used with color defined areas inked in individual printers ink colors which are available in any color needed by the artist.

 “Sardine Fleet” 

George Elmer Browne Intaglio Etching.


Screen printing or Serigraphy is a printing technique where a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil. A blade or squeegee is moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the substrate momentarily along a line of contact. This causes the ink to wet the substrate and be pulled out of the mesh apertures as the screen springs back after the blade has passed. One color is printed at a time, so several screens can be used to produce a multicoloured image or design.

Licia Bronzin Silkscreen monoprint

Multiple transfer mediums are needed for all these printing techniques but the way the pressure is applied, the production of the plates, and the creation of the image’s art are different. These differing techniques create different textures on the sheet: litho and silkscreen ink is laid on the upper surface of the paper and is not forced into the sheet. Intaglio printing forces the ink under high pressure into the fibers of the paper and creates a microscopic embossed effect in the sheet.

Close up of edge bevel pressed into paper stock during printing

of an Intaglio plate.

The most obvious difference between the litho print and intaglio prints are visible most prominently at the edges of the visual artwork areas. Because the stones are so much larger than the zinc plates and the pressure used in printing are different, the image edges of the printed piece of the litho print are flat and uniform where the image area edges are slightly embossed and rounded due to the high pressure of the press, the pressure needed to transfer the ink onto the paper and the edge finishing (burnishing) of the plate.

Printing has expanded the transfer of information and art for hundreds of years, providing access to great works of art for people from all over the world as the prints were disseminated. For an artist to be able to share their creations by producing more than one piece increased the opportunity of their artwork being shared with more people and increased the chances that at least one of their prints would survive and be passed down for future generations. 

While attending university for graphic design with a special interest in printing, I had the pleasure of viewing intaglio prints by Dürer and Rembrandt produced in the 16th and 17th century. This was not the only examples of these prints in existence, and other copies of those prints are in museums in different parts of the world, and having the opportunity to view these masterpieces of art inspired me. 

My own familiarity with the different printing techniques that we encounter at Oakridge began with my secondary education, where I had the opportunity not only to study but to create wood block, intaglio, lithography and silkscreen prints using the same techniques as these masters did centuries before. Imagining a person much like myself sitting at a table in the mid 1600’s, on a different continent, using raw materials, and creating prints that have lasted for so many years helped me to understand how these prints have become priceless and timeless works of art and why they remain so popular on the auction market today.

Literature Consulted:

https://www.thefreedictionary.com/serigraphy/ Accessed 11/4/2019

https://ourpastimes.com/differences-between-serigraphs-lithographs-12548846.html/ Accessed 11/4/2019

https://www.intaglio-fine-art.com/etching-info-about.php/ Accessed 11/4/2019

http://whatislithoprinting.com/process.html/ Accessed 11/4/2019

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Jerome_in_His_Study_(D%C3%BCrer)/ Accessed 11/4/2019

About the Author


About the Author

John Toland has over 20 years of experience in printing and graphic design. He joined Oakridge as a Cataloguer in 2019.

John Toland

Mon, Nov 18, 2019 2:29 PM

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