LIBRARY.. Printmaking Methods
Prints were created to circulate information. An original text, diagram, drawing, or painting had a limited audience. To make information more readily available printmaking was invented. Printmaking has been practiced since the 13th century, but prints over 400 years old are rarely seen today. Over the centuries printing methods have evolved and there are different styles of each basic printmaking method and a variety of tools used by the engraver. While most prints use one method in creating each plate for printing, different methods of engraving were often combined for greater finesse in a single print. This was particularly common in fine portrait engravings where a copperplate engraver might use mezzotint for greater clarity of bone structure, stipple for the face surface, and then the usual burin to carve lines of varying length, direction, closeness and depth, to produce the light and shade and the fine details of hair and clothing.
The particular process used in creating a print and the quality of the work varied considerably with the artistry and skill of the printmaker, the importance of the publication, and the information conveyed in the work. Early prints offer rewarding insight into life in previous centuries. As the years pass, they will be revered all the more; not only because of our appreciation of the effort involved in the painstaking methods of the printing production and even in the early hand-made paper, but also for their increasing rarity.
Exceptional early antique prints.
After his arrival in Rome around 1508, the classical Renaissance master, Raffaello Santi d’Urbino (1483-1520) was commissioned to decorate the private apartments at the Vatican. During the last two years of his life Raphael created imaginative frescos on the pilasters, walls and ceilings of the loggia. His designs incorporated wonderful grotesques with garlands of vine-leaves, fruit, flowers, pagan heroes, mythological beasts, birds and animals – based on designs from the Roman grottos that had been excavated. Raphael’s work was beautiful but could be seen by few. 250 years later, the Pope commissioned eminent architectural artists and engravers to record Raphael’s brilliant designs.
Each tall pilaster was engraved on two large copperplates, and each pair of prints was joined and luxuriantly hand-coloured with gouache, an opaque watercolour which produces the brilliant colours usually associated with oil paints. Published between 1772 and 1777, the tall pilasters, ceiling vaults and arches are some of the grandest artwork ever created. Their rarity also makes them highly sought-after items in today’s antique print market. They were considered so important even when published, that smaller pairs of the pilasters with exquisitely fine engraved detail were commissioned. Also hand-coloured with gouache, these look equally as spectacular when framed and displayed as a group.
Colour is not a criteria for fine antique prints however, and among the finest black and white artwork is the classical, deeply etched architectural studies of Italian artist and sculptor Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Piranesi etched views of Roman ruins and archaeological discoveries and the sculpted stonework from his own workshop. His etchings of carved marble antiquities have exceptional definition and were printed on thick hand-made paper. Piranesi was the first great artist of Romanticism, and a graphic artist of technical brilliance and great expressive range.
While these are two examples of superb antique prints, there were thousands of less known artists and printmakers who did very fine work which is smaller and more readily available.
Identification of antique prints and antique maps
An experienced dealer will often be able to identify a work from its style alone. The printing process and composition of the paper used will frequently indicate an approximate date of publication. The style of the printing process can indicate the artist, cartographer, engraver, etcher, lithographer, and even the publisher. When there is a name, or words or dates printed within the image, or along the edge outside the top or bottom of the image, or within the ‘cartouche’ title piece, it is an even greater assistance. If there is printing on the reverse, the text will often assist in date or origin. All of these are basic indications of a work’s identity and age. None of the above however, guarantees originality, as many later editions, even by venerable publishers, did not show a change in the attribution or date that was printed on the original plate – and very occasionally early paper was used at a later date.
It is usually not possible to know how many of a particular map or print were made so many years ago. Some more important works such as atlases and portfolios included a list of subscribers when originally published. These were the royal and otherwise ‘notable' patrons, who contributed funds to enable the information to be compiled and the map or print to be engraved, and who were usually presented with a copy of the work. In these cases this provides a clue only as to the minimum number of copies produced. In some cases insolvency resulted in less than the subscribed number of prints being produced by the publisher.
A damaged antique print or map can look quite presentable once framed. Although it might retain its decorative value, its investment value would be negatively affected, possibly even halved by the damage and/or its repair. In many cases however, a collector might be pleased to find even a damaged work to complete a collection, particularly if the subject is important.
Whether your chosen map or print is in fine condition or poor, framing with conservation materials can preserve its condition, and a repairer or framer should not compromise standards to suit a budget. The deterioration of artwork will continue long after the cost is forgotten.
The Printed Surface
The condition of a map or print depends to a great extent upon the quality of the medium on which it is printed. Good quality of most early hand-made paper can be credited for the survival of early antique maps and prints. Even before paper, works were printed on parchment which is quite a long-lasting medium if treated kindly. Technically, parchment is a writing surface prepared from the skin of a sheep or a goat. Vellum which was a particularly fine type of parchment was made from calf's-skin.
