Engraving is the second oldest printmaking technique and is part of a family of printmaking techniques known as Intaglio. Intaglio is Italian for engraving and has been used by artists for over 500 years. It is a hugely diverse mode of printmaking thanks to its many technical variations.

The artist first cuts an image onto a metal plate using a sharp tool called a burin. Ink is then rolled over the plate and sinks into the grooves that have been cut. Surplus ink is then rubbed away from the plate so that it only remains in the engraved grooves. The artist then runs the plate and paper through the printing press until the image has transferred onto the paper. The final image is the reverse of the engraved image on the metal plate, which is true of all printmaking techniques except screen printing. Cutting directly into the hard metal plate makes the act of engraving physically demanding, forcing the artist to use a particular style of mark-making. Commonly used marks are lines, dots and diamond shapes. This means it is quite simple to identify this technique: look for even, fine lines and cross hatching, as well as the mark of the metal plate impressed onto the paper during the process of pressing – the plate mark.

Etchings, mezzotints, aquatints and dry-points are four types of intaglio printing techniques favoured by artists for their capacity to create intricate images that have a rich and deep texture. Etching is a little different from its sister techniques because rather than cutting directly into the metal plate the marks are made by drawing onto a wax coat applied to the plate. The image is developed by placing the plate in an acid bath which eats away the metal through the exposed lines in the wax. Aquatints work on the same principal but a solution is used on the wax ground to create tones rather than lines, giving the finished print the appearance of a watercolour. In the 20th century aquatint has been used to great effect by David Hockney in his 1963 series The Rake's Progress. Mezzotint is a challenging intaglio process which is physically very laborious and requires the artist to work in reverse, creating light out of darkness. The metal plate is roughened with a rocker which creates criss-crossing diagonal lines across its surface. The printmaker then cuts the image of light into the dark tones. The technique was at its most popular in the 17th and 18th centuries but had fallen out of favour with artists and collectors by the late 1920s.


image: Pichet, Raisins et Citron, Mezzotint, by Yozo Hamaguchi [Mb4705]