The Art of Engraving

by Victoria Chick

Engraving is quite an old method of printmaking. It is in the family of intaglio which also includes etching, drypoint, aquatint, and mezzotint. An Italian word, intaglio is pronounced with a silent “G” (in tal ee oh). Traditional hand engraving is the most difficult intaglio technique and, for that reason, not used much by artists today.

Engraving can be a confusing term for a collector because it is used to describe both the process and the product in two dimensional art as well as incised designs on three dimensional art. And, in two dimensional art, there are differing processes ranging from the original hand engraving to recent processes like photo engraving, with the latter being outside the true intaglio family.

Engraving began in the Middle Ages as a way to decorate metal items such as armor, weapons, ritual objects, and jewelry. One of the first reasons that engraved prints were made was simply to keep a record of the designs done on metal for a particular client. The armorer would rub ink on the metal and gently hand press paper to the inked area. As early as the mid- fifteenth century, there was a change in purpose in why an engraved metal plate design was transferred via ink to paper. It went from a being a secondary purpose of record keeping to the image being its primary goal and from mostly design patterns to narrative or pictorial images. The invention that made this possible was the printing press, a device that could put uniform pressure on the metal plate as it was in contact with the paper. Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands were areas where production of pictorial images on paper called engravings flourished in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

If you look closely at an engraving, you will see that contrasts of light and dark, as well as the illusion of three dimensional shapes are created by the relative closeness of precise parallel lines called hatching. Lines that go across the hatching are called cross hatching, making an even darker effect where they are used. The lines begin as narrow grooves cut into the metal.

Since engravers had traditionally been goldsmiths or armorers, it was not unusual for a famous artist’s drawing to be engraved by a professional engraver used to working with metal. Pushing a sharp v shaped burin through even soft metal required extreme control and a trained goldsmith had that skill. The names of the actual engravers are usually not known and the engravings are identified by the name of the artist. Sometimes the artist paid the engraver to do the work, which was considered menial. But, by the 18th century, it became common for good engravers to copy pictures that were in museums or public areas and sell them. It was a way for people to have a copy of an artwork that was beyond their physical or financial grasp and appealed especially to travelers to foreign countries as mementos of their trips.

In the 19th century, engraving was mostly used for commercial purposes as newly developed, mechanized tools were used to incise cuts into copper or steel plates allowing engravings to be used to produce book illustrations and maps, as well as to produce paper money. In the 20th century, engraving was further industrialized by photographic and laser processes.

For the collector, one of the hallmarks of any intaglio print is created during the printing process when pressure from the press is used to transfer the ink onto the dampened paper. There will be an embossment that occurs because the paper is forced down on the edge of the plate. In engraving, the paper is also slightly forced down into the cut lines to pick up the ink. If you are told it is called an engraving and it doesn’t have the embossment, it is likely a reproduction of an engraving or one of the modern commercial engraving processes. If it is a genuine engraving, you should be able to feel the slight difference in paper level at the edge and maybe the inked lines will have a slight embossed feel also.

In most cases, the artist’s hand signed signature will not be present in engravings. Engraving was at its height prior to the 20th century when hand signed and numbered prints became the norm. Take a close look at any work called an engraved print. This term means that it is a reproduction of an engraving. These were widely sold in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, sometimes as part of folios of particular subject themes. Botanical prints and Audubon prints can be examples. They are not without interest and value and collected by many people; just remember they may be reproductions of engravings and their price should reflect it. There are original Audubon prints for sale, but also millions of photographic reproductions. For more information look up

Antique maps have a good collector’s market, old master prints are always in demand and, although those done in the 16th and 17th centuries by the highest ranking artists like Durer, Tiepolo, and Rembrandt can demand a quarter of a million dollar price, it is still possible to find 18th century engravings by well known artists for less than two thousand dollars. An example would be the collectible high society satirical series by the English artist Hogarth. The wonderful engravings of ancient Roman architecture by Piranesi can sometimes be found for under a thousand dollars. If you are interested in Old Master engravings, spend some time looking at examples in museums so you get a real sense of what to look for at an art dealer’s establishment. If you find something that seems priced way below market, be very suspicious because fakes are out there and provenance can be forged. Also, watch for the term “after”. This means a skilled printer copied the work of a famous artist and used the word “after” to give credit to that artist. Sometimes, when these are sold, the original artist’s name is used and even the word “after” may be there, but many buyers just focus on the famous artist’s name. If you find something you think is very old ask to see the “provenance”, meaning the history of who owned it.

Another area for collecting that has not been well explored, is works by artists using the modern engraving techniques previously mentioned. Also collograph, a technique that pushes the boundaries of intaglio is a late 20th century innovation that appeals to artist/printmakers. One of its characteristics is embossing as a design feature and these prints are modestly priced.

Remember in looking at any print, but especially at very old prints, that condition affects price. A dealer should be willing to remove a print from a frame so you can see all the paper. A dealer should also welcome your having an expert of your choosing examine the print before you buy.