Buying prints – a short guide to choosing relief prints

Buying prints can be an affordable way to brighten a room, give a unique gift, or begin a collection of original art. This work-in-progress guide introduces a few of the techniques of relief printing, describes variability between individual prints makes this such a vibrant medium, and briefly covers paper types and displaying prints. Hopefully this will help you choose and buy prints with confidence and choose the right print for your home, or as a gift.

All about relief printmaking

Relief printmaking is one of the oldest ways to make image. Techniques were refined significantly in the 15th Century and while the processes and materials have improved, the essentials remain the same. A design is drawn onto a block, the remaining areas are cut away, leaving the design raised. The raised areas are inked and pressed onto paper to transfer the image.

When buying prints a little knowledge of the techniques and variations can help you make the right choice.

Lino, linocut and linoprinting

Lino is traditionally a flooring material made from linseed oil and other sustainable elements. Capable of providing a smooth and resilient surface amenable to cutting, it makes a perfect medium for relief printing though is best not used for very fine detail at smaller sizes.

Linocut in yellow ochre of Jenny Brown's Point, Silverdale
One of my smaller linocuts from 2020, Note the bold lines typical of the medium. Jenny Brown’s Point, Silverdale

Linocuts can range wildly in size, as the source blocks are cut from large rolls of material. This makes linocuts a versatile consideration for almost any room. When buying prints of this kind you should always check the dimensions of the work, as a print may be far bigger or smaller than it appears in a photograph.

Linocut artists uses gouges and blades to remove material from the block, leaving the design raised to take ink. These tools can have square, V-shaped or U-shaped blades to help remove materials with speed or precision, and depending on the artist’s aims, those cut marks can form a vibrant part of the design.

A reduction linocut print in progress.

Layering of colours can be achieved by using multiple plates or blocks and careful alignment – known as ‘registration’. Using and keeping the blocks that make up a multi-block print allows the maker to re-create the image again in future.

By contrast Reduction printmaking – for which lino is ideal – uses a single block to achieve multiple colour layers. The printmaker plans and cuts away enough material to print one layer, then cuts more from the same block for the next until the final image is achieved.

Reduction is a destructive technique, the number of prints is limited to the amount of the first layer printed and the image cannot be re-created later on.

In combination reduction and multi-plate linocut allows the maker to develop interesting, colourful, and sometimes highly realistic images using centuries old techniques.

Wood Engraving

An early refinement of the medium closely related to woodcut (see below), wood engraving involves the cutting of the design into the end-grain of wood – normally boxwood, pearwood or ‘lemonwood’ – but not from a lemon tree! These wood provide a very solid foundation capable of taking fine detail. A leader in this field is Thomas Bewick, who is credited with kickstarting a revolution in printed illustration in the late 18th Century.

Bewick is understood to have carefully controlled the depth of cuts in his wood engravings, which with careful inking and pressing permitted the optical impression of greys1 in an otherwise black and white image.

Due the scarcity of suitable woods, wood engravings are often smaller in scale than lino and woodcuts. This reflects too their historic use in fine book illustration, where scale was determined by the size of the printed page.

This small scale can make wood engravings ideal for display on shelves and desks, in smaller rooms or in narrow spaces such as hallways, where the viewer is likely to pass close by the print. Buying prints of this kind can be a great way to begin a small collection – works can be also be held in small folios or books and examined at leisure.

Wood engravers use specialist tools to carve into the end-grain, such as ‘Spitstickers’ and ‘gravers’. These are sharp, pointed tools quite unlike the gouges and cutters used for woodcut and lino.

Silbury Hill Wood Engraving in frame on easel in studio
A small (21mm high) wood engraving, mounted and framed – Silbury Hill from Waden Hill, 2022


Lino follows the same principles as the far-older use of woodcut, a sheet of the material is carved to leave a raised impression. Woodcuts were one of the earliest refinements in the art, and these days woodcut is often chosen to highlight the particulars of the medium.

Variability – the joy of handmade prints

When buying prints of the kind described here, it is important to remember that as original, handmade art works they will may vary in interesting ways. Relief printmakers often celebrate that variance. By contrast every print from digitally reproduced image will be exactly the same, bearing no marks of individual human interaction with the materials.

When buying prints of the kind described here, it is important to remember that as original, handmade art works, they will may vary in interesting ways, and that artists can celebrate that variance. By contrast every print from digitally reproduced image will be exactly the same, bearing no marks of individual human interaction with the materials.

Wood engraving can offer both fine detail and a predictable quality of line, making them ideal for fine works at a small scale. Lino offers greater variability – particularly where there are larger inked areas – and pressure can be controlled to create solid colour, or more nuanced effects. Woodcut can be worked similarly to lino, but with the added bonus of grain, which affects both the quality of cut lines and influences the surface of larger inked areas.

