On engraving

Engraving (engrave – from Middle French engraver, from en- + graver to grave, of Germanic origin; akin to Old English grafan to grave).

1) any image produced by engraving, i.e. image incised or scratched on a stone, wood block or metal plate;

2) a form of graphic art whose products are images created by printing from a matrix (plate) carrying an engraved design;

3) a printed impression (a print) on a paper (or similar material) made from a plate with an incised design.

Traditionally, the word engraving has long been applied also to lithography, a printing method where engraving (incising, scratching) is not used. There are three established varieties of engravings, depending on the treatment of the plate: relief prints (xylographs, linocuts), intaglio (engravings made from metal plates), and planographic prints (lithographs). Metal engraving comes in two categories – one involving plates treated with mechanical tools (burin engraving, dry-point, mezzotint), another, chemically treated plates, where a design is created with the use of acid (etching, soft ground etching, rosin etching, stippling). As a form of art, engraving is distinguished by its reproducibility – a single matrix can spawn numerous impressions.

Engraving has a long history. Even today children make simple prints when they produce impressions from raised images or apply paint to coins and press them against a paper. All engraving techniques originated in crafts – from the wooden blocks used in textile printing, toreutics and etching methods employed by jewellery makers, the techniques utilized to decorate guns. It’s only natural that engraving techniques peregrinated from the crafts to paper – people have always wanted to imitate a design, a picture, an ornament, a sign without alteration, keeping intact its precision and beauty. Engraving methods began to be employed when, first in China and later in Europe, people wanted to mass produce something – images of saints, other popular images, playing cards and books. Today engravings can be found in every household, in the form of mail stamps, banknotes, illustrations in certain old books, and books as such.

The oldest known examples of engraving – engravings on wood (xylographs) – originated in the 6th and 7th centuries in China and, later, Japan. And in Europe, the printing of engraved designs did not begin before the end of the 14th century, in southern Germany.   The first engravings had the simplest, plainest design; some were painted by hand. The pieces featured scenes from the Bible and history of the church. For the masses, who were mostly illiterate, such images and sermons were the only source of knowledge about the Holy Writ; allegories, abecedaries and calendars probably started to be printed at about the same time. The first block books (xylographica), printed from carved blocks each featuring both image and text, came out approximately in 1430, and the first typeset book with woodcut illustrations was printed circa 1461. In essence, printed books at the time of Gutenberg were collections of engravings, because text therein was set with relief blocks and reproduced by pulling impressions from them.

The desire to create a coloured picture and to “paint” not only with lines but with colour spots as well, to “model” light and dark and to vary the intensity of light and dark brought about the colour xylography technique called chiaroscuro, where a single print is made with several different blocks each featuring one of the prime colours. The technique was invented and patented by a Venetian Ugo da Carpi (circa 1455 – circa 1523). However, it was labour-consuming and rarely used, and was not to experience a revival before the close of the 19th century.

Thus, xylography is a printing method that enables making many impressions, until the “original” wears thin. And further innovations in the field of engraving were propelled by the desire to expand the replicating capacity, to make patterns more sophisticated, to reproduce minute details ever more faithfully. So, soon after the invention of xylography, in the late 15th century, the technique of burin engraving on metal plates (copper plates) gained acceptance – it allowed for a more nuanced drawing, enabled engravers to vary the width and depth of lines, to trace lightsome and fluid lineaments, to employ a variety of hatching techniques to produce better light and dark effects, to more faithfully convey the artist’s vision – in fact, to produce a drawing of any degree of sophistication. The artists who distinguished themselves employing this technique were Germans, such as Albrecht D?rer and Martin Schongauer, and Italians, such as Antonio del Pollaiolo and Andrea Mantegna.

Whereas the xylographs created by D?rer at the close of the 15th century were sold by his wife directly from a cart in a market place, his most famous engravings, made 20 years later from metal plates incised with a burin (including by dry-point method), were acclaimed as masterpieces and highly esteemed. Thus, in the 16th century engraving started to be appreciated as a form of high art, similar to painting but employing the methods of graphic drawing with its technological ruses and peculiar beauty. The great masters of the 16th century elevated engraving from the level of mass consumption and made it a high art with a peculiar language and peculiar themes. The superlative engravings from this category include the works of Albrecht D?rer, Lucas van Leyden, Marcantonio Raimondi, Titian, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Parmigianino, Albrecht Altdorfer, Urs Graf, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien and many other prominent masters.

