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What is scratch printing?

Scratch printing refers to a printmaking technique where the artist scratches into a surface to create a design that can be inked and printed. It falls into the category of relief printing processes along with techniques like woodblock printing and linocut printing. Scratch printing allows artists to draw directly into the printing matrix and impression lines and textures into the final print.

What Surfaces Can Be Used for Scratch Printing?

There are a few different surfaces that can be used for scratch printing:

  • Plexiglas – Plexiglas sheets are a common choice for scratch printing. The artist can scratch directly into the Plexiglas using tools like needles, nails, engravers, or etching tools. Plexiglas holds fine details well but can be prone to cracking if scratched too aggressively.
  • Wood – Wood blocks, like lino blocks used for linocut printing, can also be scratched into to create printing matrices. Softer woods like pine or plywood work better than hardwoods. The wood grain texture comes through in the final print.
  • Linoleum – Linoleum sheets mounted on wood blocks are another popular scratch printing surface. Linoleum has a smooth texture that takes detailed scratches well. Printmakers use a variety of scratching tools like scalpels, etching needles, and sharpened screwdrivers to carve into linoleum.
  • Metal – Copper, zinc, and other metals can be scratched and engraved to create printing plates. Metal scratch printing often requires more specialized tools like burins, scorpers, and engravers. The metal holds very fine details well.
  • Coated Cardboard – Some printmakers coat cardboard sheets with materials like plexiglass or linoleum cement to create scratch printing plates. The coated cardboard is inexpensive and easy to work with.

In general, any material that can be scratched or engraved into to create “valleys” and hold ink can potentially be used for scratch printing. The choice depends on factors like the desired texture, detail, and durability.

What Tools Are Used for Scratch Printing?

Printmakers employ a wide variety of hand tools for scratching into printing matrices. Common scratching and engraving tools include:

  • Needles – Sewing needles, etching needles, needles mounted into handles, and specialty scratching needles are used to incise fine lines and details.
  • Nails – Roofing nails, nails mounted into pen-like handles, and hooked scribes work well for making broader scratches and outlines.
  • X-Acto Knives – Printmakers often use X-Acto knives and other small blades for detailed cutting into softer materials like linoleum.
  • Etching Tools – Etchers and engravers use tools like scorpers, spitstickers, mezzotint rockers, and burins to engrave metal plates. These can be used for scratching as well.
  • Dremels – Small rotary power carvers like Dremels allow scratching away broader areas of material.
  • Self-Made Tools – Printmakers also make their own handmade scratching tools by mounting objects like nails, guitar strings, or metal combs into handles.

The tools chosen will depend on the material being scratched and the desired marks. For fine detail, needles and etching tools are preferred. For broader marks, nails, power carvers, and stiff scraping tools work better.

What Is the Basic Process of Scratch Printing?

The basic workflow for a scratch print is:

  1. Prepare the matrix – Select a material like Plexiglas, linoleum, or wood to use as the printing matrix. Cut it to the desired size.
  2. Scratch a design – Use sharpened tools to scratch away areas of the matrix. This can be done freehand or by tracing an existing drawing. Apply varying depths and textures.
  3. Ink the matrix – Ink the surface of the matrix using a brayer or dabber. The ink fills the scratched areas.
  4. Print – Place paper over the inked matrix and run them through a printing press or use hand pressure to transfer the image.
  5. Clean and re-ink – Clean excess ink from the matrix and re-ink to make additional prints. Multiple impressions can be made from the same scratched matrix.

This basic process allows artists to create editioned scratch prints. More complex techniques like multi-block printing can also be employed.

How Does Scratch Printing Differ from Engraving?

While scratch printing and engraving both involve incising into a surface, there are some key differences between the two techniques:

  • Matrix material – Scratch printing is generally done on softer materials like lino or plastic. Engraving traditionally uses metal plates.
  • Tools used – Scratching relies on hand tools like needles and knives. Engraving uses specialized burins and engravers.
  • Inking – Scratch printing ink sits on the matrix surface. Engraved lines hold ink inside them.
  • Application – Scratch printing is a direct printmaking process. Engraving was traditionally used for industrial reproductions.
  • Quality – Engraved plates can hold very fine detail. Scratched matrices have a more organic, hand-drawn look.

Engraving requires greater technical precision and investment in tools. Scratch printing has a more immediate, raw quality accessible to a broader range of artists.

What Are the Origins and History of Scratch Printing?

While scratching into surfaces to create images is likely as old as humankind, scratch printing emerged in the early 20th century alongside other relief printing revivals. Key developments include:

  • 1900s – German Expressionists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner experimented with crude scratched woodblock and linocuts.
  • 1920s – Dada artists used scratching on found objects to spontaneous expressive effect.
  • 1930s – Surrealist printmakers like Max Ernst used frottage rubbings and scratching for automatic drawing.
  • 1940s – Misch Kohn pioneered plexiglass engraving, scratching into inked plexiglass panels.
  • 1960s – Scratch printing had a resurgence with Pop artists like Jim Dine.
  • 1970s-Now – Contemporary artists have embraced scratch printing, especially plexiglass scratching, as an direct and experimental form.

Scratch printing provided an antithesis to mechanized print production, reintroducing the hand-drawn and spontaneous. It continues to attract artists seeking those raw, immediate qualities.

What Are Some Variations on Basic Scratch Printing Techniques?

There are many ways artists have built upon the basic scratch printing process over the years. Some examples include:

  • Multi-block printing – Using multiple scratched plates/blocks inked in different colors to create a merged print.
  • Collography – Incorporating collaged elements along with scratching on the matrix.
  • Scraping and sanding – Using abrasives like sandpaper and steel wool to create tonal effects.
  • Tonal scratching – Varying scratch depth and texture to produce tones without inking.
  • Rubbing – Pressing paper against scratched metal plates and rubbing to pick up ink from the scratches.
  • Photopolymer plates – Exposing light-sensitive polymer plates to UV then scratching away areas.
  • Printing on wood – Directly scratching and printing onto a wood surface.

Contemporary printmakers combine scratching with photographic transfers, chine colle, digital processes, and other techniques for unique effects.

What Types of Imagery Are Best Suited to Scratch Printing?

Certain kinds of imagery and content are especially well-suited to the scratch printing process:

  • Flowing lines – Fine etched lines mimicking drawing or handwriting work well.
  • Expressionistic marks – Loose marks and energetic textures translate nicely.
  • Tonality – Gradations and textures in value can be created by scratch depth.
  • Stylized forms – Simple, graphic forms and outlines are easier to scratch effectively.
  • Pared-down imagery – Focusing on essential lines and textures fits the reductive process.
  • Experimental imagery – Chance effects and found textures take advantage of the spontaneity of scratching.

Subjects that rely on fine detail, perfect proportion, or photography do not utilize the full expressive potential of scratch printing.

How Does a Printmaker Design an Image Specifically for Scratch Printing?

When designing imagery to be scratch printed, printmakers consider the following:

  • What are the essential lines and textures needed to depict the forms?
  • What elements can be simplified or stylized?
  • What areas would etching textures or tones serve the image?
  • What expressive accidents or discoveries may emerge from the scratching process?
  • How will the scratched areas capture and translate ink?
  • What is the estimated tonal range achievable?
  • How will the matrix material affect the mark quality?

Rather than reproducing a pre-existing image, the design evolves symbiotically with its translation into scratched marks. The image ideas and the emerging matrix inform each other.

How Does Scratch Printing Compare to Other Relief Printing Techniques?

Scratch printing differs from other relief processes in a few key ways:

  • Woodblock printing – Scratching uses thinner, more flexible matrices. The matrix does not need to be cut away around forms.
  • Linocut – Scratch tonal effects are more subtle. Linocut focuses on distinct carved shapes.
  • Wood engraving – Engraving requires specialized tools. Scratching can be done with simple hand tools.
  • Etching – Etching uses acids rather than scratching to create incised lines.

Scratch printing is the most drawing-based of these techniques. It induces less alteration of the matrix material but can achieve more tonal nuance than linocut or woodblock.

What Are Some Tips for Achieving High Quality Scratch Prints?

Some suggestions for excellence in scratch printmaking:

  • Use the hardest matrix material you can effectively scratch into for durability and detail.
  • Try a variety of scratching tools and use the ones that best fit your imagery goals.
  • Use deeper scratches in key dark areas to increase tonal range.
  • Keep scratches close together in dark areas and farther apart for light areas.
  • Experiment with layered scratches in different directions for added depth.
  • Use thin soft brayers and light inking to keep delicate etched lines clear.
  • Learn the minimum pressure needed to achieve a good print to keep matrix intact.
  • Focus pressure on centers of matrices to avoid cracking at edges.
  • Be mindful of edition numbers and matrix durability.

Mastering scratch pressure, inking, and using quality papers will help prints reach their full potential. But imperfection can be part of the appeal of a hand-drawn printmaking process like scratch printing.

What Makes a Strong Scratch Print Composition?

A compelling scratch print composition often has:

  • Alignment to the matrix – The imagery feels integrated into the format rather than arbitrarily framed.
  • Intentional use of direction – Scratch marks play a key role in directing the viewer’s eye.
  • Interesting edges – The outlines have variation and bite rather than simply delineating shapes.
  • Textural areas – Passages of concentrated scratching for visual interest.
  • Bold contrasts – Dynamic dark and light areas heighten drama.
  • Spontaneity – Some passages feel inventive, free, and “found” through the process.

Balancing planning and intention with flexibility and experimentation often leads to compelling scratch printed compositions.

Why Are Some Impressions Called “Ghost Prints” in Scratch Printing?

In scratch printing, “ghost prints” refer to impressions taken from a matrix that has already been inked and printed normally. When a matrix is re-inked, often less ink adheres in the scratched lines. This causes a lighter second print. Artists sometimes take advantage of this by printing “ghosts” intentionally.

Reasons a printmaker may use ghost printing include:

  • To create a lighter tone of the same image.
  • To make images emerge or recede when printed over other layers.
  • To replicate the look of a fading image.
  • To encourage spontaneity by embracing imperfect inking.
  • To conserve materials by doubling printed output.

The faded, almost apparitional quality of ghost prints are highly valued by some printmakers. But ghosts are generally weaker impressions and overuse risks degrading the plate faster.


In summary, scratch printing encompasses a range of printmaking techniques united by the act of incising images directly into a matrix surface. It emerged from experimentations with relief printing processes in the early 20th century and remains popular with artists seeking spontaneity, raw mark-making, and expansive tone and texture.

There are many directions scratch printing can be taken in depending on the materials, tools, and techniques chosen. But at its core, it is a flexible, immediate printmaking method grounded in drawing and material exploration. The hand-drawn and often unpredictable nature of the scratched marks imprints images with directness, energy, and imagination.