Thursday, April 23, 2009

Intaglio prints: part 1

An intaglio print is one whose image is printed from a recessed design incised or etched into the surface of a plate. In this type of print the ink lies below the surface of the plate and is transferred to the paper under pressure. The printed lines of an intaglio print stand in relief on the paper.

An itaglio print has a platemark, which is the ridge in the paper surrounding the image, the result of the compression of the paper from the plate and press. This is one of the ways to tell an original print from a reproduction, however, some reproductions have a false or fake platemark. False platemarks have a shape that can usually be recognized (this is hard to describe, but once you have seen a number it becomes fairly obvious), and also false plate marks are often too far away from the printed image. Remember that for older prints, the copper plates used were expensive, so plates were kept as small as possible. This means that the platemarks on original print from before the mid-19th century tend to be very close around the image.

There is a large variety of different types of intaglio prints, including engravings, etchings, mezzotints, aquatints, and stipples. The two most common are engravings and etchings, and we'll look a bit more carefully at those two processes in today's blog.


An engraving (also called a line engraving) is made by incising a design into a metal plate by applying pressure to the plate with a pointed tool called a graver or burin. The term “engraving” is sometimes used to refer in general to all intaglio prints, with the term “line engraving” used to refer to engravings per se, but this is strictly speaking an incorrect usage of the term.

Engravings were among the first of the intaglio processes to be developed. The earliest known line engravings were issued in the fifteenth century. Probably the majority of intaglio prints produced before 1900 were engravings. Strong lines and sharp definition are characteristic of engravings. A method of engraving in a steel plate, which allows for finer detail and many more impressions than does copper, was developed in the early 19th century.


An etching (also called a line etching) is created by covering a metal plate with an acid-resistant layer of wax--called a ground-–and drawing a design through the ground using an etching needle. The plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the exposed lines, thus etching the design into the plate. After dipping the plate in acid, sections of the design can be stopped out with varnish and the plate immersed in the acid again. This creates a deeper bite, and thus darker lines, for those areas not stopped out.

The etching process was also invented very early, first appearing around the fourteenth century as a method of making decorations on armor. The earliest known printed etching was by Urs Graf and is dated 1513. The technique was perfected in the middle of the seventeenth century by Rembrandt. Etching allows for a freer artistic hand than does engraving, but etched plates tend to wear more quickly than engraved plates.

1 comment:

  1. In pure etching, a metal plate is covered with a waxy ground which is resistant to acid. Etching has often been combined with other intaglio techniques such as engraving or aquatint.