Antique Printing Processes Identification Part 3 of 6: Intaglio Prints

Engraved Czechoslovakian World Cup soccer stamp

Engraved Czechoslovakian World Cup soccer stamp

This is the third of six installments in identifying standard commercial printing processes used to make antique prints, trading cards, postcards, postage stamps, posters and more. This installment is on the major general category called intaglio.

Intaglio Prints
Normally pronounced intaylio with a sinent ‘g,’ intaglio is a major category of prints that includes engravings and etchings. It has been used to make fine art prints by Rembrandt, Alberecht Durer and Salvador Dali, but also many commercial and mass-produced prints including US currency, antique tickets, stock certificates, postcards and magazine pictures.

Leroy Neiman etching

Leroy Neiman etching

As with relief printing discussed in the previous installment, intaglio printing also involves cutting away part of the surface of a printing plate, which is almost always metal. The difference from relief is that the ink is placed in the lower parts, or recesses, of the plate. During the printing process it takes great pressure to get the ink from the recesses onto the paper, and prints are usually on soft matte paper.

Keys to identifying Intaglio Prints
As a general category, intaglio prints are identified by several qualities caused by the unique way they are printed. These qualities include the following:

Plate mark: Many intaglio prints have a plate mark a distance away from the printed image. These appear as an noticeable if light indentation larger than the printed image. Sometimes the plate mark edges are trimmed from the print. The plate mark can resemble a pressed in area such as when after a food tray is pressed into a shag rug. If you see a plate mark you can be condfident the print is some form of intaglio print. The only task after seeing a plate mark is to determine which kind of intaglio it is.

In fact, if you aren’t certain what kind of intaglio it is (etching? mezzotint? engraving? combination?), it’s fair to simply label it an intaglio print and leave it at that.

For art-style prints there should be a plate mark, but some prints have had the edges plate mark has been cut off. For example, there are no plate marks on US currency even though they are engravings.

When you look closely you can see the pressed in 'plate mark' surrounding the graphics on this 1812 etching.

When you look closely you can see the pressed in ‘plate mark’ surrounding the graphics on this 1812 etching. (Click to enlarge images in this article)

Plate mark around the graphics

Plate mark

Under the microscope you can see how the ink on an engraving is piled up in areas.

Under the microscope you can see how the ink on an engraving is piled up in areas.

Raised ink levels. Unlike with relief and lithography, the ink on an intaglio print can be physically raised from the paper. This is because the ink comes from inside the recesses of the printing plate. To make dark areas of a print, the printing plate is cut deeper to allow thicker ink. In the lighter areas of a print, the cut in the printing plate is shallow. This means that the physical height of the ink in an intaglio is most easily detected in the areas of dark ink. Sometimes the ink can be felt by softly rubbing a finger across the printing or by looking very closely with the naked eye. In other cases, a microscope is needed. If the paper surface is rough or wrinkled, it may be difficult to identify.

Varying tone within a line: Within a single line or mark, lithography and relief can only create one tone of ink. Due to the varying levels of ink applied, the tone along an intaglio line can vary, meaning it can become darker or lighter.

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The following are the major types of intaglio prints. Each has a distinct look.


Classing example of an engraving: The US$1 bill.

Classic example of an engraving: The US$1 bill. Engravings tend to have stoic, conservative lines and a overall formal look.

Up close: the pointed ends of engraving

Up close: the pointed ends of engraving

Engraving was the first form of intaglio printing, invented in the early 1400s.

In engraving, the engraver carves a design into a steel or copper plate. The carving tool is called a burin and has a sharp V-shaped section. The engraver holds the burin almost parallel with the plate, pressing the point into the surface and scooping out a sliver of metal. This is difficult work and the result is a conservative, steady line with crisp edges. The line also tends to be pointed at each end where the burin is first dipped into the copper the lifted out at the other end. If the engraver goes back over the line, the ‘v’ ending can be blunted, but usually at least one edge has a pointed, v shape.

