Relief printing is a process where protruding surface faces of the printing plate or block are inked; recessed areas are ink free. Printing the image is therefore a relatively simple matter of inking the face of the matrix and bringing it in firm contact with the paper. A printing-press may not be needed as the back of the paper can be rubbed or pressed by hand with a simple tool such as a brayer or roller.
The matrix in relief printing is classically created by starting with a flat original surface, and then removing (e.g., by carving) away areas intended to print white. The remaining areas of the original surface receive the ink.
Traditional text printing with movable type is also a relief technique. This meant that woodcuts were much easier to use as book illustrations, as they could be printed together with the text. Intaglio illustrations, such as engravings, had to be printed separately.
Relief printing is one of the traditional families of printmaking techniques, along with the intaglio and planographic families. Modern developments have created other types.
In contrast, in the intaglio process the recessed areas are the printed areas. The whole matrix is inked, and the ink then wiped away from the surface, so that it remains only in the recesses. Much greater pressure is then needed to force the paper into the channels containing the ink, and a high-pressure press will normally be required. Intaglio techniques include engraving, etching, and drypoint. With planographic techniques, such as lithography, the entire surface of the matrix is flat, and some areas are treated to create the print image.
Normally relief and intaglio techniques can only be mixed with others of the same family in the same work.
- Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on relief printing
- Types of Relief Printing Descriptions of woodcuts, engravings, linoleum cuts, and monotype relief printing.
- See also Relief printing techniques as used and described by French printmaker Dominique Lecomte