Line engraving

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Steel engraving of Walt Whitman, reproducing a photograph, the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass, 1854 Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854.jpg
Steel engraving of Walt Whitman, reproducing a photograph, the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass , 1854

Line engraving is a term for engraved images printed on paper to be used as prints or illustrations. The term is mainly used in connection with 18th or 19th century commercial illustrations for magazines and books or reproductions of paintings. It is not a technical term in printmaking, and can cover a variety of techniques, giving similar results.

Engraving practice of incising a design on to a hard, usually flat surface, by cutting grooves into it

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.

Old master print paper illustration by woodcut, engraving or etching

An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition. The term remains current in the art trade, and there is no easy alternative in English to distinguish the works of "fine art" produced in printmaking from the vast range of decorative, utilitarian and popular prints that grew rapidly alongside the artistic print from the 15th century onwards. Fifteenth-century prints are sufficiently rare that they are classed as old master prints even if they are of crude or merely workmanlike artistic quality. A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term.

A magazine is a publication, usually a periodical publication, which is printed or electronically published. Magazines are generally published on a regular schedule and contain a variety of content. They are generally financed by advertising, by a purchase price, by prepaid subscriptions, or a combination of the three.


Steel engraving is an overlapping term, for images that in fact are often mainly in etching, mostly used for banknotes, illustrations for books, magazines and decorative prints, often reproductive, from about 1820 to the early 20th century, when the technique became less used. Copperplate engraving is another somewhat outdated term for engravings. With photography long established, engravings made today are nearly all artistic ones in printmaking, but the technique is not as common as it used to be; more than other printmaking techniques, engraving requires great skill and much practice, even for an experienced artist.

Steel engraving

Steel engraving is a technique for printing illustrations based on steel instead of copper. It has been rarely used in artistic printmaking, although it was much used for reproductions in the 19th century. Steel engraving was introduced in 1792 by Jacob Perkins (1766–1849), an American inventor, for banknote printing. When Perkins moved to London in 1818, the technique was adapted in 1820 by Charles Warren and especially by Charles Heath (1785–1848) for Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, which contained the first published plates engraved on steel. The new technique only partially replaced the other commercial techniques of that time such as woodcut, wood engraving, copper engraving and later lithography. All the illustrations in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 are steel engravings.

Etching intaglio printmaking technique

Etching is traditionally the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material. As a method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today. In a number of modern variants such as microfabrication etching and photochemical milling it is a crucial technique in much modern technology, including circuit boards.

Photography Art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation

Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. It is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing, and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication.


Engraving for the purpose of printmaking creates plates for intaglio printing. Intaglio engravings are made by carving into a plate of a hard substance such as copper, zinc, steel, or plastic. Afterward ink is rubbed into the carved areas and away from the flat surface. Moistened paper is placed over the plate and both are run through the rollers of an intaglio press. The pressure exerted by the press on the paper pushes it into the engraved lines and prints the image made by those lines. In an intaglio print, the engraved lines print black.

Intaglio (printmaking) family of printing and printmaking techniques

Intaglio is the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. It is the direct opposite of a relief print.

Wood engraving is a relief printing technique, with the images made by carving into fine-grained hardwood blocks. Ink is rolled onto the surface of the block, dry paper is placed on top of the block and it is printed either by rolling both through a press, or, by hand, using a baren to rub the ink from the surface of the block onto the paper. In a relief print, the engraved lines show white.

Wood engraving technique in printmaking and letterpress printing

Wood engraving is a printmaking and letterpress printing technique, in which an artist works an image or matrix of images into a block of wood. Functionally a variety of woodcut, it uses relief printing, where the artist applies ink to the face of the block and prints using relatively low pressure. By contrast, ordinary engraving, like etching, uses a metal plate for the matrix, and is printed by the intaglio method, where the ink fills the valleys, the removed areas. As a result, wood engravings deteriorate less quickly than copper-plate engravings, and have a distinctive white-on-black character.

Relief printing printing technique

Relief printing is a family of printing methods where a printing block, plate or matrix that has had ink applied to its surface, but not to any recessed areas, is brought into contact with paper. The areas of the printing plate with ink will leave ink on the paper, whereas the recessed areas of the printing plate will leave the paper ink-free. A printing press may not be needed, as the back of the paper can be rubbed or pressed by hand with a simple tool such as a brayer or roller.

