A creative’s guide to different types of printing
There are plenty of different types of printing available to creators today. Printing has a long history of revolutionizing how ideas are transferred and distributed, and it’s still going strong today.
In this guide we take a look at some of the most frequently used printing methods favored by artists and designers, as well as outlining what they’re suitable for. If you’re looking to print posters, fine art images, billboards or even magazines, you’ll find the relevant printing method here.
Despite fears that digital publishing has once again shaken up how words and images are shared, reports of the death of print are greatly exaggerated. Printed materials are enjoying a resurgence thanks to the unique, tactile experience they offer. So if you want to get involved with print’s new-found popularity, explore these notable methods.
You might also want to check out our beginner’s guide to essential art supplies, or our group of tutorials about how to draw.
- Used for: Fine art printmaking
- Pros: Cheap, easy to get started, reusable
- Cons: Cutting hazard, difficult to do multiple colours
Lino printing is a great entry-level technique for creatives looking to make art prints. It involves scoring an image into a sheet of linoleum, covering the raised areas in ink, and pressing a substrate (the surface which the ink will stick to, often paper) on top.
All the materials you need to get started are available from any good art shop at a reasonable price, and even the most basic of tools create impressive results. Different scoring knives can be added to your toolkit to make unique marks, although a narrow selection of blades should be sufficient.
One thing to keep in mind when scoring a design into lino is that you’re creating a mirror image of the picture, so letters will need to be carved backwards. Also keep in mind that only raised areas of linoleum will transfer ink. To learn more about lino printing, including more on the basic tools you’ll need, see our introduction to lino printmaking post.
- Used for: Textiles printing, posters
- Pros: Versatile technique, reusable, durable method, high quality of output
- Cons: Requires specialist equipment, limited colour options
Screen printing remains a popular way to transfer designs onto fabrics, especially T-shirts. The printing process involves forcing paint through a silk screen with a squeegee, with stencil holes in the screen allowing paint to pass through in the desired place.
With careful planning and clever design, multiple colours can be layered up with screen printing, allowing for the creation of stunning images. Each colour requires its own screen, however even single colour prints look striking.
To cast your design, you will need to paint your screen with photo-sensitive emulsion then expose it to UV light. A local print studio should help you with these facilities.
- Used for: Newspapers, magazines, brochures, stationery, books
- Pros: Good for large print runs, can use special custom inks, highest quality of print
- Cons: Tedious setup, equipment requires extra maintenance
Given that it requires access to specialist printing technology, offset printing is not as immediately accessible as some of the techniques on this list. Typically it is used for large print runs, and its setup fee is soon offset (pardon the pun) by the sheer number of pieces you are able to print.
- Used for: Posters, business cards, greetings cards
- Pros: Good for short print run, unique print appearance, straightforward
- Cons: Slow process, limited colours, difficult to produce images
Similar to lithographic printing, letterpress printing sees a raised area covered with ink and then transferred to a substrate. Historically, images and letters were arranged by a typesetter and locked into place in a chase.
As a method for printing newspapers, letterpress remained popular until the mid-twentieth century when it was succeeded by offset printing. But despite being supplanted, it has found a new lease of life in the artistic community.
Today, letterpress printing is a way to add quirky humour to your work as it stands in contrast to the perfection of digital and offset printing. Print studios and letterpress shops can help you with the process, and high street craft shops often sell inexpensive printing blocks if you want to experiment with the technique.
- Used for: Packaging, print media, labels
- Pros: Quick production process, accommodates various inks, low operational cost
- Cons: Time-consuming set up, equipment requires regular maintenance
Flexographic printing is essentially a modern version of letterpress printing. Flexible relief plates are mounted on a series of cylinders in a similar fashion to offset printing, and the substrate is passed through. Different plates are used for individual colours, which are built up to create the message or image.
Flexography is also suited to medium to long print runs. The specialist equipment might put it beyond the reach of creatives looking to test the process on a short run, however if you do choose to investigate flexography rest assured that it is a cost-effective printing method that produces quick results.
- Used for: Desktop publishing, photos, advertising, stationery
- Pros: Low cost, quick turnaround, easy to create multiple colours, good for short runs
- Cons: limited substrate suitability, does not scale to large print runs economically
For creatives, one of the biggest advantages of digital printing is the customisation it offers. The process can also produce a higher quality print from a lower quality image. And given that it doesn’t require the creation of plates, digital printing can be a cost-effective and accessible way for creatives to bring their ideas to life on the page.
- Used for: Gifts, models, art, prototyping
- Pros: Capable of complex designs, fully customisable
- Cons: Expensive, limited materials, slow
Suitable for sculpting and product design, 3D printing sees a material added layer by layer with the assistance of CAD to create a desired shape. Despite being a relative newcomer to the printing scene, 3D printing has come a long way in recent years and can now deliver incredible results.
One of the main barriers to entry for creatives looking to explore 3D printing is the access to the printer technology itself. We’ve already looked at what you need to keep in mind when preparing your work for 3D printing(opens in new tab), so keep these in mind if you’re printing yourself or outsourcing to a specialist.
- Used for: Fine art prints, textile work
- Pros: Expressive, one of a kind
- Cons: Can only be used once, produces simple designs
The simplest printing method in this guide, monoprinting is primarily used to print simple pieces of art onto paper or textiles. Typically a piece of plexiglass is covered with a thin layer of ink and materials are positioned on top. These are then covered with a substrate and rolled through a press to transfer the image.
Unlike a lino print where an image is carved into a sheet of lino and can be reproduced multiple times, mono prints are one-offs because the print elements have to be arranged and inked each time. This means that if you’re careful you can make two prints that look similar, but they will never be identical.
Despite its limitations, it’s a very accessible print method and a fun way to dip your toe into the world of printing. Prints can be produced very quickly, and thanks to its flexibility, it encourages experimentation which can be transferred to other methods like lithography.