Picasso at Saper

Printmaking Media Used by Picasso

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Note: I wrote this page for the 2006 exhibition of Picasso graphics and ceramics at Saper Galleries.  ~ Roy C. Saper   

Picasso is known for the great number of techniques used in producing his original graphics.  We have summarized the distinctions between many of those printmaking methods below and illustrated examples with actual works of art displayed in this exhibition, "Picasso: Original Graphics and Ceramics".


In the intaglio printmaking process, lines of an image to be printed on paper are incised first by hand-held tools and/or acids onto the surface of (generally) a flat metal plate, most often, copper.  The surface of the metal plate is inked and then wiped so the only ink that remains is in the incised areas  of the plate. The  paper is carefully positioned on top of the inked metal plate and "pulled" through a press, pressure pushing the paper onto the inked plate allowing the ink to be transferred to the paper producing an original print, or graphic. 

With intaglio prints one can observe the outer edge of the metal plate impressed into the paper due to the pressure of the printing press.  The paper margins extend beyond the plate mark.  Some of Picasso's prints were printed on smaller margined papers and some of the same image were printed on larger paper and therefore wider margins.  Engraving, drypoint, etching, and aquatint are intaglio forms of printmaking.  Picasso is known for having extended the boundaries and traditional means of the printmaking techniques shown below and often combined techniques in producing his original graphics.


An engraving is made by first drawing a design directly into a metal plate using a hand-held sharp cutting device called a burin.  The burin has a sharp, angled point at the end.  The engraving technique had been used for centuries to reproduce drawings and paintings, a way to allow more people to own or see the works of art by artists who would otherwise only have the original without the possibility of additional "copies" of the unique image.  By the 19th century, it had been largely abandoned in favor of etching.  Although Picasso's use of the burin was not always orthodox, he and other artists would use the burin to create sharp crisp lines on the etching plate, translated to the same on the printed image.


A drypoint (form of engraving)  is made by scratching a sharp needle into a metal plate, raising tiny ridges that also catch ink. When the plate is printed, the ridges produce a velvet-like burr. After a few printings, however, the fragile burr wears out. This technique dates back to the 15th century, and although it is not widely used, it includes Dürer and Rembrandt among its practitioners.  Picasso used drypoint combined with original print-making techniques, usually to produce lines of  simplicity and expressive quality.


In etching, a metal plate is covered with an acid-resistant ground, usually varnish, through which the image is drawn with a pointed tool, exposing the metal below. The plate is then immersed in a bath of acid that bites away the metal where it was exposed by the drawn areas that were no longer protected by the ground. After the plate has been "etched" and cleaned, it is ready to be inked and printed -- or reworked by the artist.  The relatively rapid execution allowed by this technique is the primary reason for its widespread use shortly after its development in the 15th century.  Rembrandt, in the 17th century, created more than 300 etchings.  Picasso, in 1968, created 347 etchings for a single suite at age 87!


Aquatint is similar to etching, but uses sprinkled grains of heated resin instead of varnish for the ground. Aquatint creates fields of tone, not line. The "sugar-lift" method, which Picasso employed frequently in the 347 Series, allowed the artist to paint or draw freely and swiftly with a brush directly on the metal plate. Aquatint was invented in the 18th century as a variation on etching.

Sugar aquatint or lift-ground etching was mastered by Picasso in 1936.  The etching technique preserves the artist's brushwork and permits broad areas of color instead of just thin, dry lines.

Picasso would draw directly on the metal plate with a black watery ink thickened by the addition of dissolved sugar and gum Arabic.  The dried drawing is then covered with an acid-resistant varnish or etching ground and immersed in warm water.  This penetrates the ground and dissolves the drawing material.  The plate is lightly rubbed so that the drawing as well as the varnish on top of it "lift off",  leaving the bare plate.  The protecting vanish will still stick to the plate where the plate has not previously been treated with the ink and sugar mixture.

With copper plates the direct action of the acid is not sufficient and is too smooth, leaving gray tones were the acid has been bitten directly into the plate. To achieve textures like brushstrokes Picasso would lay down an aquatint ground on the lifted design.  This resin ground now covers the bare metal of the open lines or brush stokes lifted from the first ground and provides well defined textures and tones.  When preparing the artwork on the plate the artist would work spontaneously with the pen or brush.  Sugar-lift etchings are often combined with aquatint.  Picasso liked the medium (even though it was difficult to control) because of the variety of textures it would produce.

