The History of Intaglio Printmaking

Written by henri bauholz
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The History of Intaglio Printmaking
A one of a kind rock etching (intaglio image by Joy Stein from Fotolia.com)

The intaglio process involves the making of an image on a hard surface with a sharp tool and has been around since cavemen started scratching figures on rock walls in prehistoric eras. However, intaglio printmaking, which is in some ways similar to the former technique, is an invention of 15th century Germany.

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Goldsmiths

Engraving in precious metals by ancient civilisations was a step forward from the rock scratchings of prehistoric cultures. Gold ,silver and copper made excellent engraving surfaces as did the metallic alloy of bronze. As early as 5,000 B.C. ancient cultures such as the Sumerians were scratching intricate designs into these metals. The ancient Egyptians were particularly adept at and fond of engraving images in soft, pliable gold.

Early Engraving

In 1430 Martin Schongauer developed copper engraving, which quickly became a popular means of printmaking. A process similar to intaglio, called drypoint was developed about the same time by a German artist who used the pen name Housebook Master. These processes along with the wood engravings flourished until the end of the 16th century, when etching methods overtook the engravers. Some of the well-known early engravers include Albrecht Dürer, E.S. Meister, Theodore de Bry and Lucas van Leyden.

Intaglio Etching

Daniel Hopfer, who was born in Germany in 1470, successfully made the transition from an etcher of helmets and armour to an intaglio printmaker, making ink prints on paper. Around 1490 Hopfer came up with a process that etched images onto iron plates, producing a series of prints that still falls under the category of intaglio printing. Hopfer was really the first to produce clear and lucid prints by etching a metal (iron) plate with acid.

Etching Passes Intaglio Engraving

With the development Hopfer's iron-etching process, etching gradually became the method of choice for many Early Renaissance artists. By the end of the 16th century, the etchings were becoming more frequent than prints made from the engraving process. Etchings by such artists as Giulio Campagnola, Rembrandt and Francisco de Goya help push the medium to new visual heights.

Invention of Photography

The 19th century saw the advent of photography and lithography (another printmaking process) and a resulting drop in all types of intaglio printmaking, but especially among engravers. The ability of lithographers to produce multicoloured prints may have had some bearing on these events. Today, the intaglio processes are taught at most art schools and are still shown at important museums, but the current popularity is much less than it was several centuries ago.

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