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Design

The Beginner’s Guide to Unusual and Unique Printing Methods

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If you’ve created a design you’re especially proud of and want to hang it on your wall or share it with friends or family, you’re going to have to look into printing your artwork. Sometimes a standard digital or lithographic print won’t really cut the mustard. Instead you might find that a more unconventional printing method can really enhance your design and turn it into a keepsake to treasure forever.

Here we take a look at some of the unusual and unique printing methods that can enhance digital designs and help artists and illustrators print their artwork with spectacular results.

Lino print image

On GraphicRiver you’ll find a huge range of print-ready templates, from magazines to business cards, to help you navigate the pre-print prep stage more easily.

What Is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is a technique whereby ink is pushed through a mesh stencil onto a variety of materials. Each colour in the design has to be put onto its own stencil or screen, so as a result screen-printed designs tend to use few colours, creating a graphic, beautiful result. 

screen print
Mißverständnis, Screen Print, 1975, by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

Before polyester mesh was invented, designs were printed using silk screens, hence the commonly used term ‘silkscreen’ printing. Nowadays, synthetic materials are more commonly used, particularly on an industrial scale. 

Screen printing is a very ancient printing technique, which can trace its origins back to 10th Century China. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that the technique was introduced to Western Europe, and even then it only became popular when silk mesh was more readily traded to Europe from Asia. 

silk screen
Silk Screen Printing

In the 1930s, a group of artists coined the term ‘serigraphy’, to differentiate between the artistic application of the process and the industrial use of the method. ‘Serigraphy’ derives from the Latin word ‘sēricum’, meaning silk, and the Greek term ‘graphein’, meaning to write or draw. Today, professional serigraphers print beautiful designs onto fabrics, paper, ceramic, wood and other materials using the time-honored screen printing method. 

To print a design using the screen printing method, the original image should be created on a transparent overlay, and then drawn or painted directly onto the overlay. For digitally generated artwork, the image is photocopied or printed with a computer printer. In either case, for the method to work correctly, the areas to be inked must not be transparent.

Next, a mesh screen must be selected, coated with emulsion, and put to dry in a dark room. Once dry, it is then possible to expose the print. The overlay is placed over the screen and then exposed with a light source containing ultraviolet light.

screen
Screen with exposed print ready to be printed

Afterwards, the screen is washed off thoroughly. The areas of emulsion that were not exposed to light dissolve and wash away, leaving a negative stencil of the image on the mesh.

What Is Block Printing?

Block printing, otherwise known as woodblock printing, is another ancient printing method that originates from Asia, dating back to as early as the 3rd Century. 

The method uses a wooden block as a stamp, into which an image or pattern is carved in relief. The block is then dipped into or painted with ink and stamped onto the surface of the material. The image is impressed onto the material in reverse, meaning that complex images, especially designs that contain type, have to be very carefully rendered before printing.

For designs that use multiple colours, a different block is assigned for each colour and applied in a particular order to create the full design.

block
A block print artist printing designs onto fabric

Block prints can actually be created using three different methods—stamping, rubbing, or press printing. 

Stamping is a traditional method which was favored in medieval Europe to create woodcut designs. The material to be printed is laid flat, and the block is placed on top and then hammered or pressed down to create the impression.

Rubbing was a more popular block printing method used in Asia, and the process is effectively the reverse. Here the block is placed flat on its back with the relief side facing upwards. The material to be printed is placed on top, and then the back of the material is rubbed with a hard pad made of wood, metal, or leather.

There is also evidence that block printing was sometimes performed using a printing press, which means the process would have been quicker and more economical. 

As time went by, artists developed the block printing technique further, enabling them to create full-colour designs with outstanding precision and beauty.

great wave
Modern recut copy of The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖波裏), from 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai; Colour woodcut

Today, block printing is still highly respected as a beautiful print technique, and it's mainly used to produce patterned textiles or art pieces. As most block prints are created by hand, they take considerable skill and time to produce, and the technique is practiced by experts mainly in India, China, and Japan. 

What Is Letterpress?

Letterpress has recently enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity, and as a result it isn’t as unconventional as some of the other print methods explored in this article. It’s become popular once again for a good reason—the method really does create stunningly beautiful print results, which have a tactile, vintage look that feels absolutely right for the current mood across print design. 

letterpress
Letterpress Wedding Invitation Template

Letterpress is a traditional, relief-based print method that’s conducted using a printing press. In this sense, it has similarities with other relief-based printing methods, like wood engraving, but it produces a very distinctive look that enhances contemporary stationery designs, such as greetings cards, invitations, and business cards.  

letterpress
Letterpress Wedding Invitation Template

Most letterpress designs are type-based, as the method depends on inking a metal representation of each letter before pressing against the paper to produce both colour and an embossed impression. However, it is possible to letterpress graphics and decorative elements like borders and logos too.

Because each character must be individually inked and then arranged into the press, printing items using letterpress is a time-consuming process, and expensive as a result. 

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of letterpress studios being set up all over the world, to feed the demand for beautiful letterpress designs. If you’d like to experiment with letterpress yourself, you can splash out on a specialised press machine, or see if there is a press available to use at a local artist residence.

Greetings cards look especially fantastic when printed with letterpress, giving a retro look to the design. Explore some great festive card templates here: 

What Is Monotyping?

Monotyping is a method of printmaking made by drawing or painting onto a smooth, non-absorbent surface, such as zinc, glass or acrylic, using oil- or water-based inks. The image is then transferred onto paper by using a printing press to bring the surface and paper together.