Fine quality early printmaking was done on strong, thick, hand-made paper from France, Germany and Switzerland. The finest paper was from the Ancona area of northern Italy. Most paper was imported to England from France until 1610 when its own factories began making good-quality, hand-made paper. A pulped mixture of linen and rags was pressed onto a close-meshed, wire tray. The vertical and horizontal lines that are still apparent on holding the paper up to the light are evidence of the wire mesh on which the paper was pressed centuries ago.
Transparent manufacturers’ watermarks sometimes show through when quality paper was used for printing engravings. The absence of a watermark does not affect the antique print’s value. While a watermark can sometimes help in dating the work, it may also be misleading. A single batch of paper was often used over the period of printing for a whole publication, and sometimes a publication took two or three decades – or the engravings were updated and the same paper used by the publishers for the later edition. Also there are instances where people have tried to mislead by using paper with a watermark of an earlier period. (Some later-printed Coronelli gore maps are definitely not from the 17th century. These reprint Coronelli’s rare work in the original style, and are in demand by those who have an interest in Coronelli’s fabulous artwork rather than originality.
Three main printmaking styles
In each printmaking method a printing ‘plate’ was first made by the artist or engraver, so that it could be inked for multiple images to be printed for wider circulation.
Relief Printing: The woodcut was the earliest technique of printmaking. The surrounding area was cut away so that the outline for printing remained in relief above the woodblock base. Printing was done by inking the raised or relief image.
Intaglio Printing: Images were engraved into a plate, or ‘incised’ or scratched through a wax-coated plate for acid-etching to form the grooves for printing. The plate was usually of copper, steel or wood. The image was produced by the pressure of forcing ink into the lower carved image. This resulted in an intaglio impression or plate mark border as strong pressure was required for the paper to take up the ink.
Surface Printing: Printing was done by application of paper onto an image drawn on a prepared smooth surface. The most common style of surface printing is lithography.
Woodblocks and Woodcuts
The first reliefs were cut as seals and brands used to mark animals and prisoners as property. Clay tiles and wood were used as the first ‘plates’ to transfer images and symbols onto skin. Around AD8, the first woodblock prints were made on paper in China to disseminate Buddhism via the sutra (religious scroll). In Europe, textiles were decorated by printing blocks before paper was made.
Woodblock printing on paper was done in Germany at the beginning of the 15th century. A complete page of words and pictures had to be cut into a single woodblock. This method could produce up to 100 images, but sometimes a block required re-carving when the page began to lose its clarity.
Woodcuts were usually a single image. They were used for the printing of maps in Europe for over one hundred years. Both woodblocks and woodcuts were made by outlining a design on a smooth flat plank, then cutting away the unwanted background with a knife or gouge. The ‘relief’ or raised portion of the block was then inked and paper applied under pressure against the block. Printing from woodblocks gave a bold, simple, black-printed finish, which could show little subtlety, shading or graduation of tone - unless in the hands of a master such as Hans Holbein or Albrecht Durer.
Woodcuts and block printing were used for early ‘Herballs’. The hand-made paper was expensive and usually rather thin, so the heavy printing of the reverse images and words usually showed through, adding to the typical style of these 16th century images.
A Linocut is similar to the woodcut printmaking technique, with the surface of lino cut away from the image to be printed.
Wood was a readily available and inexpensive medium, but as populations and demand for information grew, a more detailed and more durable image was required. Wood engravings were carved (cut) into a hard cross-grain section of wood for greater detail of carving with the engraving tool. Once again, the surface of the wood engraving plate could be made the same thickness as the standard height of letter type, so the method was particularly suitable for book printing, with text and illustrations produced with one operation. Unlike later metal plates, little pressure was required for the ink to be printed from the relatively soft wood plate.
In the case of maps in particular, the lettering was often cut separately in metal and fitted as required into holes in the wooden block. Type could be re-set as required. Maps could be updated by filling gouged areas of a block and re-cutting. This sometimes resulted in faint lines across an image. Misalignment as well as lines were sometimes evident when two engraved plates were printed together (as was frequent for the newspaper kind of periodicals.)
After many years of more durable printing methods, there was a resurgence of woodblock printing towards the end of the nineteenth century for the economical printing of illustrations for news items in periodicals and encyclopedias, but more detailed wood engraving was also used for this.
Copper-plate and Steel-plate Engraving
Although the art of engraving or incising began in antiquity when the Greeks, Romans and Etruscans employed it for decoration, the use of engraved plates for making prints did not occur until about 1430 in Germany. Before it became a refined art form, engraving was associated with the trade of the blacksmith. By late 15th and early 16th century Italian printing was superior, but printing in Nuremberg had become more technically refined by the middle of the 16th century.
Mapmaking was a specialist art where charts were embellished with allegorical images and scrolls encasing ‘cartouches’ or title pieces, fanciful images of mythology and wildlife, and elaborate lettering, creating grand masterpieces during the 16th, 17th and early 18th century. Maps were often coloured by hand – particularly if the work was for presentation (perhaps to the person who funded the voyage of discovery, or honour the King.) Early ‘contemporary’ colour (from the time of publication) is easily detected by looking at the reverse of the paper, although later colour is still popular if it is done well and complements the style of the map.
Copperplate engraving was used in the finest map engraving. Copper was expensive, and when updated information or corrected borders of countries and coastlines were received, the relevant section of the copperplate was often beaten flat and re-engraved. Sometimes an error was noticed during the initial printing from a plate. The correction of a plate for publication is known as a second or later ‘state’. Sometimes the plate was updated and re-issued by a different publisher. Details of the new publisher would usually (but not always) appear in the cartouche, and could be up to 150 years after initial publication.
Around 1820 steel engraving was introduced because denser steel plates were more durable and could provide a longer print run without losing the fine detail. The disadvantage was that they could not be easily corrected, so copperplates continued to be used for maps after this period.
‘Proofs’ for approval prior to publication were often used when an engraver did new plates of an artist’s work – as in the case of William Hogarth popular engravings with his humorous though jaundiced view on life. While Hogarth’s original engravings are extremely rare, a complete publication with proof prints is quite sought after. We currently have a pair of Hogarth books with superb bindings, containing ‘proof’ steel engravings published in 1827 from Hogarth’s paintings. The beautiful engravings are by Thomas Cook (1744-1818) who was best known for his Hogarth engravings, and by one of the earliest exponents of steel engraving, Samuel Davenport (1783 and 1867).
Copper and Steel Engraving refer to prints inscribed (in reverse from a mirror image) with a sharp tool called a graver or burin (a small metal rod with a sharpened point). The burin is pushed across the plate forcing the metal up into slivers in front of the v-shaped line being carved. These pieces of metal are removed from the plate with a sharp-bladed instrument or scraper. A finer tipped burin was used for inscribing on the softer medium of copper. The difference in the resulting line-work is readily recognizable.
Ink is wiped across a copper- or steel-engraved plate, filling the lines that have been inscribed. The inked plate is covered with a piece of paper and considerable pressure is applied so that the printed impression is taken up from the ink-filled recesses of the plate. This pressure causes a plate mark or intaglio impression from the edge of the plate. When more than one image was engraved on one plate, or when paper was not as large as the external area of the plate, an intaglio impression does not appear around each image.
Mezzotint is a method of engraving in tone, as opposed to line. A copperplate is roughened by systematically working over the surface of the plate with a ‘rocker’ (a tool with a serrated edge) to produce light or heavy burrs as required. The dark tones are produced when the ink is retained in the burred areas. Lighter tones are produced by scraping away the burr and polishing these areas. The rolled rocker produces a series of dotted lines. This method was used for engraving paintings from the 17th century on; and was still used towards the end of the 19th century within simpler styles of engravings, to produce a higher quality of detail for faces of more important portraits.
Stipple Engraving is a method combining the techniques of line engraving and etching. A base plate is coated with a waxed varnish through which the outline of the image is etched by piercing the coating. The main body of the work is dotted with the point of a curved stipple-graver or by rolling a roulette (a tool with a spiked revolving head), producing a covering of small dots. The design is then bitten into the plate by acid through the holes.
Etching is a method of printing using an etching needle to draw a design through an acid-resistant varnish coating over a copper or zinc plate. The plate is then given an acid bath to etch the plate through the exposed areas with the image to be printed. The clarity is not as fine as line engraving as the acid produces a slightly furry appearance of the lines. The etcher takes ‘proofs’ to gauge the effect of his work. Sections of the work that are acceptable are re-covered with varnish to prevent further etching by the acid; those which are not dark enough are deepened by further application of acid.
An engraving can usually be distinguished from an etching by the ends of the lines. These taper into a point in an engraving, while in an etching the ends of each line are blunt and rounded when examined through a magnifying glass. Also, an engraved line is sharp and clean, whereas the uneven biting of the acid makes an etched line irregular in contour.
Aquatint is an etching process in which different areas of different tones are printed from a copper or zinc plate by allowing acid to etch into and pit the plate through a porous ground. The artist forms the design by first protecting the surface of the plate by depositing resin or asphalt powder on it and heating to make this deposit adhere.
When acid is applied it attacks the surface of the plate through the granules of hardened resin causing the copper base to be pitted all over with a texture of dots which will eventually print as a fine speckled grey tone. The coarseness or fineness of the tone depends on the resin used, and the depth of tone can be regulated by the length of time the plate is exposed to acid. The artist forms his design by ‘stopping out’ (painting over with a varnish) those areas of the plate that he wishes to protect from the acid. Colour can be applied by hand or an image can be printed in colour by using different plates for each colour required. Both methods were frequently combined when colouring of the prints was finished by hand.
