Learning the processes of engraving and etching

The three processes of making an engraving plate

Have you ever walked past a print in the school library or in some art gallery and asked yourself how that print was made? Have you often wondered how it was possible to reproduce the artist's original design so faithfully?

All prints, or printed pictures, are made in one of two ways. First, they may be printed directly from a plate or block or stone in which the artist has himself cut or worked the design. Second, they may be made by some method in which mechanical processes are substituted for the hands of the artist. Some artists make a sketch on paper before they start work on the plate, but many draw directly on the plate.

As the artist works on the plate he pulls proofs from time to time to see how the picture is progressing. Some of these proofs will be rough working proofs, not worth saving. But soon the design will be far enough advanced so that the proofs are artistically significant. Then the artist may pull a number of "artist's proofs" and even sign his name on the margin of the print. If the artist pulls a number of proofs at one time, at a recognizable stage in the development of the picture, he has established a "state." These are called "first state," "second state," and so on, as changes are made to improve or repair the plate.

Formerly it was the practice for an artist to sell proofs of various states - the earlier states, with the finest lines and most delicate shading, being the most desirable. In commercial prctice today, an artist seldom disposes of any proofs until his work is finished. The he prints an "edition," called the "published state," which may be as small as 10 or as many as 150.

Relief, Intaglio, and Plane Prints

Whether the plate is made by the artist himself or whether it is reproduced by a photomechanical process, every "print" is the result of a printing process; that is, the printing surface is covered with ink, and an impression is made on the paper, vellum, or other suitable material. A plate is made by one of three processes: relief; intaglio; and plane, or surface.

In "relief" plates the spaces which show white are cut away, leaving the design on the face of the plate to catch the ink.

In "intaglio" plates the design which is to be printed is cut into the plate, and the ink must be forced carefully into every depressio or part of the design. The surface of the plate, which is to show white, is then wiped clean, leaving ink only in the incised design. 

In "plane," or "surface, prints the design to be printed and the white spaces are on the same surface. The plate is treated chemically so that the design holds the ink, while the white spaces repel the ink instead of retaining it.

Reliefprints are commonly made from blocks of wood, metal, or linoleum. Intaglio print, in the form of etchings or engravings, employ copper; and plane prints, for lithographs, stone. Other materials, such as zinc, steel, wood, or linoleum, may be used in place of copper for intaglio; and zinc, aluminum, or glass are sometimes used for plane prints.

Wood Engraving

Engraving in relief is done on such hard woods as boxwood, or on softer beech and apple woods. The block is cut with the grain and about an inch thick. The artist draws his design on this block as though he were looking at it in the mirror. The reversed image on the block thus prints a correct impression on the paper. If he is copying a design, he transfers a tracing face down on the wood. The artist cuts deep in the large spaces between the lines of the design. In small spaces, as in shading, he cuts down about one-sixteenth of an inche. This is called "black-line" work, because the printing is done by the lines left standing.

In another method called "white-line" engraving, the design is cut into wood. The artist uses a single tool called a "graver," which looks like a chisel. He works with a block of wood which is sawed against the grain. By cutting down various depths, he is able to produce tints or shades.