Early history

The art of engraving has been practiced from the earliest ages. The prehistoric Aztec hatchet given to Alexander von Humboldt in Mexico was just as truly engraved as a modern copper-plate which may convey a design by John Flaxman; the Aztec engraving may be less sophisticated than the European, but it is the same art form. Jewelry and many types of fine metal works frequently are engraved as well as furniture. Engraving often is used as an embellishment of knives, swords, guns, and rifles.

Alexander von Humboldt Prussian geographer, naturalist and explorer (1769–1859)

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science. He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Humboldt's quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography. Humboldt's advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometers (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 129 million people, Mexico is the tenth most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states plus Mexico City (CDMX), which is the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the country include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana, and León.

John Flaxman English artist

John Flaxman was a British sculptor and draughtsman, and a leading figure in British and European Neoclassicism. Early in his career he worked as a modeller for Josiah Wedgwood's pottery. He spent several years in Rome, where he produced his first book illustrations. He was a prolific maker of funerary monuments.


The important discovery which made line engraving one of the multiplying arts was the accidental discovery of how to print an incised line. This method was known for some time before its real utility was realized. The goldsmiths of Florence in the middle of the 15th century ornamented their works by means of engraving, after which they filled up the hollows produced by the burin with a black enamel-like substance made of silver, lead, and sulfur. The resulting design, called a niello , was much higher in contrast and thus, much more visible.

Cutting partial or complete separation of a body or system into two or more parts

Cutting is the separation or opening of a physical object, into two or more portions, through the application of an acutely directed force.

Goldsmith metalworker who specializes in working with gold and other precious metals

A goldsmith is a metalworker who specializes in working with gold and other precious metals. Historically, goldsmiths also have made silverware, platters, goblets, decorative and serviceable utensils, ceremonial or religious items, and rarely using Kintsugi, but the rising prices of precious metals have curtailed the making of such items to a large degree.

Florence Capital and most populous city of the Italian region of Tuscany

Florence is a city in central Italy and the capital city of the Tuscany region. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with 383,084 inhabitants in 2013, and over 1,520,000 in its metropolitan area.

As this enamel was difficult to remove, goldsmiths developed alternate means of viewing their work while still in progress. They would take a sulfur cast of the work on a matrix of fine clay, and fill up the lines in the sulfur with lampblack, producing the desired high-contrast image.

Beginnings of European printmaking

Norblin Ecce Homo 01.jpg
Norblin Ecce Homo 02.jpg
Ecce Homo, ca. 1780, by Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine.
Etched copperplate (left), and print obtained as the impression (right). National Museum in Warsaw.

It was discovered later that a proof could be taken on damped paper by filling the engraved lines with ink and wiping it off the surface of the plate. Pressure was then applied to push the paper into the hollowed lines and draw the ink out of them. This was the beginning of plate printing.

This convenient way of proofing a niello saved the effort of producing a cast, but further implications went unexplored. Although goldsmiths continued to engrave nielli to ornament plates and furniture, it was not until the late 15th century that the new method of printing was implemented.

Early style

In early Italian and German prints, the line is used with such perfect simplicity of purpose that the methods of the artists are as obvious as if we saw them actually at work. In all these figures the outline is the primary focus, followed by the lines which mark the leading folds of the drapery. These are always engravers' lines, such as may be made naturally with the burin, and they never imitate the freer line of the pencil or etching needle.

Shading is used in the greatest moderation with thin straight strokes that never overpower the stronger organic lines of the design. In early metal engraving the shading lines are often cross-hatched. In the earliest woodcuts they are not. The reason being that when lines are incised, they may as easily be crossed, as not. Whereas when they are reserved, the crossing involves much non-artistic labor.


The early style of Italian engravers differs greatly from that of a modern chiaroscurist. Mantegna, for example, did not draw and shade at the same time. He got his outlines and the patterns on his dresses all very accurate initially. Then he added a veil of shading with all the lines being straight and all the shading diagonal. This is the primitive method, its peculiarities being due to a combination of natural genius with technical inexperience.

