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Updated on January 14, 2010

Engraving is the art of cutting a design or picture into metal, wood, or stone. The letters chiseled on the bases of statues and the designs carved into jewelry are common examples of engraving. However, the term is usually applied to the various methods of making prints from a design in metal. Engraving of this kind is also known as intaglio. The engraving process permits works of art to be produced at a reasonable cost because hundreds and even thousands of prints can be made from a single plate.


There are several methods of engraving. They all involve the creation of a design by the cutting of lines into a metal plate. The metal most often used is copper because its softness makes it easy to cut. However, a hard metal, such as steel, permits finer lines and many more prints than copper. The pattern is incised, or cut, into the metal, and the plate is inked. It is then wiped clean, except for the ink that has settled into the incised lines. When dampened paper is pressed against the plate, the paper is forced into the inked lines and receives an impression from them. After the paper has dried, the lines of the impression are slightly raised above the rest of the surface.

The earliest engraving technique was line engraving. In this process the artist employs a sharp tool, called a graver or a burin, with which he cuts V-shaped furrows in the copper. The pressure and angle of each

stroke determine the depth and width of the groove. Line engraving requires great discipline and fine draftsmanship. Its greatest master was the German artist Albrecht Diirer (1471-1528).

In etching, an acid is used to eat the lines of the design into the metal plate. The plate is covered with an acid-resisting liquid called the ground. The artist scratches lines through the ground with a pointed metal tool and then exposes the lines to acid. Etching permits more spontaneous draftsmanship than line engraving. Probably the world's finest etchings were made by Rembrandt (1606-1669).

Drypoint is the simplest engraving method. In this process the artist cuts the design into the metal plate with a steel tool resembling a pencil. The special quality of drypoint engravings results from the burred edge along the engraved line. Because the burr, which is a metal shaving turned up by the tool, is not scraped away, as it is in line engraving, more ink is retained, and richness and softness are added to the print. Rembrandt and others often combined drypoint with etching and line engraving.

In mezzotint the effect achieved is subtlety of tone, rather than linear design. An implement with numerous teeth, called a rocker, is used to cover the entire plate with small burred pits, which retain ink. The picture or design is obtained by making some parts of the surface smooth and leaving other parts rough. The invention of mezzotint is usually credited to the German engraver Ludwig von Siegen (about 1609-1676).


As a process for making prints, engraving was first used in Europe during the 15th century, after the manufacture of paper had been introduced. The earliest prints were often made by craftsmen, such as jewelers and armorers, to keep a record of their designs. Engravings were also used for religious pictures, maps, fabrics, and playing cards. Line engraving was known as early as the 15th century. Fine engravings were produced by the German master Albrecht Diirer and by such Italian artists as Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Antonio Pollaiuolo (1429-1498).

Although masterpieces were created in line engraving, the technique also became important as a means of reproducing great paintings, which would otherwise have remained unknown to the public. When the cartoon of an important painting was complete, it was given to engravers who reproduced it. Then, when the painting was finished, copies of the engraving were made available for sale.

During the 17th century, etching became a popular method of reproducing paintings. It was also used to reproduce maps and drawings and to illustrate scientific works. In addition to Rembrandt van Rijn, who is the master of the etching, famous artists who achieved distinction with the technique include Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), William Hogarth (1697-1764), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), and John Constable (1776-1837).

In the 19th century, engraving was used almost exclusively to reproduce paintings. An important exception was the work of the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827), whose engraved book illustrations are artistic masterpieces. Toward the end of the 19th century photomechanical methods replaced hand engraving as a reproduction or printing technique. The development made engraving a purely artistic medium, and contemporary graphic artists, such as Stanley William Hayter, have produced masterpieces comparable to those of the past.


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