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A Short History of Printmaking

The earliest forms of printmaking date back thousands of years. It is widely believed that the Sumerians (circa 3000 BC) were the rst to duplicate images, creating relief impressions by rolling cylinders inscribed with writing onto soft clay tablets. Different kinds of printmaking then sprang up throughout history, from rubbing technique in China (circa 100 AD), to woodblock printing in Egypt (circa 500 AD) and textile printing in Europe during the 6th Century.

There is some debate as to when printmaking was rst used as an art form, not least because the very notion of art is a relatively modern invention. Regardless, one of the rst printmakers to combine singular vision with mastery of the craft is considered by many to be the ‘Meister der Spielkarten’ or ‘The Master of the Playing Cards’, who lived in Germany during the 15th century. Although his identity remains a mystery, his place in history was cemented through his remarkable engravings, which display great compositional sensitivity and include the set of playing cards after which he is named.

3 of Birds by Meister der Spielkarten. Engraving, date unknown.

Printmaking was subsequently used in Europe by many of the old masters, including Rembrant, Goya, and Van Dyck, as well
as by unorthodox visionaries such as William Blake. The 19th century, which saw a bounty of new European aesthetic theories and artistic manifestos, heralded a host of artists who employed printmaking in bold, original ways. Some of these European artists were inspired by Japanese printmakers – a notable influence was Hokusai, who produced a remarkable 35,000 drawings and prints, including his famous woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. Woodblock print, 1829–1832.

Many of the 20th century’s most influential artists used printmaking to examine the political and philosophical questions of the
day. With reproducibility lying at the medium’s heart, printmaking was used by many of the Pop Artists, who interrogated the
idea of mass production and its significance in art. Andy Warhol, for example, employed his signature photo-silkscreen process to create multitudes of repeated images, celebrating (or perhaps critiquing) the mass repetition of images seen on modern media platforms such as television and magazines. Artists at the forefront of other significant art movements – notably Abstract Expressionism – also harnessed printmaking techniques. The possibility of separating an image into different layers, which could then be harnessed together in a multitude of different – sometimes violent – ways, attracted Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists. Many more significant 20th-Century artists were drawn to printmaking, including Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Kerry James Marshall and Elizabeth Catlett.

Print from the Marilyn series by Andy Warhol. Screenprint, 1967

Printmaking stands today at the forefront of contemporary art, employed by artists who continue to probe the horizons of the visual, political and philosophical. The Scottish printmaking community is especially vibrant, with artists such as Rachel Maclean, Calum Innes and Ken Currie employing the medium in novel new ways, combining digital technologies with traditional techniques. With the dawn of 3D printing and other groundbreaking methods, printmaking rapidly accelerates into the future as something vivacious, unpredictable and exciting. 

Memory of Conflict by Ken Currie. Etching, 1991.