Detail of an engraving by Marcantonio Pietro Aretino p.jpg
Detail of an engraving by Marcantonio

Marcantonio, the engraver trained by Raphael, first practiced by copying German woodcuts into line engravings. Marcantonio became an engraver of remarkable power and through him, the pure art of line-engraving reached its maturity. He retained much of the simple early Italian manner in his backgrounds. His figures are modeled boldly in curved lines, crossing each other in the darker shades, but left single in the passages from dark to light and breaking away in fine dots as they approach the light itself, which is of pure white paper. A new Italian school of engraving was born, which put aside minute details for a broad, harmonious treatment.


The characteristics of early metal engraving in Germany are demonstrated in the works of Martin Schongauer (d. 1488) and Albrecht Dürer (d. 1528). Schongauer used outline and shade as a unified element, and the shading, generally in curved lines. His skill is far more masterly than the straight shading of Mantegna. Dürer continued Schongauer's curved shading, with increasing manual delicacy and skill, and over-loaded his plates with quantities of living and inanimate objects. He applied the same intensity of study to every art form he explored.

Peter Paul Rubens and the engravers he employed, made marked technical developments in the field of engraving. Instead of his finished paintings, Rubens provided his engravers with drawings as guides, allowing them to discard the Italian outline method and in its place substitute modeling. They substituted broad masses for the minutely-finished detail of the northern schools, and adopted a system of a dark and light characteristic of engraving, which reportedly Rubens stated, rendered the detail as more harmonious.

A flourishing art form: 17th and 18th centuries

An example of stipple engraving, using tiny dots to create soft tonal effects, by Francesco Bartolozzi Detail of a stipple engaving by Francesco Bartolozzi.jpg
An example of stipple engraving, using tiny dots to create soft tonal effects, by Francesco Bartolozzi

In the 17th and 18th centuries, line engraving made no new development. Instead, it flourished around the established techniques and principles. English and French artists began to use the technique, with the English learning primarily from the Germans (led by Rubens), and the French from the Italians (Raphael). There was, however, a good deal of cross-influence among all involved traditions.

Sir Robert Strange, as many other English engravers, made it his study to soften and lose the outline, specifically in figure-engraving. Meanwhile, Gerard Audran (d. 1703) led the Renaissance school in perfecting the art of modeling with the burin.

A technological foe: the 19th century

In the 19th century, line engraving was both helped and hindered. Help came from the growth of public wealth, increasing interest in art, and the increase in the commerce of art—as exemplified by the career of such art dealers as Ernest Gambart—and the growing demand for illustrated books. Hindrance to line engraving came from the desire for cheaper and more rapid methods – a desire satisfied in various ways, but especially, by etching and various kinds of photography.

An engraved portrait of Daniel Webster by Duyckinick, 1873 Daniel Webster Duyckinick portrait.jpg
An engraved portrait of Daniel Webster by Duyckinick, 1873

The history of the art of line engraving during the last quarter of the 19th century, is one of continued decay. It was hoped that technical improvements might save the art, but by the beginning of the 20th century, pictorial line engraving in England was practically non-existent. The disappearance of the art is due to the fact that the public refused to wait for several years for proofs (some important proofs took as long as 12 years to create) when they could obtain their plates more quickly by other methods. The invention of steel-facing S copper plate enabled the engraver to proceed more quickly; but even in this case he can no more compete with the etcher than the mezzotint engraver can keep pace with the photogravure manufacturer.

Line-engraving flourished in France until the early 20th century, only through official encouragement and intelligent fostering by collectors and connoisseurs. The class of the work has entirely changed, however, partly through the reduction of prices paid for it, partly through the change of taste and fashion, and partly, again, through the necessities of the situation. French engravers were driven to simplify their work in order to satisfy public impatience. To compensate for loss of color, the art developed in the direction of elegance and refinement.

In Italy, line engraving decayed just as it had in England, and outside Europe, line engraving seems almost nonexistent. Here and there a spasmodic attempt may be made to appeal to the artistic appreciation of a limited public, but generally, no attention is paid to these efforts. There are still a few who can engrave a head from a photograph or drawing, or a small engraving for book illustration or for book plates; there are more who are highly proficient in mechanical engraving for decorative purposes, but the engraving-machine is quickly superseding this class.


