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Making Limited Edition PrintsMaking Limited Edition Prints


Limited edition prints are original works of art that have been created by the artist on a stone, metal plate, block or acetate sheet for a specific printmaking process. Archival quality paper and special inks are used to ensure that the print has a very long life. The main printmaking processes used for creating original prints are etching, screenprinting, lithography, relief printing and other techniques such as collagraph. Original prints must involve the artist in their making, as well as a master printer, and are different from reproduction prints where large numbers of copies are made using photographic methods.

The number of copies printed from the stone, plate, screen or block are together known as an edition. The edition is generally limited in number - hence the name "limited edition print". In Australia the edition size is usually limited to 99 or less. When the plates or screens have been used to make the stated number of prints in the edition they are destroyed so that no more copies can be made. In the case of a lithographic stone, the image is wiped from the stone, which is then used again for other editions.

The making of limited edition prints has become a major new venture in many Aboriginal communities. From Balgo in the west to Lockhart River on Cape York and down to Ernabella in South Australia, artists have been exploring aspects of printmaking. Several communities have purchased presses and established their own workshops. Artists are taking their work in this medium very seriously and as a consequence Aboriginal prints are appearing in greater numbers in art galleries and exhibitions. They provide an accessible and important medium of cultural expression.

All limited edition prints available through our Website are produced on the highest quality archival paper that ensures the stability and very long life of the image. There are no concerns about the essentially indefinite life of such prints, provided they are properly handled and not exposed to excessive light, heat or humidity. For more information, see the page about Print Paper.


Many Aboriginal artists using this medium paint their designs directly onto a zinc plate using a sugar and ink mixture. It suits any artists who traditionally paint on bark or canvas. When the mix is dry, the plate is coated with bitumen paint all over. The sugar-ink mixture is then dissolved in a tray of hot water. The artist's drawing is now exposed again and ready for etching in an acid tray. Tones may be added, and the artists indicate the colours they would like used by the printers. Marks can also be incised directly into the metal using a sharp needle or etching tool. Finally the image is completed by inking and printing on paper.

Balgo Hills artist Helicopter applying a resistant
layer of bitumen onto the printing plate


Most Aboriginal communities have responded enthusiastically to silkscreen printing. As the making of the matrix involves the direct application of paint to acetate sheets, the artist can work in as many colours as he or she wants. It is easy to see the painting develop as the layers of paint are applied (one colour on each successive overlay of acetate). Artists are not inhibited by any technical constraints, and can make the paintings in their communities without any assistance. Once the painting is finished, the acetate sheets are carefully separated. Each coloured acetate is exposed onto a nylon-meshed screen, which has been coated in a dark room with light-sensitive emulsion. The exposure light hardens the emulsion on the screen, but, as it can't shine through the paint the artist has used on his or her acetate, the painted areas don't harden and can be washed out with a hose after the exposure is complete. A stencil remains on the screen, and the printer can pull ink across the screen and through the open areas of the stencil onto sheets of paper below. A new screen is made for each colour. Printing is fast and the prints are bright and richly coloured.


Lithography is traditionally done on a fine limestone slab. This medium is especially appropriate for artists in Arnhem Land, where images have been recorded on rock walls and caves for many centuries. Textile designers at Ernabella have also adapted well to drawing on stone. Using a greasy ink or crayon, the artists paint or draw their design onto the stone. It is then chemically treated to establish the drawing and make the background areas water-receptive. When it is time to print the image, the printer wets the stone with a sponge. The negative areas become wet and repel ink, whilst the greasy drawn details attract ink when it is rolled over the stone with a large roller. The artist or print maker then covers the plate with a sheet of paper and runs both through a press under light pressure. For a colour lithograph separate drawings are made for each colour

Relief printing

In this technique the image is created by ink being rolled over a flat surface of an incised plate or block. Artists with a carving tradition, such as the Tiwi and Yolngu people, have been attracted to lino and woodcut as a medium. Because they use similar tools for their sculptural pieces, they easily adapt to carving two dimensional designs onto a flat surface. Artists draw the design onto the wood or lino and then carve away areas which they do not wish to carry ink. The high areas are inked up with a roller, and the prints are made by placing paper on the top of the block and running it through an etching press. Reduction linocuts are made from one block. A background colour is printed, then some cuts are made in the lino and the second colour is applied over the first. Further cuts are made before each colour is printed carefully over the previous ones.


Very few Aboriginal communities currently use this technique, which was introduced to Yolngu artists at Yirrkala in 1999. Using masonite or cardboard as a base, the artist paints textures or a design or uses collaged items to build up the surface of the block. Once a protective layer or two of shellac has been applied over the block's surface, it can be inked up like an etching plate. Every detail is sensitively picked up and printed in this process, and, again, artists have responded favourably to a medium which is not reliant on complex techniques. Artists have been able to use skills they already have, and their own ingenuity, to make fresh images which are unlike their paintings or linocuts in appearance, but are still firmly based on traditional subject matter.

Description of print making techniques provided by Basil Hall and Rose Cameron, Northern Editions, Northern Territory University in "Land Mark: Mirror Mark" 2000


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