Dry-point, in theory, is the simplest of all intaglio printing techniques; in practice it requires great skill and expertise to control the thick steel needle which is used for drawing. In a similar manner to etching (but without the wax), the design is scratched with a hard, sharp, dry-pointed instrument - most often onto a relatively soft copper-plate, but sometimes zinc or tin. The feathery scratched lines look like hand-drawn sketches. Varying pressure produces light or heavy incisions along which a burr or flange of the metal is raised. The deeper and harder the cut, the coarser the burr becomes so that, in printing, the retention of ink in the burr as well as in the incised lines, produces the characteristic rich appearance.
The burr quickly flattens under pressure, so comparatively few good impressions can be taken from a plate without retouching or even re-cutting it. This process was not widely used, unless for small circulation of an image.
Lithograph: Lithography (derived from the Greek “litho” stone, and “graph” to draw) was discovered in Munich in 1796 by actor and playwright, Alois Senefelder, who sought an economical way to publish multiple copies of his plays. It is a process based on the principal of grease repelling water. On a highly polished flat, smooth surface (usually limestone), an outline is drawn with a greasy acid-resistant ink. The stone is washed in diluted acid to make it porous, and then it is wet. The greasy image repels the water but holds the oily ink. Paper is evenly applied to the stone, and takes up the image.
Lithography allows unique expressiveness, with the complete fluidity of drawing on a very smooth stone. The linework of a lithograph somewhat resembles a sketch with a pencil. The lithographic printing method was not widely used for quantity production until around 1820. Lithography was generally introduced for mapmaking during the latter part of the 19th century. Hand-colouring each lithograph with watercolour (as in John Gould’s beautiful, large bird lithographs) produced the very beautiful and delicate personal touch, but over the years this proved to be both slow and uneconomical.
Lithographs were next printed in colour – often referred to as chromolithographs. By the use of separate stones for different colours, multi-coloured prints could be obtained by carefully realigning the paper for subsequent over-printing, taking care to maintain the precise outline so that there should be no overlay of colour. For an exceptionally detailed work up to twenty-two different stones were often prepared.
Offset lithography is based on the same original principle of grease repelling water, with the design transferred photographically onto rollers. Modern photographic prints from early lithographs and engravings do not reproduce the original detail well, and although still decorative, when viewed through a magnifying glass they can be seen to be composed of thousands of separate dots rather than the continuous lines of the original artist’s work. Many modern lithographs have been deceptively given intaglio plate marks to create a decorative and antique effect.
Different names are used for stencils of different subjects and in different mediums. Most people are familiar with the name screenprinting which is used for fabric printing. Pochoir is the French word for stencil, and it is used to describe the labour-intensive method of fashion illustration perfected in Paris at the end of the 20th and early 21st century. Separate zinc stencils were cut for each successive application of ink, gouache or watercolour. The stencils were carefully lined up over the top of each application to allow different colours only through the cut openings, to build up consistent tone and nuance of colour for each image.
Restrike is the name given to later printing from original engraved plates. Usually, when a nominated print run was completed, unless it was anticipated that further issues would be undertaken, the print base was destroyed, or ground down for re-use. In some cases the metal plates were kept for a very long time. Traditionally, sporting prints are the only plates that have been preserved and are still used today - by the original publishing company in London; and the engraved prints are tinted with watercolour in the original style.
Restrikes show the plate marks in a similar manner to the original works. The easiest way to recognize their date of publication is from the age of the paper. The clarity of the image has usually been compromised during the years of use of the plate, although many have been ‘reworked’ when the detail has become worn or damaged.
Limited Edition prints are identical prints of the same limited production edition, numbered in sequence with the number of copies in the print run stated. The tradition of numbering Limited Editions has only existed from the beginning of the 20th century. Early prints were not generally numbered – even though there was a limited number of each printed, as required for the publication. As antique prints did not have a numbering system indicating they were limited, if there is a print number indicated, they are probably later reproductions.
Hand-Colour of copper and steel engravings was traditional only with natural history studies - although for reasons of economy many of these were published in black and white. Original colour is said to be contemporary colour; i.e. from the time of publication. Engravings of views, portraits, and early paintings were usually published without colour. The addition of hand-colour at some time since publication, when done in sympathy with the style of the work, is preferred by all but the purists. Colour usually enhances enjoyment of the image; and if auctioned alongside the uncoloured work would usually achieve a higher price.
Of course you would always derive maximum enjoyment if you select antique prints and antique maps that you personally favour. Enjoy!