By the late 16th century burin engraving on metal was brought to perfection: plain patterns were replaced with ornate visual language and the most complex techniques of linear hatching and cross-hatching, which artists employed to achieve the original effects of chiaroscuro and to model volume. The widespread ambition to create complex light and dark effects and a more elaborate design drove engravers to experiment with chemical substances and finally promoted the birth of a new technique such as etching, which reached a high point in the 17th century. That period produced many fine masters of the craft, different in temperament, tastes, objectives and approach to techniques. Rembrandt, working on his engravings, used acid and hatching to convey the most complex chiaroscuro effects on different types of paper. Jacques Callot dedicated his entire life to etching, producing a whole universe of portraits, scenes, human types; Claude Lorrain replicated all of his paintings in etching, so that other artists could not pass off their works as his. He called his book of etchings “Liber Veritatis” [“Book of Truth”]. Peter Paul Rubens even set up a special workshop to produce engravings mimicking the design of his paintings, and Anthony van Dyck employed the etching needle to create a whole series of portraits of his contemporaries.

At that age etchings featured the most diverse genres, such as portrait, landscape, pastoral, battle scene, and depicted animals, flowers, fruits. In the 18th century almost every big master tried his hand at etching: Jean-Antoine Watteau, Fran?ois Boucher, Jean-Honor? Fragonard in France; Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi in Italy. The age saw the production of large series of engravings united by topic or subject; sometimes these series were published as separate books – the examples include William Hogarth’s satires and Daniel Chodowiecki’s genre miniatures, Giambattista Piranesi’s architectural views (vedute) and Francisco Goya’s aquatinted etchings.

The needs of the quickly progressing book printing industry to a large extent account for the remarkable advances in engraving techniques. And the love for fine art, which continuously demanded ever more faithful reproductions of celebrated paintings, spurred the development of reproduction engraving. The significance of engraving for society was comparable to that of photography. It was the demand for reproduction methods that brought about a large number of technological breakthroughs in the field of engraving in the late 18th century. That was the reason behind the emergence of the individual engraving techniques such as stippling (which involves the creation of a design by punching small dots with a special sharp instrument called piercer, with variations in tonal intensity achieved by varying the number of the dots), aquatint (literally, “coloured water”: a pattern is created by applying acid to make the marks in the metal plate coated with a layer of powdered resin), rosin etching (a brush soaked in acid traces a design on the metal place, and during printing ink fills in the bitten areas), crayon manner (mimicks the rough and grainy strokes by a pencil). Perhaps the late 18th – early 19th centuries saw a re-discovery of the method of tonal engraving called mezzotint, invented yet in 1643.

The English engraver Thomas Bewick, who invented in the 1780s the method of tonal wood engraving, took the reproduction methods to a new level. Now artists no longer depended on the structure of the fibres in wood, as had been the case before, when they used blocks cut along the grain – now they could use blocks of hard wood cut against the grain and employ their tools to create more complex and sophisticated compositions.

The next “revolution” happened in 1796, when Alois Senefelder invented lithography – a method of printing using a stone with a smooth surface. This method removed professional engravers from the process – now artists could apply the design on the surface of a stone themselves and make prints without engaging engravers. In the second quarter of the 19th century, lithography, gaining popularity, ushered in the era of mass produced printed illustrations – of all the industries, this had the biggest impact on book publishing. Engravings were used to illustrate fashion magazines, satirical periodicals, albums of artists and travellers, text-books and reference guides. Engraving techniques were applied everywhere – for the production of botany atlases, books about individual countries, “booklets” about landmarks of particular cities, landscapes, collections of poems and novels. And when the attitudes to art changed in the 19th century – when artists were no longer counted as craftsmen and illustration was no longer a maiden in service of painting – the art of engraving experienced a revival, engravings becoming art objects with distinctive artistic language and techniques. This trend was helped along by Romantic artists such as Eug?ne Delacroix and Th?odore G?ricault, French landscape masters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-Fran?ois Millet, Charles-Fran?ois Daubigny, Impressionists such as Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. A society of etching artists was established in 1866 in Paris, its members including ?douard Manet, Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Johan Barthold Jongkind. The society published single-artist collections of etchings. It was the first association of artists dedicated to engraving as a distinctive art form and the search for new means of expression within it. In 1871 a similar society was founded in St.Petersburg, with the members including Nikolay Ghe, Ivan Kramskoi and Ivan Shiskin.

Afterward, the evolution of engraving was essentially the search for the original language. By the 20th century engraving as a set of techniques and an art form seemed to have come a full circle: from simplicity it moved on to complexity, and achieving complexity, it reverted to a search for expressiveness in pithy strokes and concise symbols. And whereas for four centuries the art of engraving was shy of exposing its nuts and bolts, now it again became interested in the potential of the materials.

Illustration printing in the late 19th – early 20th reached a high point in Russian and Soviet school of engraving – a constellation of many talented artists and a variety of artistic innovations that reverberated across Europe, such as the St. Petersburg group of artists Mir iskusstva [“World of Art”], avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, experimentation with form by graphic artists close to Vladimir Favorsky, and the unofficial art of the 1960s-1980s.