With an aquatint a
porous ground of acid-resistant particles is used to cover areas of the metal plate.  Heat is then used to fuse the particles to the plate.  This allows the acid to bite away a fine grid of small dots into the plate as when the plate is dipped in an acid bath, the particles prevent bits of the surface from being eaten away.  The resulting dot texture creates an illusion of tonal range that Picasso favored. 


Picasso often employed a scraper, an engraver's tool that removes bits of metal, in his intaglio prints. He modified engraved and etched lines with its triangular edge, which he also scraped into areas of aquatint. Sometimes he used the scraper's sharp edge to engrave strokes that are parallel and short, or as a substitute for a drypoint needle.


Lithographs are made by creating a drawing on a flat prepared surface, usually a large and heavy slab of thick Bavarian limestone.  The drawing, made with a greasy crayon or similar material, is then stabilized with a gum-arabic solution.  The plate (or flat stone) would then be sponged with water, the greasy drawn areas repelling the water but attracting the rolled-on ink and the rest of the stone remaining wet and repelling the ink.  Paper is positioned over the plate, and the pressure of the press transfers the ink from the stone to the paper, printing a reverse image of what was drawn.  The dates in reverse in so many of Picasso's prints is due to this fact. 

Picasso also created lithographs on zinc plates as they were lighter and did not require him to work at the lithographer's studio.  It was 1945 that Picasso took up residence at the Mourlot studio in Paris enjoying the medium where he could rework an image on the same printing surface and preserve the complete evolution of the composition.

Picasso later created his lithographic images on a paper which was then transferred to the stone in reverse from the original drawing.  Then, when printed, the print would be a reverse of the inked surface, thereby consistent with the orientation of the original drawing.  In examples where Picasso's date is read correctly, it is likely that the print was made by transferring a drawing to the plate.


Picasso's linocuts were made by gouging out a sheet of linoleum which had been fused onto a harder block of wood.  (Linoleum, softer and lighter than wood, allowed Picasso to work more quickly than would have been possible by working from woodblocks alone.)  Using gouges, he would cut out the areas of his intended image that were to be absent of color (and therefore appear the color of the paper when printed).  The relief areas that remain would be inked, usually with a brayer.  Paper would be put on the inked linoleum block and pressure applied, after which the inked image is transferred to the paper.  If there were to be multiple colors, Picasso would create a separate linoleum block, each corresponding to a different color, each printed in succession.  This is how he worked since his first linocuts were created in 1958.

In later years he become more economical and ingenious, inventing the technique of printing multiple colors from a single linoleum block by printing the linocut, cutting out more of the block, inking it again and printing it a second time in a second color on the earlier printed single-color example, successively adding colors while continuing the process.

Steel Facing
Picasso would often have his etching plates steel faced.  That process  involves electroplating the already-drawn etching plate with a very thin coat of steel to harden its surface.  In doing so, early prints would have the same quality as later prints.  Before plates were steel faced, as in Rembrandt's time in the 17th century, the etched lines of earlier impressions were usually blacker, richer, and more velvety and later impressions were grayer, flatter, and not as rich due to the lines being worn over the course of printing an edition.  Later impressions would display a diminishing of subtle contrasts and tonal depth from early to later impressions.

In this Saper Galleries exhibition are several examples of trial and other proofs created before the etching plates were steel faced, thereby creating richer and more desirable impressions than those from steel faced plates which reduce textural delicacy and tonal depth to a degree.

Picasso with
                    linocut plate and print, 1957
Picasso with linocut plate and print, 1957

Picasso with
                  linocut, 1959
Picasso with linocut, 1959

Drypoint example, 1937

                  example, 1934
Etching example, 1934

                  and aquatint example, 1968
Sugar-lift and aquatint example, 1968

Sugar-lift aquatint example
Sugar-lift aquatint example, 1934

Lithograph, 1959
Lithograph, 1959

Lithograph transferred from drawing, 1947
Lithograph transferred from drawing to stone, 1947

                    linocut, 1962
Seven-color linocut, 1962

                  before steel facing, 1941-42
Etching before steel facing, 1941-42

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