"Saint Jerome in His Study" an engraving by Northern Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer - Source: Wikipedia
Some of the oldest prints we have on our hands today are engravings. The earliest identified one dating back to the 15th century. But what are engravings, and how do they differ from the likes of etchings, woodcuts and linocuts? Even more to the point, how do you identify one?
It’s Groovy Man!
Make sure you aren't looking at a woodcut or linocut!
The first thing to understand about engravings is that they are intaglio prints. 'Intaglio' being Italian for 'incising' should tell you much of what you need to know about intaglio printing, which works on the basis of grooves being made into a plate and ink then being applied into these grooves.
With an intaglio print, it is therefore the inked grooves which are responsible for the final printed image. That is the opposite situation to relief printing, which - while still entailing the cutting of lines into a plate - depends on the ink placed on the leftover, raised areas in order to produce a printed image. Woodcuts and linocuts are classic examples of relief prints.
Spotting those telltale signs of intaglio prints
Half of the task of identifying engravings is making sure you are looking at an intaglio print. Given an intaglio process involves a lot of pressure being applied to the plate in order to transfer its image onto the paper, you may first look for an impression that should have been left behind by the metal plate.
You Raise Me Up
Such evidence may even take the form of traces of ink where the plate hasn't been thoroughly wiped prior to printing. The strongest and darkest lines being raised higher than other areas on the print is further evidence of an intaglio.
It’s A Fine Line My Friend…
Etching or engraving? It's all about the lines...
These two types of intaglio prints are both created with the ink-filled grooves of metal plates. But those grooves are created in very different ways, in the case of an engraving, through the direct use of a cutting tool - known as a burin - to remove slivers of metal from the plate.
This contrasts with the etching method of applying a waxy ground to the plate, exposing bits of the plate with an etching tool and then placing the plate into an acid bath so those exposed areas can be 'bitten'. These differences tend to result in much more precise, sharp, clean lines in an engraving than in an etching.
The lines in an engraving also tend to be pointed at each end and swell or diminish along its length. The control required for engraving also gives lines a formal aspect with clean edges.
But also look at how areas of 'shade' are achieved in the print. If you see large areas of different continuous shades, you are probably looking at an etching, whereas an engraving typically uses many smaller lines to create a sense of shade when viewed from a distance.
So, to sum up:
- Engravings are intaglio prints which means the inked grooves are responsible for the final print.
- Look for an impression that may have been left behind by the plate.
- Look to see if there are any traces of ink on the print where the metal plate wasn’t wiped cleanly.
- Look for the darkest lines on the print and see if they are raised higher than other lines.
- Look for precise, sharp lines and clean edges.
- Look at the shaded areas on the print – do you see many small lines?
Why’d You Have To Go And Make Things So Complicated…
Don't worry if all of this is a bit overwhelming - intaglio processes like engraving are notoriously complicated, so it takes a lot of experienced art-sleuthing to start consistently identifying such prints. But with this primer, you should be able to start accurately picking out engravings more often than not.