art guide

Printmaking Techniques - Intaglio

Intaglio printmaking includes techniques such as engraving, etching, dry point, aquatint and mezzotint. The oldest and most commonly used intaglio technique is engraving.

In engraving, tools such as the burin or graver are used to cut a design into a metal plate. Once this initial process of carving is complete, the matrix is inked. The surface of the matrix is then cleaned leaving behind only the ink which has seeped into the carved outlines. The paper selected to carry the print is first dampened, so it is easily able to absorb the ink left behind on the matrix when it is pressed firmly against it.

Originally copper plates were used for this process. However, the disadvantage of this particular metal was the limited number of impressions (approximately 2000-3000) that could be obtained from a single plate. This changed when, in 1822, Thomas Lupton invented the steel plate, which allowed almost an unlimited number of impressions, drastically increasing the popularity of the medium.

Etchings date back to the fourteenth century when the process was used to decorate metallic armor. It was only in the mid seventeenth century that the artist Rembrandt introduced etching as a genre of fine art. Other artists who are known for their use of this technique include Erik Desmazières, Francois Huutin, Friedrich Mackseper Lynn Shaler, and the French contemporary artists Jacques Muron and Philippe Mohlitz, among many others. Indian artists Zainul Abedin, Zarina Hashmi, Krishna Reddy, Lalitha Lajmi, Jyoti Bhatt and K. Laxma Goud are also well known for their work in this medium.

In etching, the artist does not cut directly into the matrix. It is first covered with an acid-resistant wax or resin ground. The image is then cut into this surface, using an etching needle. Next, the matrix is dipped into acid, which bites into the exposed lines from where the wax or resin surface was removed. The area bitten by the acid is what holds the ink when it is applied to the surface of the matrix.

To print using the dry point method, the artist carves the desired design directly into a copper matrix using a sharp tool, known as a stylus. The point of the stylus creates a 'burr' or uneven edge on either side of the carved outline. The density of the burr enables the carved line to hold additional ink. The combination of the greater quantity of ink held, along with the innate texture of the burr, gives the image a dark velvety richness, which is unique to this method.

Artist Gunnar Norrman (1912-2005) was known for his extensive work in dry point. Other artists using this technique include Hermine David, Jules Pascin and Paul-César Helleu.

Another form of etching, aquatint, is known for its ability to produce tones similar to that of watercolor washes. A copper plate is sprinkled with rosin dust, and then heated so that the rosin sticks to the plate. The melted rosin becomes an acid-resistant ground wherever it melts and clings to the matrix. Once dipped into acid, the area between the rosin is eaten away or etched, creating pits, which later hold the ink when the matrix is being printed. The result is seen in the tone and texture of the image, rather than the line.

Artists who have popularized this technique include the Belle Epoque printmaker Manuel Robbe and contemporary artists like Erik Desmazières, Joseph Goldyne and Friedrich Meckseper. Mezzotint is another intaglio technique, invented by a German soldier named Lugwig van Siegen in 1642. This technique went on to become very popular in England after Abraham Blooteling worked extensively with it, and came to be known as la maniere aglaise.

To develop a print using mezzotint, the entire surface of the copper matrix is pitted or 'rocked' using a curved, notched blade known as a rocker. If the matrix were inked at this stage, it would print a rich, uniform black. To give way to the image intended by the artist, a scraper or burnisher is used to flatten the raised parts – a little for darker tones of gray, a lot for light gray, and completely for white. The plate holds no ink where the surface is absolutely smooth. Shades of other colours are achieved by working one or more plates in the same manner.

Since mezzotint allows the possibility of a grayscale, it makes it the ideal technique for creating shadows and other areas with different tonal qualities. This is why it was used regularly for creating portraits. Nineteenth century artist, John Martin is known for his mezzotints, which clearly represent the immense capacity of the medium in its ability to depict, almost perfectly, an element as complex as light.