The Origin Story of Printmaking

The Battle of the Nudes, Antonio Pollaiuolo c.1470

Oh, Printmaking, how we love thee.

It really is amazing how we have always known your wonderful embrace….

Wait…but have we?

Not really. Like everything else in the universe, there was a time where printmaking did not exist! ….Well, at least not how we think of it today.

Sure, people probably have been imprinting images from items for millennia, but as far as printmaking as an art form, we have to go way back.

I used to believe that the beginning of printing started with the Gutenberg printing press, in the 1400’s. But this can’t be further from the truth. The reality is that Gutenberg created a machine to do more efficiently what people had been doing for centuries!

The first prints can be traced back to China around the 2nd century, and originally were Buddhist rubbings.

Before that even, the ancient Sumerians around 3000 BC were using carved stone to leave imprints on wet clay, essentially starting a way of thinking of producing multiple images that would later give way to the printing press.

Sumerian Cylinder Seal

It is believed that the first wood-block prints on textiles were made by the Egyptians in the 6th or 7th century; but the earliest printed image with an authenticated date is a scroll of the Diamond Sutra printed by Wang Jie in 868 AD, which was found in a cave in eastern Turkistan.

Diamond Sutra, Wang Jie 868AD

Although this may be considered art now, the intended purpose was likely something else. Mostly for documenting religious texts or teachings, and communication of ideas, the idea of printmaking as an art form comes later.

The first art prints can be traced back to the 15th century. One of the early styles of intaglio printmaking was done by something called criblé, where small dots were actually punched into the plates, along with scratches, to create the positive of the image.

One of the most interesting things I found while doing research for this post is that some of the very first prints were done for PLAYING CARDS! It just seems so appropriate that this is the case. What else do you very much need to print multiples of in mass quantity?

Cyclamen Queen, the Master of the Playing Cards

Really Germany dominated the religious and royal focus of printmaking in the 15th century. The rest of the world was more concerned with other things. For example, Italy was going through an Awakening Renaissance during that time, and printmaking was done purely for aesthetic purposes.

Other countries at the time focused primarily on text production (my original assumption when thinking about printing). Of course others jumped on board in the coming centuries, and we see develop a whole slew of techniques and practices of Printmaking.

Interesting, huh?

I hope that this was informative and interesting for you. Leave your comments below, and, if I got something wrong, please let me know there! Also, let me know what printmaking topics you would like to read more about! What are those things that you want to learn more about, or understand better? Let me know!