The invention during the fifteenth century by the German printer Johannes Gutenberg of the mechanical moveable type printing press enabled books to be produced more quickly and at greatly reduced cost than had previously been possible. This led to the spread of more affordable books across the continent, increasing literacy and was a crucial part of the Renaissance and the development of the modern world. Inexpensive prints, produced by applying ink to paper using woodcuts, had already become popular across Europe and often featured both text and images.
Before the nineteenth century, the work of great artists such as Rembrandt were circulated around Europe in the form of prints. It was common for such master painters to also be print makers and create their own art prints. Whilst today we are used to seeing their paintings either reproduced in various media or on visits to the galleries in which they now hang, it was as art prints that both the public and other artists usually saw the work of these artists. Surviving old master prints are now carefully preserved and of considerable value.
The four traditional techniques used to make prints are relief printing, planographic or surface printing, intaglio printing and stencils. Relief printing commonly uses blocks of wood and involves cutting away the background, leaving behind an image to which the ink is applied, so that ink is transferred onto paper pressed upon it. Planographic printing, such as lithography involves the drawing of the design onto a surface, so that ink applied to the whole surface only adheres to the drawn areas. Intaglio printing involves the use of metal plates into which the design is cut or etched, so that ink applied to the metal plate only remains in the etched areas and is transferred onto paper pressed against it. Stencils as used in silkscreen printing, involve the design being drawn onto a screen with other areas being sealed, so that ink pressed through the screen leaves an image on the paper to be printed upon.