is an Italian word meaning to cut into. So intaglio prints are made from a
plate, usually copper or zinc, which has the image cut into it. These
prints are otherwise known as etchings, engravings, aquatints,
mezzotints, and dry points.
A print is made by inking the lines and depressed surface areas of a
plate, wiping the excess ink off of the surface, and using a press to
force the remaining ink onto the paper. The intaglio process has been used
since at least the 1400’s, when it was probably created as a means of
recording a pattern to be re-used for engraving into a precious metal
object. The earliest prints are German.
A tool like a pointed chisel is used to cut a groove into the plate. This
groove will hold ink that will be transferred to the paper during the
printing process. As the feather edge turned up along the edge of the
groove by the tool will wear away quickly under the pressure of the press
an engraving is usually printed in small quantities.
Since it is necessary to actually cut into the metal plate while creating
the image, engravings are simple in construction, relying on a series of
parallel and cross-hatched lines. This formal technique is easily seen
through a magnifying glass.
Engraving has been used extensively from about 1700 – 1880.
A sharp point is used to scratch an image into the plate. This scratch is
sufficient to hold the ink during the printing process. These prints can
have a looser look than engravings since the artist does not need to be
precise as with a burin.
The line left by this method is best described as scratchy. It is rough
and irregular, just the way you would imagine a line would be which was
scratched into a metal plate. It may be possible to see a thick black line
with a thin white line running down its center. This is somewhat common
and is caused by the burr created by the drypoint in the metal plate
holding ink off to either side of the actual line.
This technique was popular during the late 19th Century, (1870 – 1900).
The metal plate is covered with an acid resisting material. The image is
then drawn with any appropriate tool that will cut through this layer of
acid resist down to the metal plate. The plate is then placed into an acid
bath that will eat away at the areas where the image has been drawn. This
produces the grooves that will hold the ink.
An etching will usually be much more free flowing in style than an
engraving since the artist can draw with any tool that will break the
surface of the acid resist rather than having to cut into the metal plate
itself. Where the lines in an etching might terminate in a sharp point
caused when the burin is slowly raised from the end of the groove, an
etching will have lines that are bluntly terminated. This is caused by the
equal action of the acid on all parts of the line.
Where lighter and heavier line strengths are required different areas of
the plate can be subjected to shorter or longer periods of immersion in
the acid bath. This is called ‘stopping out’.
Etchings have been made since about 1500, but regained popularity during
the last half of the 19th Century, (1870 – 1900).
A fine powder is sprinkled onto the plate and then baked into place. This
powder will resist the acid etching depending on its density and
composition. The texture of this powder, when dried onto the plate, is
somewhat like dried mud in the bottom of a pond, forming small islands
with uneven edges. These small islands have also been described as having
the appearance of black lace. The plate is placed into an acid bath where
the acid acts only on the areas left exposed around the islands of the
acid resist. Texture and density are determined by the time spent in the
acid bath, the size of the islands, and the area between the islands.
At a distance these prints will appear to be similar to watercolors, with
soft textures and hues. Close examination will reveal the small islands.
This technique was known earlier, but became popular about 1770 and
continued until about 1830.
A number of specialized tools are used to poke tiny holes into, but not
through, the plate. Each of the tools has its own characteristics, but
generally the effect is to cover the entire plate with these tiny pock
marks. If the plate were to be printed when in this state it would print
entirely black. Burnishing out selected areas, effectively shrinking or
closing up some of the ink pockets creates the image.
These prints are the richest, darkest of the intaglio group. The over all
effect is unique, but you may also look for a series of small ink pockets
along an edge left by the tools used to create a mezzotint. A mezzotint is
This technique was popular during the last half of the 18th Century, (1750
prints are made by cutting away the areas around where the image will be.
Ink is then applied to these raised areas and then transferred to the
paper either manually or in a press. When printed manually the back of the
paper will often show the wear marks of the baren. This is a pad used to
apply pressure to the back of paper which has been placed face down onto
the inked printing block.
