Woodcut, engraving, or what?

When a reader needs  to verify the printmaking technique behind an early modern book illustration, I’m always happy to grab my favorite 10x loupe and head up to the Reading Room to have a closer look. By popular request, here are some of the things I look for, and some books and websites that can help.

Background: relief and intaglio

Before the invention of lithography in the 1790s, two basic techniques for mechanically reproducing illustrations existed: relief printing and intaglio printing. In relief printing, the lines that carry the ink stand up higher than the surrounding surface. The image is created by cutting away the parts you don’t want, inking the block, then pressing a sheet of paper onto the inked block. It takes relatively little pressure to transfer the ink to the paper, so relief prints are made using a common press, the same press used for the text of a book. 

A common press, for printing from relief blocks and moveable type

Relief blocks and moveable type use the same press, so they can be printed at the same time, making it simple to include image and text on the same page. Most early modern relief prints are woodcuts, though metal cuts were also made.

In intaglio printing, the lines that carry the ink are cut into the surrounding surface.1 Engraved lines are cut into the metal plate by a sharp tool. Etched lines are cut into the plate by acid eating away at metal exposed by scratching through a protective layer of varnish. The image is created by incising lines on a metal plate, forcing ink into the incised lines, wiping the surrounding surface clean, then pressing a dampened sheet of paper onto the plate under such high pressure that the paper is squeezed into the incised lines, where it picks up the ink. Because of the enormous pressure needed, intaglio plates have to be printed on a rolling press.

A rolling press, for printing from intaglio plates

In other words, if you see an intaglio print on the same page as the letterpress text of a book, that page has gone through two printing presses: a common press for the text (with a gap left where the illustration should go), then a rolling press for the image.

Questions to help identify technique

Is there a plate mark? A plate mark is the impression that a metal printing plate leaves in the paper thanks to the high pressure of a rolling press. The corners are rounded (because sharp corners on the printing plate would damage the paper) and the edges  often show traces of ink that wasn’t fully wiped off plate. Plate marks characterize engravings, etchings, and other types of intaglio print, though sometimes the mark is no longer visible.

Visible plate mark around a decorative initial indicates an intaglio technique (engraving, in this case)

In prints from the early modern period, plate marks rarely extend more than a few millimeters beyond the image area, since the expense of the copper or copper alloy plate made it important not to waste any material. This decorative initial, from the 1698 edition of Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxon translation of Boethius, is particularly well-printed, with the image sitting perfectly straight in the space left for it.

Do the black lines look like they were made by cutting away the white parts, or vice versa? With woodcuts, it’s often easy to imagine the image being the result of what was gouged out, particularly if you look closely at the  shading.

Characteristic woodcut shading: the black lines are made by cutting away the white areas on either side
(detail of figure in upper left of the full image)

In this close-up of a kneeling man pruning a tree, you can see that the shading on his arms and legs and on the tree trunk is made by cutting out little wedges between the short lines, then cutting a long line at right-angles to them in order to have a smooth exterior outline.

What does the cross-hatching look like? Do the intersecting black lines flow smoothly, showing that they were made from a single cut?  Or are they jagged in places, showing that they were made by cutting away the white diamonds between them?

Intaglio cross-hatching (left) and relief cross-hatching (right)
(click to see source locations for these enlargements)

The detail on the left  shows engraved cross-hatching (a close-up of the roller in the illustration of a rolling press, above) while the detail on the left [UPDATE: make that "on the right"!] is woodcut (a close-up of the underside of the top of the common press, above).

Are the lines swelling and smooth, or even-width and spidery? Engraving and etching are both intaglio techniques, but the lines usually look quite different. Engraved lines flow smoothly, and typically swell before tapering to a point, as seen in the cross-hatching detail, above. Etched lines tend to look a bit shaky, maintain the same width their entire length, and have rounded ends.

Detail of etched lines
(detail of lower arm of the winged figure on the right in the full image)

In practice, intaglio book illustrations often combine etching and engraving. In the detail above, for instance, the six or seven lines shading the lower part of the thumb have been engraved (notice the tell-tale pointy ends).

Useful resources for identifying printmaking techniques

This blog post only scratches the surface (ha!) of how to identify early modern printmaking techniques. For more information, consider the following books and websites:

Gascoigne, Bamber. How to identify prints: a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet. 2nd ed., rev. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Griffiths, Antony. Prints and printmaking: an introduction to the history and techniques. 2nd ed. London: British Museum Press, 1996.

Ivins, William Mills, and Marjorie B. Cohn. How prints look: photographs with commen­tary. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Graphics Atlas  (Image Permanence Institute) at http://www.graphicsatlas.org

Image Maps of Printmaking Techniques (Spencer Art Museum) at http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/collection/print/maps/

 Have other favorite resources? Please suggest them in the comments!

  1. “Intaglio” comes from the Italian verb intagliare, meaning “to carve” (the “g” is not voiced, same as in lasagna). []

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

6 Comments

  1. This is very helpful. There is also a very helpful and well-illustrated essay by former Folger conservator Julie L. Biggs in “Impressions of Wenceslaus Hollar,” the catalogue from the 1996 Folger exhibition on the master 17-th century etcher.

  2. Great read Erin. Bamber Gascoigne ain’t got nothing on you. One book I’d suggest adding to your list of resources is Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture. There’s a great series of Benson lecturing among the PP exhibition at MOMA at http://www.benson.readandnote.com/

  3. Erin, thank you for a clear and lovely reminder about these types of printing practices. I’m bookmarking this for future use and student reference!

  4. I did know a few things about early printing presses, though I learned a few new things from Erin’s article. While I knew that with each and every page requiring its own specially engraved wooden block there was a lot of cutting, I never thought about the lines being established by cutting or hollowing out the areas surrounding them. I would recommend in the future, just to make the concept easier to grasp, describing this in terms of an “early photo negative” or reverse topographical map that was then wet with ink on its ridges to produce the desired results.

  5. Erin, as a beginner “old map collector”, this was a very helpful article for me . Since I do not have any experience yet, it would help me if you could mark the big pictures where you get the detail pictures.
    I still do not understand clearly how it is determined whether it is a woodcut print or copper plate engraving print.
    This is a beginning for me. Thanks for your help.

    • Good idea! I’ve just made a new image with arrows pointing to where the little square extreme close-ups in the “Intaglio cross-hatching (left) and relief cross-hatching (right)” image come from. You can also get to it by clicking the image in the post.

      It’s not possible to point to specific areas of the zoomable images in LUNA, so for the other close-ups, I’ve updated the captions to describe the spot each detail came from.

%d bloggers like this: