Engraving and Etching
Origins And History Of Intaglio Printing
Engraving first became popular in Europe during the fifteenth century, when paper became available far more widely than it had been previously. From the beginning, intaglio printing was used for both the sacred and the profane. Artists made engravings of religious scenes, while craftsmen used the new technique to make copies of famous paintings or decks of playing cards. In an age when the printing press and movable type were first being invented, this was the equivalent of today's mass-produced posters.
Propelled by the genius of artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), intaglio techniques quickly grew. Artists learned to create various kinds of shading through the use of dots, called stippling, and groups of parallel lines at various angles to each other, called cross-hatching. Engraving requires drawing a line while pressing into a plate the correct distance to create the desired shade and line width. Some artists rejected the tool used for this, called a burin, which has a square or diamond-shaped tip and shaft, and creates very clean lines. They preferred the softer look caused by cutting the plate with a needle, a technique called drypoint. A needle causes ridges of metal to rise next to the groove it cut. These ridges catch large amounts of printing ink, which produce rich, soft blacks when transferred to paper. Unfortunately, the ridges wear down rapidly, making drypoint unsuitable to large press runs. In engraving, any ridges caused by cutting the plate are removed with a sharp instrument called a scraper.
Etching became popular during the sixteenth century. It evolved from fifteenth century techniques for putting patterns on swords. Armorers would cover new swords with wax, then scratch through the wax, and put the sword in a weak acid until the acid bit a line in the metal. To make an etching, a metal plate is first covered with a ground, a thin layer of acid-resistant material. The artist then scratches gently into the ground with an etching needle, exposing parts of the plate. This process is much more like drawing with a pencil than engraving is, and many artists preferred it. After the ground is drawn on with the etching needle, the plate is put into acid, which eats at the plate where the needle has exposed it. The length of exposure to the acid determines the depth of the line.