Printmaking is an essential medium for many artists that want to create multiple copies of their work, create illustrations for books, or advertise businesses. One of the oldest forms of printmaking is engraving printmaking.
Engraving printmaking initially developed in the 15th century in Germany, though the process has since come a long way. There are many techniques to create different styles and forms in engraving prints, and it remains a popular technique amongst artists today.
What Is Engraving Printmaking?
Engraving printmaking is an art medium that allows artists to create many copies of artwork without drawing many copies by hand.
Though many artists and printmakers have moved to faster printing and printmaking techniques, engraving printing was essential for hundreds of years. In its time, engraving was essential to poster-making, book illustrations, and other occasions where dozens or hundreds of copies of a work were needed.
Engraving Printmaking History
The use of engraving for printmaking originated in Germany in the mid to late 15th century. The art form derived from techniques used by goldsmiths that used engraved molds to shape gold into intricately crafted items.
Early engraving printmaking often used copper plates due to their wide availability and durability. Later, artists would use wood for stylistic reasons and steel for even better durability.
Reproduction of Paintings in the Early Days
At first, though engraving techniques evolved to become more intricate, most engravers only used engraving printing to recreate paintings.
While recreating paintings was an important method for distributing and sharing art, it limited the use of original art made in the engraving medium. Most artists only saw it as a tool to supplement other mediums.
Engraving kept its reputation as a ‘recreation medium’ through the beginning of the 16th century when artists transformed it into a medium in its own right.
Original Works in the Mid-16th Century
The art world’s understanding of engravings changed in the mid to late 16th century. Two engravers pioneered the idea of original works made in this medium—Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden.
The works of Leyden and Dürer inspired other engraving artists to pioneer new techniques and create their own original works rather than simply recreate famous paintings for mass consumption.
New Line Techniques in the Late 16th Century
Shortly after engravings became more popular as a medium for original work, Cornelius Cort transformed future engraving prints with a new line-making technique.
Previously, artists added contrast by using more or fewer lines or changing the thickness of the lines they used. Cort revolutionized how future artists would create depth in their pieces by changing the thickness of lines as he chiseled them.
In Cort’s technique, a single line can have multiple thicknesses, waxing and waning in size depending on how much ink Cort wanted in the final print. You can see an early use of this line technique in Cort’s work, the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1571).
New Engraving Tools in the 17th Century
Engravings evolved again in the late 17th century when another printmaking technique developed: mezzotint engravings.
The primary developer of mezzotint was Ludwig Von Siegen. Mezzotint involves using many pits and holes in metal plates to create tonal effects and smoother transitions from light to dark.
Seigen was responsible for popularizing new engraving tools called ‘rockers.’ Rockers have multiple pointed ends rather than just one, which made mezzotint as accessible as direct engraving, which was previously considered an easier technique.
Types of Engraving Printmaking Techniques
There are a few different ways that artists can engrave into the printing plate, depending on the style of images they want to make. The two primary methods for carving plates are mezzotint engraving and drypoint engraving.
Drypoint (Direct) Engraving
Drypoint is a plate engraving method that uses a diamond-tipped, pointed instrument called a burin. Copper plates are the most popular choice for drypoint engravers, though many artists use wood surfaces.
In drypoint, The sharp point of the burin closely mimics the experience of drawing, which makes it a perfect technique for beginners that want to create intricate detail.
Because of its very fine chisel and relatively malleable plates, drypoint engraving can create intricate works with remarkable detail and texture.
However, the fineness of the final plate also means that it cannot be used as extensively as engravings made from other materials. Artists will quickly wear down their finer lines, leaving a blurred plate behind.
Mezzotint engraving involves the creation of many small holes called pits that collect ink. After the engraver creates a general outline using these pits, they will carefully shave down and burnish various areas of the printing plate to create a gradient with delicate, intricate designs.
Mezzotint engravings require copper plates, which are easier to manage than metal plates or wood.
Unlike drypoint engraving, which uses a fine chisel called a burin, mezzotint engraving uses a many-pointed engraving tool called a rocker. The rocker speeds up the highly time-consuming task of creating pits for the artist.
Most forms of engraving for printmaking are various physical ways that an engraver can carve into a plate or block to create patterns. Etching, while still a form of engraving, does not involve any scraping away of metal directly.
Etching is a form of chemical engraving. In etching, an artist will use chemicals that peel away at copper, leaving behind their desired images on the printing plate.
Occasionally, artists will use a combination of etching and line engraving to create their pieces.
Rembrandt, though widely known today for his paintings, gained fame in his time for using a combination of etching and drypoint engraving. You can see some of this technique clearly in his piece Reclining Female Nude (1658).
