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ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

Engraving is the process of cutting a design into a hard surface. Any hard surface that can be cut may be used, but metal and wood are the most common. In ancient times, decorations of all kinds were engraved on metal vessels. This use of the engraving process is one that has continued throughout history.

In the 1400's, in both Italy and Germany, a method of printing from engraved metal was invented. The name of this printing process--in which a print is made from ink forced into the grooves on a sheet of metal—is intaglio.

In intaglio printing, artists work on plates of zinc or copper. With sharp, pointed tools called burins, they "draw" on the plate by cutting into it. The areas that are not cut into, or engraved, will be white on the print. Lightness and darkness are achieved in a number of ways. One way is called cross-hatching. Little parallel lines are engraved and crossed by another set of parallel lines. Many such lines placed close together produce a darker area, while fewer lines spaced more widely will create a grayer area. Shading can also be controlled by lines that do not cross, or simply by thicker lines.

After artists cut their drawings into the plates, they rub the plates with thick, creamy ink. Next they wipe the plates with a special cotton pad, called a tarlatan pad, removing ink from the surface but not from the grooves. The plate is then covered with a piece of damp paper and soft felt blankets, and run through a printing press under great pressure. The top roller of the press exerts pressure on the blanket, forcing the paper into the grooves to absorb the ink. When the paper is removed from the plate, the drawing appears on the paper as a mirror image of the plate design.

At any point while working on a plate, the artist may want to see what the creation looks like. So the artist "pulls" a proof (sample copy) from the press. When the artist is satisfied with the plate, the artist prepares an edition (a certain number of copies printed from one plate).

Wood engraving became popular in the 1500's. The side (cross grain) rather than the top of a plank of hardwood is cut with engraving burins. Wood engravings are not printed by the intaglio method, however. The print is made from ink on the part of the surface that has not been engraved. A wood engraving can appear as white lines on a black background or as fine black lines on a white background.

The development of engraving led to more advanced intaglio printing methods. By the 1700's, etching, with its great variety of techniques, overshadowed engraving.

Reviewed by John Sparks
The Maryland Institute, College of Art

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