Engraving under the microscope: Parallel and orderly cross-hatching lines

Engraving under the microscope: Parallel and orderly cross-hatching lines

Engraving is usually made up of many parallel lines and curves. There are different ways to give an appearance of tone. One way is to lessen or increase the pressure of the burin when carving the line. This makes the line thinner in some areas and wider in others. Engraving can also have cross-hatched lines, sometimes with dots or flicked spots added to the middles of the resulting diamonds. This is called the dot and lozenge technique. There is also stipple engraving which is discussed later.

Identification of engravings. Along with the general intaglio traits (physically raised ink, plate mark. etc), engraving has a formal look created by the stoic and controlled lines.

Engraved Czechoslovakian soccer stamp showing the stoic parallel lines of engraving

Engraved Czechoslovakian soccer stamp showing the stoic parallel lines of engraving

Etching is a form of intaglio printing that first appeared in the early 1500s. Etching was easier than engraving for the artist. With engraving, the artist has to perform the difficult task of cutting the grooves into the steel plate. With etching, the artist draws the art onto the plate, then acid creates the grooves in the plate. Not only does this make it easier on the artist, but the final print has a different, freer look than engraving.

Rembrandt self-portrait etching showing the free, sketch-like lines of etching

Rembrandt self-portrait etching showing the free, sketch-like lines of etching

The etching process is as follows. The metal printing plate is heated and wax is rubbed over the surface to create a thin and even coating. This coating is known as the ground. After it is cooled and hardened, the ground is impervious to acid. If acid was poured on the ground, the plate would be unmarked. The etcher creates lines or other marks through the ground, exposing the plate in these areas. When the plate is submerged in acid, the acid will eat away those exposed areas. The longer the plate is submerged, the deeper and broader a line will become, and the darker the printed line. By varying the length of exposure of one area over another, the etcher can change the comparative darkness. Commonly, the etcher will place varnish on areas that are dark enough, preventing any more acid exposure. This is called stopping out. After stopping out, the unvarnished areas are exposed more, making them darker. This stopping out can be done numerous times, allowing for subtle lines. Another way to create different types of lines is to add lines in the ground after the others have already been made. The later lines will be lighter, while the earlier ones will be darker.

Etching was commonly used with other processes, including engraving and dry point.

Identification. Along with the general intaglio traits (physically raised ink, plate mark, etc), etching has the following specific traits. While engraving is known for its stoic careful lines, etching has much more freely drawn lines. Etchings often resemble ink sketches.

Etching uses a rounded needle to make the line, and the end should be more blunt than the sharp end of an engraving. The edges of the line should be less clean than that of an engraving. The combination of the crumbling wax and acid can create uneven edges.

Rembrandt etching of a golfer.  It resembles a pen and ink setch.

Rembrandt etching of a golfer

STIPPLE ENGRAVING, CRAYON ENGRAVING, CHALK ENGRAVING These techniques are commonly used with engraving and etching. Similar appearing techniques were used in other process, most notably lithography. These are centuries old techniques that are still used today by artists.

The dots in stipple engraving, intended to give shading and tone

The dots in stipple engraving, intended to give shading and tone

Stipple. The stipple technique was first used in engraving in the 1500s, and was later used in other types of printing including etching. Stipple engravings were especially popular around the turn of the 19th century. Stipple involves using many dots or small marks of varying size and shape to create tonal areas not possible with lines alone. Various tools could be used to make the marks in the plate. Often times both engraving and etching were used together. For example, the general design could be made with etching, then the stipple mark could be engraved. In general, the engraved stipple dot will look more like a flick, or short line, while the etched stipple mark will be more like a dot.

Detail of a crayon and chalk engraving.  Resembles a chalk or engraving printing, though the plate mark will identify it as intaglio.

Detail of a crayon and chalk engraving. A bit resembles a chalk or crayon sketch, though the plate mark will identify it as intaglio.