Aquatint etching is a form of engraving that allows artists to create prints with additional tonal value and better gradients of color. Aquatint etching is unique amongst printing techniques in that it allows artists to print an infinite range of tonalities.
Artists use aquatint etching by exposing a copperplate to acid through a resin layer. The resin prevents the acid from reaching the plate. In areas where acid reaches the copperplate, the acid will deteriorate the plate and leave behind a pitted surface that can be filled with ink.
Francisco Goya developed the aquatint method in the 17th century. Though many artists after him attempted to imitate his technique, no one ever reached the mastery that Goya developed.
Hard Varnish Engraving
Hard varnish engraving is a type of engraving in which varnish is applied to a piece of metal and allowed to harden. Once the varnish has dried, the artist will carve into the surface of the varnish and expose the metal plate.
The metal plate will then receive an acid bath. Areas where the plate comes in direct contact with the acid bath will erode, leaving behind grooves that will collect ink, thus creating a printing plate. The engraver will remove the varnish before using the plate for printing purposes.
Soft Varnish Engraving
Soft varnish engraving is a type of engraving in which the artist applies a soft varnish to a metal plate. The artist will stipple through the surface of the varnish and create their desired pattern.
The metal plate will then receive an acid bath. Anywhere that the varnish has been stripped away is affected by the acid, creating a permanent pattern on the plate. The plate is complete after the varnish is removed.
Artists use a variety of surfaces to create engravings for printmaking. While most artists carve their pieces into metal plates, particularly metals, many choose to use wood for engraving as well.
Different engraving surfaces will have different effects on the printing and engraving processes, so which surface an artist decides to use depends on their personal preference and the goal of the piece.
Copper Plate Engraving
Copper was a popular surface for engraving early on. Copper is a relatively malleable material, making it possible for engravers to hand carve it.
However, the malleability that makes the copper plate carvable also makes it fragile. An artist may only use a copper plate a limited number of times before it is too worn down for printmaking.
Despite these limitations, copper engraving remains a widely popular printmaking technique because of its balance between steel’s challenging nature and wood’s fast deterioration.
After steel became more widely accessible in the mid-19th century, steel plates became a popular medium for engraving plates.
Steel is far more durable than copper or wood, so it will last longer, allowing artists to create far more prints with one engraving plate.
Before the advent of metal plates for engraving, engravers primarily used wood to create printing plates. Wood is soft enough to be engraved by hand easily, but it also quickly deteriorates when used for printmaking.
Wood-engraved plates are only suitable for a very limited number of uses before they become too worn down to make reliable prints.
The Metal Plate Print Engraving Process: Step by Step
The engraving process for printing varies depending on the type of material used for the engraving plate and the type of engraving the artist uses. However, after the engraving is complete, the printing process is largely the same for all metal plate types.
1. Carving the Printing Plate
Creating an engraving for printing is a multi-step procedure, but it always begins with creating the printing plate. Early artists mostly used wood before moving on to copper, which is more durable, and steel, which is even more durable than copper.
Copper printing plates are one of the most popular choices for their versatility. Copperplate engraving can be done using a very fine chisel called a burin or a multi-pronged engraving tool called a rocker. Wood engravers mostly use knives or standard chisels, while steel engravers must use a diamond-tipped burin.
Whichever method they use, the engraver will use their tools to carve their desired image onto the wood or metal surface. Some create sharp, precise lines, and some use other techniques to create graduated, tonal effects.
2. Inking the Plate
After the artist is happy with their engraving plate, it is time to apply ink. To ink the plate, the artist will first apply a thick layer of ink to ensure that the ink thoroughly reaches all crevices and incisions.
After the piece is completely saturated in ink, the artist must wipe away excess. Artists typically use several pieces of cloth and their hands to ensure that only a thin layer of ink is left behind on the metal plate. This process will ensure that only the parts of the image that need ink appear on the final paper.
3. Transferring the Image
After the image is appropriately inked, the artist must run their metal plate and paper through a special press called a printing press.
First, the artist will apply a thin layer of water to their sheet of paper. The dampened paper will do a better job of picking up on details in the image than a dry sheet would.
A printing press is a large roller that will apply heavy pressure to the paper and the engraving. Pressing into the paper with immense pressure ensures that details are not lost during the image transfer process.
A metal plate may lose sharpness in the image when run through a press. Applying heavy pressure to copper will warp the metal. Steel engraving plates will hold their shape better under heavy pressure, which makes the image deteriorate more slowly.
4. Finishing Techniques
The print can be considered complete after the initial ink is applied, or the artist may add more ink to the piece to add color. Most artists choose watercolors to add color, but they may use any colored ink, crayon, or pencil to fill in their work.
Engraving Print Artists
Many of the most famous artists of all time have used engraving as a printmaking technique, even if they were not primarily printmaking artists. For example, Albrecht Dürer was one of his time’s most influential etching artists, even though he preferred to focus on painting.
