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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeTechniques Harvey-LeeIntaglio - Main Introduction

Intaglio Printing - An Introduction

The intaglio method is the opposite to relief. Soft ink is rubbed into the incised lines of the design and considerable pressure is exerted in the printing to squeeze the ink out of the grooves onto the paper.

A copper plate is the usual matrix and depending on the technique the artist either engraves or uses acid to cut his design into the surface of the metal. The word intaglio is from the Italian verb intagliare “to incise”.

Ink is applied with a soft leather pad or dabber and the surface of the plate wiped with a muslin rag to drag the ink thoroughly into the grooves and to remove the surplus from the surface. Finally the heel of the palm of the hand is used to complete the ‘wiping’ of the plate using a circular motion.

The intaglio press comprises a double roller and a flat steel bed, on which the inked plate is placed face up. A dampened sheet of paper and then a blanket are positioned on top and the plate is ready to be passed through the press. The bed of the press is made to travel between the heavy rollers by turning a handle (on the similar principle to a mangle) which exerts the printing pressure. In previous times the fresh print was hung up to dry and old master prints sometimes show traces of a related central drying crease.

A ‘gallery’ of etchings imaging
intaglio printmaking and printing

Abraham Bosse (1602–1676): Graveurs en taille douce au Burin et a l’eaue forte (An Etcher & an Engraver at work). Etching, 1643.

Abraham Bosse (1602–1676): "Graveurs en taille douce au Burin et
a L’eaue forte".  (An Engraver & an Etcher at work).  Etching, 1643

Malcom Osborne (1880–1963): Portrait of Frank Short. Drypoint, 1931. (263 x 332 mm)

Malcom Osborne (1880–1963): "Portrait of Frank Short". 
Drypoint, 1931.  (263 x 332 mm)

Short (1857–1945), in 1931 aged 74, was the grand old man of British etching & engraving. He had retired as professor of Engraving at the Royal College of Art in 1924, but was still active as an engraver, & as President of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. Short trained several generations of British intaglio printmakers and was responsible for the revival of mezzotint as a creative printmaking technique.

Constance Pott (1862–1957): "Self-Portrait". Etching, c1900

Constance Pott (1862–1957): "Self-Portrait in her etching studio, examining an impression she has just printed as she lifts it
from the bed of the press". Etching, c1900. (175 x 241 mm)

A proof dedicated to Frank Short. Constance Pott was
Short’s assistant at the Royal College of Art.

Ferdinand Schmutzer (1870–1928): Portrait of the Copper Plate Printer Ernst Röhm. Colour etching & drypoint, 1914 (365 x 283 mm)

Ferdinand Schmutzer (1870–1928):
"Portrait of the Copperplate Printer Ernst Röhm". 
Colour etching & drypoint, 1914 (365 x 283 mm)

Robert Macbeth (1848–1910): Self Portrait pulling a proof from the press, with the printer Frederick Goulding. Etching, c1897.

Robert Macbeth (1848–1910): "The artist supervising pulling a proof from the press, with the printer Frederick Goulding". 
Etching, c1897, etched as exhibition invitation.



The images below show details of various prints in the different intaglio media – click the thumbnail to view an enlargement, or select the " text link to page > " below the caption to jump to a description of that technique.

Detail of Pluto’s ‘trident’ from Saenredam’s Pluto and Proserpine.  

Detail of Pluto’s ‘trident’ from Saenredam’s "Pluto and Proserpine". Close parallel lines or a ‘mesh’ of crossing lines creating the shadows.
View Line Engraving Page >

Detail from Frank Emanuel’s "Moonrise over the Sea"   'MEZZOTINT'
Detail from Frank Emanuel’s "Moonrise over the Sea". Sea and sky are a continuous tone. The extraneous area at the foot shows the striations of the rocker.
View Mezzotint Page >
Detail from Bust in Profile of a young Woman   'CRAYON & PASTEL ENGRAVING'
Detail from Louis Marin Bonnet’s crayon engraving after Boucher’s “Bust of a young Woman”. 
Crayon & Pastel Engraving Page >
Detail of stipple foldlines in the skirt of Rowlandson’s Sly-boots   'STIPPLE ENGRAVING'
Detail of a child playing with a cat from a late 18th century English stipple engraving.
View Stipple Engraving Page >
Detail of the head on shield in Tiepolo’s "An Astrologer with a young Soldier"  

Detail of the head on the shield in Tiepolo’s "An Astrologer with a young Soldier".
View Etching Page >

Detail of the head, collar and cravat of Albany Howarth in A Trial Proof   'DRYPOINT'
Detail of the head, collar and cravat of Albany Howarth in "A Trial Proof".
View Drypoint Page >
Detail of a sailing boat in Wells’ Windermere.   'SOFT GROUND ETCHING'
Detail of a sailing boat in Wells’ "View of Windermere".
View Soft Ground Etching Page >
Detail of Manet’s "La Femme à la Mantille"   'AQUATINT'
Detail of the aquatint grain in the background and on the ‘lacy’ shadow on her face in Manet’s "La Femme à la Mantille".
View Aquatint Page >
Detail of Manet’s "La Femme à la Mantille"   'COLOUR-PRINTED INTAGLIO PRINTS'
Detail from the 4-colour mezzotint “Portrait of Voltaire” by Jacques Gautier Dagoty.
View Colour-Printed Intaglio Page >


Jan and Caspar van Luyken (Amsterdam 1649–1712; Amsterdam 1672–1708). Father and son were prolific engravers. Jan was also a painter and designer. They worked together on their book of trades, Het Menselyk Bedryf, which was published in 1694. Among the trades illustrated are two delightful views of an engraver and of intaglio printers at work. The book was an instant success and was both much re-printed and copied. The copies illustrated below are anonymous, in the same direction as the originals and were made very shortly after the original plates.

After Jan & Caspar van Luyken
"Plaatsnyder", The Engraver
Ref: Van Eeghen 1423 (1st copy) Etching.
. 119 x 82  mm

The artist is seen at work, with a burin, engraving a copperplate. The light from the window is diffused through a translucent shade. An assistant is pouring away acid from a bath after the plate has been etched. Etching and engraving were often used on the same plate.

Plaatdrukker The Copperplate Printer

After Jan & Caspar van Luyken
"Plaatdrukker", The Copperplate Printer
Ref:Van Eeghen  1446 (1st copy). Etching.
c.1695. 118 x 81  mm

The printer is turning the handle of the press so that the bed is moving beneath the roller. By the window a man is inking up a plate with a dabber. Freshly printed impressions are hanging up to dry.


Also . . .
To investigate more about a particular technique, select from the list below. There are cross-links on every page to make navigation as straightforward as possible.

INTAGLIO PRINTS - A General Introduction

Line Engraving
French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching

Colour Printed Intaglio Prints

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