Relief prints are most often done in wood or linoleum. Wood engravings,
though similar in appearance to metal engravings, are also relief prints
since the area around the image is cut away leaving the raised area to be
The Japanese produced exceptional wood block prints during the period 1750
– 1850. Early German examples are dated from the 1500’s and represent some
of the finest graphic artwork known. Broad flat areas of solid color often
characterize Oriental woodblocks, while fine detail can be seen in the
Wood Block (Linocut)
These prints are cut on the plank side of a piece of fine-grained
hardwood. Linocut uses the same technique, but is cut into a piece of
linoleum. These prints will usually have large areas, flat perspective,
and may incorporate the wood grain itself into the image. Each color in a
relief print will be cut from a separate block and individually printed.
The image area on a relief print will be slightly raised from the
background as the paper is embossed onto the raised inked areas during
printing. This technique can be used to white emboss areas of the print in
which the image was left intentionally without ink.
A very close grained wood is used along with typical engraving burins to
cut the outline of the image into the end grain of a block of wood. This
gives a much finer line than is possible in other block printing. The ink
remains on the surface of the image and so is classified a relief print.
These are very similar to engravings and often will require experience to
tell the difference. To visualize the difference between an intaglio
engraving and a wood engraving relief print, remember that where an
engraved image is constructed of a series of black lines built up into an
image, a wood engraving uses a series of white lines cut away from a black
The wood engraving technique was developed around 1800 in England.
prints are one of the newest techniques developed and the most plentiful.
These are generically lithograph prints. Within that category are stone
lithograph, chromolithographs, and process lithographs. All use the same
principle…water and oil do not mix. The lithographic technique was
discovered about 1800 in Germany.
A stone with a grain appropriate to the image desired is used. The image
is drawn on the stone, (or is transferred to the stone using a special
transfer paper), with a greasy pencil. The entire stone is then wet with
water, which is repelled by the greasy substance. Greasy ink is then
applied. This sticks to the image and not to the rest of the stone which
has been wet with water. The image is then printed.
Depending on the texture of the stone and the type of drawing tool used,
the image may appear to be coarse or fine. Backgrounds can be entirely
filled in or left blank. The ink will lie flat on the surface and the
paper will also be flat, with no raised or incised areas showing pressure
These are stone lithographs, but instead of printing large areas of a
single solid color, the artist will use a coarser stone and print one
color on top of another, through as many as 60 stones, to achieve the
particular color, tone, and shade desired. This technique produces very
Examination through a magnifying glass will reveal small ‘dots’ of color.
Each dot is individual and unique. Do not confuse these dots with those
formed by a process lithography technique explained next.
Chromolithographs were very popular from about 1860 – 1910.
This technique covers the group best known today. Almost all commercial
printing uses process lithography. These prints are made mechanically. A
photographic image is made. A ‘screen’ is made from this photographic
image. The screen will actually have holes in it that will hold the ink.
The size, shape, and spacing of the holes will determine the image
tonality. The screen is inked and the image transferred to a rubber roller
from which it is then transferred to the paper. (Thus the term ‘offset’
This technique is easily recognizable in color prints. The colors are
formed from a pattern of dots. Each dot within the pattern is usually of 1
of 3 or 4 colors. (Thus 3 or 4 color process). The combination of these
colors in the intensity printed forms the overall color of the print. Look
for the dot pattern with a magnifying glass on better prints. Newspaper
printing uses the same technique and is easier to see, so practice there
first to recognize the dot pattern. It will usually be a circular pattern
formed by 3 – 4 dots of distinct color.
This technique has been popular since about 1920.
Screen and Stencil
prints are printed using a mask. Portions of a stencil or screen are
masked off to prevent the flow of ink passing through. The open areas are
printed. Several stencils or screens are required to make an image. These
may be recognized by their broad areas of color, occasionally overlapping
color areas, and sometimes a silk screen impression will retain
impressions of the screen in open areas of the print.
While hand coloring of existing prints by use of stencils has been around
since the very earliest days of printing, silk screen printing is a
product of this century.
Ivins, William M. Jr, ‘How Prints Look’, Beacon Press, Copyright
Gascoigne, Bamber, ‘How to Identify Prints’, Thames and Hudson,
Kanada, Margaret Miller, ‘Color Woodblock Printmaking’,
Shufunotomo Co, Copyright 1989
Ross, John, et al., ‘The Complete Printmaker’, the Free Press,