These engravers have significantly impacted their craft over the years, even if they are primarily famous for other works they produced.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Most art historians agree that Albrecht Dürer was one of the most prominent and influential artists in early engraving. Born in Germany in 1471, Dürer began his art career right as engravings and other forms of printing were just taking off.
Though he quickly abandoned the technique for more traditional mediums, Albrecht Dürer is one of the earliest and most influential artists to have used engravings for printmaking. His works were highly detailed and pioneered the way for future engravers after him.
Dürer worked with various materials, but all of his works used the drypoint engraving technique.
Like most prominent artists of the time, Dürer did not do much of his own carving. Instead, he precisely drew which lines he would like carved and left the rest to an assistant. Nonetheless, he is remembered for the fine details of his artworks and the immense quality of lines in his engraving.
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, more commonly known as Francisco de Goya, was born in Aragon, Spain, in 1746. He was an artist famous for his romantic paintings and, more relevantly, prints.
Goya made his own printmaking technique known as aquatint. Aquatint uses a chemical reaction on copperplates to create planes of depth for printmaking.
Because aquatint is used in varying layers and stages, it is possible for artists to create more depth using this method than they can by using other forms of etching.
You can see Goya’s technique in his piece Seated Giant (1818). The aquatint etching method allowed Goya’s work to have immaculate tonality and soft lines, very different from the sharp lines of earlier engraving prints.
Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450-1491)
Martin Schongauer was a German artist whose exact birthday is unknown, though he was likely born around 1450. He was the first German painter to work in the art of engraving and printmaking, and he profoundly impacted artists that came after him, including Albrecht Dürer.
Before the popularization of Schongauer’s work, engraving art was widely reserved for goldsmiths. Schongauer brought a more artistic expression to the medium, forever changing the printing game.
Though many artists do not receive fame or recognition for their work until they retire or die, Schongaur was not such an artist. During his lifetime, his engravings spread as far as southern Italy, spreading his influence across the entire continent of Europe.
Madonna and Child in the Courtyard (ca. 1470-1491) is a remarkable depiction of Schongauer’s immense skill in etching. Each line is carefully placed, and he uses simple, consistent lines to create tonal variations in light and shadow.
Hans Baldung (1484-1545)
Hans Baldung was an artist and member of the German Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though Baldung focused primarily on painting—like most artists in his time—his more significant works were in the printing medium.
Most of Baldung’s prints were illustrations for books—a common way for artists at the time to make a living. Though many of his works were simple supplements to the written word, he also created many original and unique pieces outside of books.
Baldung worked almost exclusively in wood stamping, though he also printed classic metal plate engravings. These metal engravings are one of the earliest known forms of this art method.
One example of Baldung’s few engravings is his piece, The Sabbath of the Witches. This piece is remarkable for its bold subject matter- Baldung included pagan traditions in much of his art and its intricate detail. The work is an incredible display of early engraving and print art.
William Hogarth (1697-1764)
William Hogarth was an English artist. He worked in a variety of mediums, including painting and engraving, and was well known for his political and social criticisms.
Hogarth had a unique approach to engraving and printing. He sold his social commentary prints through a subscription, much like newspapers and magazines of the time.
Hogarth is also known as an early proponent of copyright law. His works were widely plagiarized during his lifetime, a fact that frustrated him deeply.
Hogarth’s art prints spread widely across Europe and influenced many future artists, including John Collier, Gavin Gordon, and Igor Stravinsky.
Not all of the artists Hogarth influenced were engravers, either. Many future creators were inspired by his works to create art in other mediums, including ballet, play, and opera.
Though many printing and printmaking techniques are available to artists, the engraving printmaking process maintains an essential role in art history and the art world we know today.
Engraving printmaking made the recreation and distribution of art accessible for hundreds of years, which allowed artists in centuries past to share their ideas, techniques, and talents with the world at large.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are the most commonly asked questions about engraving, printmaking, and its history.
What is the purpose of engraving printmaking?
Engraving printmaking has many uses, including creating posters or illustrations for books. Engravers also use engraved printmaking to produce more copies of their work to distribute and sell to fans of their work.
What is the difference between etching and engraving?
Etching and engraving are both processes to create plates for creating prints. Etching uses a chemical reaction to degrade a metal plate and create a pattern. Engraving uses direct carving into a metal or wood plate to make a printing surface.
How do you identify engraving prints?
It can be challenging to distinguish engravings from other prints, but one of the easiest is to look for an impression left by the printing press. Printers run engraving prints through a heavy press to ensure that all details of an engraving appear on the final image.
The heavy weight of a press will leave behind an impression of the metal plate and texture of the engraved drawing.