|There is a mystique surrounding the ways that old prints were made,
although the main printing techniques are quite simple operations.
These notes explain the methods, and, we hope, help you to determine the
way that any early print was made. Such an understanding will give
greater enjoyment of the artistry that was required to make them.
With the notes, a date span is given which are the dates that the method flourished. There are, of course, prints made by these methods after the final date noted, when artists rather than commercial printers extended the technique's lifespan. Also mentioned are the principal uses of each method, and these are the subjects which were most suited to the method.
These notes are deliberately brief, outlining the standard printing methods used during the period, providing fundamental information. It is proposed to include more detailed notes on each printing method in future issues of Map Forum.
|"Printing", for the purposes of this article, is the transfer
of ink from a prepared medium onto paper in a way that an image can be
reproduced repeatedly. These media were usually flat, so there are three
materials used in the making of the plates and blocks that printed pictures:
wood, hard and fine grainedThere were three ways in which the materials were used. The wood and metals required some sort of engraving, cutting into the material in various ways to produce an image which could then be transferred onto paper with a printing press. These methods are either 'relief' or 'intaglio.' Printing from a stone required a flat surface, without any incisions, and is 'lithography.'
Span: 1450-1580. Strong revival in the late 19th century.
Used for all subjects.
BAXTER COLOUR PRINTS. George Baxter
is regarded as the first to develop a system of colour printing using 'separations,'
which is one block or plate for each colour, as modern printing.
Baxter used wood blocks, one for each colour, plus at least one metal plate
for the fine detail. Unlike modern printing, Baxter used as many
as twenty-seven blocks to produce one print, although the customary number
was about fourteen. The reason for this large number is that he could
not tone a colour, so that if, say, he needed a dark red and a light red,
he needed two blocks. The problem in printing with separations was
to achieve the correct 'register,' which means that each colour had to
be printed in exactly the right position. To look at the crude blocks,
one wonders how this was possible, or that Baxter could produce such fine
quality work. The irregular shaped blocks were clamped into a steel
frame that had screw threads to position the block precisely. The
prints are distinctive; the inks have a sheen as if varnished; they are
usually small and finely detailed, ideal for Victorian sentimental subjects.
Assuming that the paper has not been trimmed, all intaglio prints will have a 'plate mark,' an indentation in the paper around the outside the image, caused by the pressure exerted on the plate by the printing press. The pressure meant that the plates were literally flattened with use; prints show loss of fine detail after a small number had been printed. The best etchings and drypoints were printed in numbers of only about fifty. It was definitely not possible to produce prints in unlimited numbers.
ETCHING is the earliest form of intaglio.
It was originally used to decorate metals, like silver and armoury.
SOFT GROUND ETCHING is a variant. A softer resin was used
to cover the plate and then a thin sheet of paper was laid over it.
Using a soft pencil, the etcher drew the design onto the paper, and where
the pencil touched the paper, the resin adhered to it. When completed,
the etcher peeled the paper away from the plate, lifting the resin which
had adhered to the paper with it, thus exposing the metal. The plate
was subjected to acid like normal etching. The resulting prints look
similar to soft pencil drawings.
DRYPOINT was a way of adding to an etched plate without the use
of acid, the etcher using a needle directly onto the copper to add further
detail. Unlike engraving tools, which cut the metal cleanly, the
needle scraped the plate, leaving a residue of metal at the side of the
line, known as 'burr.' The burr held more ink during printing, giving
a blacker and richer effect to the print than with normal etching.
The burr wore away from the plate after very few impressions had been taken.
AQUATINT is another form of etching except
the detail was worked in areas instead of lines. A pure aquatint
does not have any lines in it; any lines, such as the rigging of a ship,
were done by etching. The word is shortened from 'aqua-fortis [strong
water, meaning acid] tint,' tint referring to the tone in the print.
It has nothing to do with watercolours, although many made from about 1810
resemble watercolours. Most early aquatints were printed in monotone,
resembling pen and wash drawings. The method was to remove an area
of the resin where a tone was required, and over this area a resin powder,
known as 'ground' was laid and then subjected to acid, as with normal etching.
The acid bites in to the copper round the particles of resin. The
effect is an irregular shaped wire netting, tiny, almost circular white
dots surrounded by ink. Various grounds were used depending on the
effect required, and usually the best aquatints were made with the finest
grounds. A complicated method, usually requiring the skill of a specialist
engraver. Very few artists were able to make their own aquatints.
COPPER AND STEEL LINE ENGRAVING. The
engraver cut minute grooves in the plate with variously shaped chisels
which have handles shaped like mushrooms, the rounded part resting in the
palm of the hand, the stalk with the chisel protruding from it, extending
between the fingers. Again, the deeper the groove, the more ink it
will hold and the blacker will be the line on the paper. Some of
the finest detail is quite difficult to discern on the plate. The
best engravers produced wonderful tones and textures with this technique.
Unlike wood-cuts, additions could easily be made to plate simply by
adding necessary detail. Alterations could be made by hammering the
plate from the back, smoothing the surface and re-engraving.
STIPPLE ENGRAVING. As the title suggests, the prints are
comprised of dots. There were two ways that this was done.
Generally, the method was a mixture of etching and engraving. The
engraver covered the plate with a resin, as etching, and then dotted through
the ground with a needle. Acid created the incisions in the plate.
Some stipples were engraved directly onto the plate, using a curved instrument,
called a 'roulette,' with tiny spikes on the convex side, which was rocked
over the plate to make the necessary incisions. The roulette also
created burr, as drypoint. Sometimes the roulette and the resin systems
were used on one plate.
MEZZOTINT. Instead of working on a polished
plate, the mezzotint engraver began by roughing up the surface of the plate
with a roulette, as stipple engraving, but working more thoroughly.
At this stage, the plate would make an entirely black print. The
engraver then put in the tones of light by smoothing out the surface as
required, using a 'scraper' to cut off the roughened plate. The pure
white areas have to be completely smooth. The method was ideally
suited to portraits. A good mezzotint engraver could produce wonderful
textures, especially clothing with distinctive velvets and satins.
INTAGLIO COLOUR PRINTING. Aquatints,
stipple engravings and mezzotints were sometimes printed in colours from
about 1780, but unlike modern printing, the prints were made by putting
the plate through the press only once. The method was to apply the
coloured inks to the plate as if painting a picture. It was a lengthy
and complicated procedure, far more so than using one ink. Often
three or four colours were used, the final colours being added by hand.
The best are completely colour printed, but these are rare. The benefit
is that in a person's face, for example, the colour is flesh coloured.
But if the print had been made in black, and then hand coloured, the engraving
would be black with a wash over it,
Span: earliest use was about 1790; flourished from 1820.
Suited all subjects except maps. (see below)
TRANSFER LITHOGRAPHS are a mixture of engraving and lithography.
Because the fine definition of engraving could not be achieved with pure
lithography, an engraved plate was first used and a print made from it
on a special transfer paper. While the ink was still wet, the print
was laid over the stone, transferring the ink onto the stone. The
stone was then used to print in the normal way. Apart from the benefit
of fine definition, it was easier and cheaper to print from a stone.
The prints are sometimes difficult to detect from engravings. There
will not be a plate mark. The system had a particular advantage to
map publishers. The metal plate could be stored safely, additions
made to it as required, and a single print made to transfer to stone, from
which a large number could be made without any visible sign of wear to
the metal plate.