Museum Dogs has featured a lot of engravings and etchings in the last few weeks. But what exactly are engravings and etchings? What’s the difference?
I’ve always really liked woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and other types of prints, but up until very recently, I had very little idea of how they were made and the differences among the processes. If you, dear reader, are confused about these things too, have no fear—here is a quick primer to sort out some of the mysteries of printmaking.
There are two main categories of prints: relief and intaglio. (Well, there is actually a third, lithography, but I’m not covering it here.
Relief printing uses the same concept as a rubber stamp. The design is drawn onto a block, and the material is cut away from the lines so that the design stands out in relief. The ink, when applied to the block, adheres to the raised design. The paper is then pressed to the block using a regular printing press, and the inked raised lines leave the design on the paper.
Woodcuts and linocuts are the two main types of relief prints. One uses a printing block made of wood and the other uses linoleum.
There is a type of relief print called a wood engraving that is just another way of creating a relief design in wood. The finished print looks more like an intaglio engraving than a woodcut, but the technique has nothing to do with that of intaglio engraving.
In intaglio printing, the design is incised into a metal, usually copper, plate. The ink is applied to the plate and then carefully wiped off, leaving ink only in the incised design. The paper is applied to the plate in a printing press that uses rollers to exert great pressure so that the paper is forced into the grooves of the design. Because copper is a soft metal, the plate will be worn down after repeated printings. The design might have to be reworked if more prints are to be made from the plate.
The two most common types of intaglio printmaking are engraving and etching.
Engraving is the oldest type of intaglio printmaking. It uses a tool called a burin, also known as a graver, that is held with the handle against the palm of the hand and the forefinger on the blade, and the tool is pushed forward along the plate to incise the line. Like so:
(Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie, 1751; illustration reproduced on the University of Glasgow blog, August 28, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/oau2oyf.)
The ends of engraved lines taper to a point.
Engraving is a very difficult skill to master. Also, engraving a plate can take a very long time—years, even, on a large plate. Before the advent of photographic processes, engraving was the way to reproduce paintings and other works of art for books, newspapers, collectible prints, etc. Its most notable modern use is for making banknotes.
Etching is the other main type of intaglio printmaking. The plate is covered in a waxy coating, called a ground, that is impervious to acid. The design is scratched into the ground (not the plate!), leaving the lines as exposed metal. The plate is dipped in acid, and the acid eats into the plate along lines of the design. Each exposure to the acid is called a biting. The longer the plate is in contact with the acid, the deeper the lines. Varnishing over portions of a bitten plate and re-exposing it to the acid is a way to create varying strengths of lines. The plate is inked and printed in the same way as engravings. Before printing, ink can be incompletely wiped from portions of the plate to create tonal effects in the print. Rembrandt was fond of doing this.
Etching a design is much easier than engraving; the artist simply draws the design into the waxy ground on the plate. Like so:
(Staged and Unstaged, “Etching a Portrait,” April 20, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/p6b8jjz.)
Not having to push the tool through metal allows for more freedom of movement in the artist’s lines.
A note of caution: To make things really confusing, the word “engraving” is often used as a catchall term for all intaglio prints, and “engraver” for anyone who makes them, regardless of technique. To solve this problem, sometimes “line-engraving” is used to specify an actual engraving rather than an etching or other type of intaglio print. As if keeping this stuff straight isn’t difficult enough!
Other Intaglio Techniques
Drypoint is another technique for creating intaglio designs, often used in concert with etching or engraving. In it, the line is scratched directly into the plate with a sharp needle. The burr of metal thrown up by the scoring is left on the plate, producing a soft-edged line. Drypoint is often used to retouch etched plates.
Mezzotint and aquatint are two more ways to create intaglio prints, but I’ll leave those for another day.
For more information about printmaking, I highly recommend Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques by Antony Griffiths. It is not only informative but also written in an engaging style. This whole post is, in fact, cribbed from the book. There is, of course, lots of information on the internet, too. The Wikipedia entries for engraving (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engraving) and etching (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etching) are good places to start, and Graphics Atlas (http://www.graphicsatlas.org/) is an amazing resource. Also, Robert MacLean, of the University of Glasgow Library, has written a couple of good blog posts on woodcuts and intaglio prints (http://tinyurl.com/nk2ry8p and http://tinyurl.com/oau2oyf).
To Sum Up
- Woodcut—the block is made of wood
- Linocut—the block is made of linoleum
- Wood engraving—different technique for making a relief design in wood
- Tool: Burin/graver (Difficult to master)
- Design: Incised directly into the plate
- Inking: Plate usually wiped clean of ink
- Lines: Ends taper to a point
- Noted artists: Dürer
- Tool: Needle (Easier to use)
- Design: Scratched into the waxy coating on the plate; acid eats the design into the plate
- Inking: Ink sometimes left on parts of the plate to create tonal effects
- Lines: Ends of the lines are blunt and rounded; lines show more freedom of movement
- Noted artists: Castiglione, Rembrandt, Callot
- Tool: Needle
- Design: Incised directly into the plate; burr not removed
- Lines: Soft edges
- Often used along with or to retouch etching
Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking; An Introduction to the History and Techniques (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).