Crayon or chalk manner engravings. Though called engraving, this is more often used in etching. This technique gives the appearance of a crayon or chalk drawing. A tool called a roulette is used. The roulette is a metal wheel with sharp points that created a seemingly random series of dots along a line, which appeared much like a chalk line. Different sized roulettes produced different effects.

Dry point is an engraving method. A pointy tool scratches the design into the metal printing plate. This scratching often throws up a ridge of metal on the edges of the scratched line. This ridge is called a burr. When ink is added to the plate, the burr will hold ink, often giving the printed line a distinct fuzziness. This fuzziness can disappear over several printings. Due to the violent nature of the scratching into metal, the dry point line is often violent and angular. Dry point is most often used with other printmaking techniques.

The violent, angular lines of a drypoint, with areas of heavy ink from the bur
Dry point was first popularized in the late 15th century and is used by modern artists.

Dry point showing the distinct 'bleeding ink' look

Dry point showing the distinct ‘bleeding ink’ look

The rich, velvety tones of a mezzotint

The rich, velvety tones of a mezzotint

Also known as black manner, mezzotint is a form of intaglio printing that produces subtle and rich gradations in tone not possible with most other forms of manual intaglio. It was invented in the 1600s.

While engraving and etching can create only light or dark at a specific point, Mezzotint can create black, white and any shade in between. Mezzotints often have a rich, black velvety look. It was used alone or with other intaglio prints. For example, etching may be used to create the basic outline, while mezzotint is used to create the shading.

The printing plate is created by pricking the surface with many, many tiny holes that hold ink, and make large areas of dark tone during printing. Different tools can be used to prick the plate. A roulette is a small wheel with sharp points. A rocker is a tool with a toothed edge that, when cutting the plate, creates rough edges. These edges are called burs. The burs are scraped away in places intended to be white in the finished print.

The mezzotint is identified by the thin and often cross- hatching lines in the grey tones. These are made from the scraping of the toothed edge tool. These lines also appear at the edges of the print. The mezzotint will typically have plate marks and raised ink levels typical to intaglio prints. Early mezzotint plates were prone to heavy wear. This means that later prints can be substantially lighter than earlier ones.

Closeup detail of a mezzotint showing the cross-hatching lines.

Closeup detail of a mezzotint showing cross-hatching lines.

In the twentieth century new methods have been used. Many of these look like old mezzotints, but lack the richness and do not have the just described lines in the grays.

An early mezzotint showing the distinct dark-to-light tonal qualities

An early mezzotint showing the distinct dark-to-light tonal qualities

Aquatint of a baseball game

Antique aquatint of a baseball game

Aquatint is a variety of etching techniques used by printmakers to make a wide range of tonal effects. The prints often resemble wash sketches. The technique consists of exposing the metal printing plate to acid through a layer of granulated resin or sugar. The acid bites away the metal only in the spaces between the resin or sugar grains, leaving an evenly pitted surface that creates broad areas of tone when the plate is printed. An infinite number of tones can be achieved by exposing various parts of the plate to acid baths of different strengths for different periods of time. Etched or engraved lines are often used with aquatint.

Aquatint by the famed artist Goya

Aquatint by the famed artist Goya

Many intaglio prints are identified by the distinct plate marks around the images. For many collectors, identifying that it is an intaglio (as opposed to a lithograph or relief print) is enough. Most intaglio prints are etchings and engravings, with their distinct looks. Engravings have a stoic, conservative look, while etching have the free form lines of sketches. Drypoints have sharp, jagged lines and ink bleed, while mezzotints and aquatints have tones and shading. The processes can sometimes be combined together in prints, which is also a reason why people often use the generic ‘intaglio’ label. Intaglio is an old time form of printing that only skilled printers and artists can make. Identifying an otherwise old looking print as an intaglio held identify it as antique.

About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifacts historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has authenticated artifacts for major institutions, was a writer for the standard academic reference Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, and teaches courses in art authentication. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. He can be reached at [email protected].