While some print methods are better designed for scaling up and producing a large number of prints, other methods are better suited for creating art prints which are more unique. Monotyping is from the latter family—the process creates a unique print, or ‘monotype’. Most of the ink is removed during the initial pressing, and although further prints can be made, they often look very different to the original print and are considered to be inferior to the first print. These secondary prints are called ‘ghost prints’, due to their washed-out appearance. 

Monotyping is a print method that has been explored by artists and illustrators over the centuries, with the 17th Century Italian artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione often being credited as the first artist to produce monotypes. Some modern artists like Marc Chagall and Tracey Emin have since adopted the process in their own work, creating an intriguing crossover between printing and fine art. 

monotype
Monotype by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione

If you have an illustration you love, creating a monotype of the image would be a beautiful way to immortalise it. You can contact local artist residences to find out about accessing monotyping equipment. 

What Is Linocut?

Linocut is a variant of woodcutting, but it has developed into its own distinctive print style which, like letterpress, is a traditional method that has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent decades. Using a sheet of linoleum, the method is subtractive, with the aim being that you want to cut away the parts of linoleum where you want the page to be left blank, and keep the parts intact that you want to be inked. 

The linoleum sheet is then inked with a roller (sometimes termed a ‘brayer’), and then pressed onto paper or fabric, either by hand or using a printing press.

A simple variation of the linocut method is often taught to children in school to introduce them to print design, as it’s relatively easy and fun to do. Unlike wood, linoleum doesn’t have a grain, which means the design can be cut in any direction, creating a more flexible, fluid design. 

linocut

Once the image has been cut out, the linoleum can be used as a template for producing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of prints, which makes it a more scalable print method than monotyping. To create a coloured design, you can create a number of linocuts which are pressed in series to build up a full design. Alternatively, a simple linocut can be made using a single template, before colour is added to the print using a different medium, such as paint or pencil. 

Even if you don’t want to create a linocut template from scratch, you can easily imitate the look digitally by downloading a set of Illustrator linocut brushes like these ones.

linocut brushes
Digital linocut design using Adobe Illustrator linocut brushes

Or learn how to create your own set of linocut brushes with this tutorial:

What Is UV Coating?

Applying an ultraviolet (UV) coating is a finishing technique for printed products, rather than a printing method in itself, but it merits inclusion here as the coatings bring a wonderful quality to packaging designs and stationery.  

cosmetics
Cosmetics Packaging Mockup Template

UV coating in fact refers to two different post-processes, depending on the material being printed on and the end purpose of the printed product. 

If the coating is applied on paper which has already been printed, it is cured with ultraviolet radiation. As the coating is composed of almost 100% solids, the coating can be applied very thinly and the end result is highly pigmented. 

Designers often choose UV coatings for creating a very high-gloss effect on a particular area of their paper design. As the coating tends to be both highly pigmented and very reflective, it’s a great technique for creating an eye-catching effect on a logo or product title. 

UV coatings come in a wide variety of finishes and colours, and they can be seen as an alternative to foil stamping. UV coatings can be used on any heavy paper stock, but tend to be used for packaging, labels and special stationery items, like brochures and business cards. 

For some products, UV coating is used for a different purpose—to protect the item from the harmful effects of UV radiation. Aluminium cans are an example of UV coating used in this way. A coating is applied to both the inside and outside of the can, before being placed in a special UV oven, which cures the coating using UV light. This process protects the can from wear and tear and helps to preserve the contents.  

cans
Branded Cans Mockup Template

Get to grips with more packaging design techniques with this starter guide:

What Is 3D Printing?

The 3D printing process produces a solid 3D object from a digital file. The process is additive, with the printing machine creating the object in thin layers, which are stacked on top of each other, building up to create the whole object. Each layer is effectively a cross-section of the object.

3d printing
A 3D printer in action

The artwork to be printed is generated using either a 3D scanner or 3D modelling software. Scanners range in price and sophistication, and while it’s possible to buy a basic scanner for relatively little online, companies like Microsoft and Google are also developing more efficient and advanced scanners which are expected to be available to buy on the market in the near future. 

Using 3D modelling software to create your file is a more accessible alternative to scanning, and there are now lots of 3D modelling programs available, catering to different budgets and skill levels. You might find an open-source modelling program like Blender is a good place to start if you’re on a budget. Tinkercad is also great for beginners to 3D modelling, with its simple and intuitive interface.

Once the digital model has been created, it needs to be ‘sliced’ into hundreds or possibly thousands of layers. The slicing process can normally be done within most 3D modelling software, as a pre-print step. Once the slicing has been done, the artwork is ready to be fed into a 3D printer. You can track down specialised print shops who will print your 3D item for a fee, but you can also buy your own 3D printer too—these vary in price and quality.

3d printer
A 3D printer

You can find out more about the 3D printing process in more detail here:

Feel ready to give 3D printing a whirl? Learn how to create a 3D-printed phone case with this tutorial:

Conclusion

In this article we’ve explored some of the more unusual and unique printing methods you can use to produce your designs and illustrations. 

While some methods, such as monotyping and linocut, are better suited to producing art prints, other methods, like 3D printing and letterpress can complement digital artwork and enhance it to create something truly extraordinary. Different print processes can bring completely unique qualities to the same image, so it’s a great idea to experiment and see which processes you prefer for your own workflow.

Hopefully this has given you a taster of some of the more unconventional ways of printing artwork, but if you’d like to get started with the basics of printing first, this beginner’s tutorial will guide you through everything you need to know about preparing your digital artwork for conventional printing:

If you’re on the lookout for the perfect print-ready design, this selection of Photoshop and InDesign templates which are ready to be edited and sent straight off to print might be just the ticket:

Have you experimented with any of these unconventional printing methods? We’d love to hear about your experiences with printing your designs in the comments below!

business card
Business Card Template for Print
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