Detail of linocut print by Thomas B. Pitfield showing rough edges of the block
Detail from ‘Wellingtonias’ linocut by Thomas B. Pitfield

All these possibilities make relief printmaking a dynamic medium. However to the uninitiated the differences in quality can be seen as flaws, mistakes, or just poor quality work. Often, artists seek to let something of the medium show through in their work.

Consider this work from Thomas B. Pitfield’s ‘The Poetry of Trees’. Pitfield has cut away a border around the main image, but left the irregular edges of the lino block in place to take ink. This gives the work a vibrant presentation and proudly indicates the medium used.

Each print unique

The variability of woodcut and lino cut prints is often seen as their strength, with no two prints ever being exactly the same. Differences in inking, pressure and paper can play a huge part. At the same time the artist has to apply their own quality control, particularly to keep all prints in an edition to the same high standard.

Print artists produce proofs to try out the different variables – ink, pressure and paper – and use the knowledge gleaned to produce a variable but consistent quality to an edition.
In the examples below from one of my views of Silbury Hill, you can see areas under and over impressed.

Both images would pass quality control.

A detail from one of my Silbury Hill prints showing variation in print inking and impression
In this print, the horizontal areas of the dark shy upper left are slightly under impressed, adding texture to the area. The lines coming in diagonally from the top right differ slightly between the two prints.
A second version of a detail from one of my Silbury Hill prints showing variation in print inking and impression
In this separate print, the sky is better impressed but the large foreground tree is slightly under impressed, again adding texture that improves the final piece.


An edition is a series of prints of the same image, allowing for the variation mentioned above. Editions offer the buyer and collector knowledge of the processes, quality and scarcity of a series of works of art available for sale.

Acronyms and abbreviations are often used to denote different qualities of printed edition and the particulars of a given print in the edition. Some common marks include:


denotes an artist’s proof.


denotes a variable edition.


denotes print number 2 of 20.

Open editions

These are editions with an unspecified number of prints, they’re likely not unlimited, as wear and tear on the block going through multiple pressings will take its toll and eventually the block will no longer produce a satisfactory image.

Limited editions

A detail from the corner of a linocut print showing the edition number - 2 of 20
Print number 2 in an edition of 20 of my 2022 still-life linocut Definitive Boot Print

These are editions limited to a specified number. You should be able to see how many prints will be in a limited edition before you buy, as the scarcity of the work will affect its value.

When a limited edition relief block’s print run is completed, no more prints should be taken or made available. Typically the block is then marked (for example with a fresh, vertical cut from top to bottom) to indicate the block is no longer to be printed from. This puts the block beyond use, and is sometimes recorded with a final ‘cancellation print’, marked C/P.

Variable editions

A variable edition indicates differences between each print in an edition. Put another way the artist is celebrating the difference that adjusting variables or the element of chance brings to a series of otherwise similar prints.

An example might be the under-inking of a block to create an imperfect transfer of ink, perhaps for a background layer of a multi-block print. Variable editions can free the artist to work with the chance results of the medium, while maintaining overall appearance and quality control across an edition.

The artist’s proof

Proof prints are made by the printmaker many times in the development of a work, and again when the design is completed proofs are used to test the printing process. They can be made also on demand, for example if an artist needs to share a proof for example with a publisher, a fresh impression can be taken to show how the block is printing. The publisher can annotate these prints to indicate changes, and return them to the artist.

Artist’s proofs are sometimes made available for sale, under a number of conditions. The proof might indicate an earlier version of the work before changes were made, or it might be a test print made before an edition is struck. Proofs made available for sale should be limited in number, and by convention the number of proofs should not exceed 10% of the number in a limited edition.


Printmakers have a vast array of dedicated printing papers available to them, in a range of weights, finishes, textures, and colours.

I print on a small range of papers: Fabriano Academia, Unica, Khadi, and good old cartridge paper from Winsor & Newton, Daler Rowney, Seawhite and others.

I use the latter extensively as it provides a pleasant though not too pronounced texture, and comes in white and off white tones. As the majority of my work is best displayed framed behind glass, the benefits of a more expensive, textured or featured paper would be lost, so I reserve those papers for particular image treatments and difference kinds of display, for example hanging free from clips.

Some handmade papers have irregular ‘deckled’ edges, which can be a pleasant finish to a print meant for open display from clips for example, or where the edges of the print are not hidden behind mount when framed.

In general, the heavier the weight the more options you have for display without a mount or frame. I generally use 130-160gsm papers up to 250gsm.

When buying prints to display either framed, mounted, free standing or hung from clips, the choice of paper can offer durability and interest.


  1. Dixon et al(2010), page 66

Further reading

  1. Dixon, Hugh (2010). Faulkner, Tom E.; Berry, Helen; Gregory, Jeremy (eds.). Thomas Bewick and the North-Eastern LandscapeNorthern Landscapes: Representations and Realities of North-East England. Boydell and Brewer