Nineteenth century line engraving, compared with previous work, had a more thorough and delicate rendering of local color, light and shade, and texture. Older engravers could draw just as correctly, but they either neglected these elements or admitted them sparingly, as opposed to the spirit of their art, but there is a certain sameness in pure line engraving that is more favorable to some forms and textures than to others.

In the well-known prints from Rosa Bonheur, for example, the tone of the skies is achieved by machine-ruling, as is much undertone in the landscape. The fur of the animals is all etched, as are the foreground plants; the real burin work is used sparingly where most favorable to texture. Even in the exquisite engravings after J. M. W. Turner, which reached a degree of delicacy in light and shade far surpassing the work of the old masters, the engravers had recourse to etching, finishing with the burin and dry point. Considered as important an influence upon engraving as Raphael and Rubens, Turner contributed much to the field in the direction of delicacy of tone.

The new French school of engraving had several distinctive characteristics, including the substitution of exquisite greys for the rich blacks of old and, simplicity of method coupled with extremely high elaboration. Their object is, as always, to secure the faithful transcript of the painter they reproduce while readily sacrificing the power of the old method, which, whatever its force and beauty, was easily acquired by mediocre artists of technical ability. The Belgian school of engraving elaborated an effective "mixed method" of graver-work and dry-point. The Stauffer-Bern method of using many fine lines to create tone had a certain advantage in modeling.

Modern and Contemporary Art

Although dwindled to a rarity, modern engravers continue to practice in the art world, most prominently Andrew Raftery. His choice of subjects is comparable to Hogarth, and his style the French school of elegant and geometrical form. [1]

Tools of the trade

The most important of the tools used in line-engraving is the burin, or graver, a bar of steel with one end fixed in a handle, somewhat resembling a mushroom with one side cut away. The burin is shaped so that the sharpened, cutting end takes the form of a lozenge, and points downward. The burin acts exactly as a plough in the earth: it makes a furrow and turns out a shaving of metal in the same way a plough turns the soil of a field. The burin, unlike a plough, is pushed through the material. This particular characteristic at once establishes a wide separation between it, and all the other instruments employed in the arts of design, such as pencils, brushes, pens, and etching needles.

Example of burin engraving

The elements of engraving with the burin are evident in the engraving of letters, specifically, the capital letter B. This letter consists of two perpendicular straight lines and four distinct curves. The engraver scratches these lines, reversed, very lightly with a sharp point or stylus. Next, the engraver cuts out the blacks (not the whites, as in wood engraving) with two different burins. First, the vertical black line is ploughed with the burin between the two scratched lines, then similarly, some material is removed from the thickest parts of the two curves. Finally, the gradations from the thick middle of the curve to the thin points touching the vertical are worked out with a finer burin.

The hollows are then filled with printing ink, the surplus ink is wiped from the smooth surface of the metal, damped paper is laid upon the surface and driven into the hollowed letter by the pressure of a revolving cylinder. The paper draws out the ink, and the letter B is printed in intense black.

When the surface of a metal plate is sufficiently polished to be used for engraving, the slightest scratch upon it will print as a black line. An engraved plate from which visiting cards are printed is a good example of some elementary principles of engraving. It contains thin lines and thick ones, as well as a considerable variety of curves. An elaborate line engraving, if it is a pure line engraving and nothing else, will contain only these simple elements in different combinations. The real line engraver is always engraving a line more or less broad and deep in one direction or another; he has no other business than this.

See also


  1. Hirsch, Faye. "Art at the Threshold: An Inch in Andrew Raftery's Open House, Art in Print Vol. 5 No. 5 (January-February 2016).

Related Research Articles

Printmaking activity or occupation of making prints from plates or blocks

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is considered an "original" work of art, and is correctly referred to as an "impression", not a "copy". Often impressions vary considerably, whether intentionally or not. The images on most prints are created for that purpose, perhaps with a preparatory study such as a drawing. A print that copies another work of art, especially a painting, is known as a "reproductive print".

Mezzotint printmaking process

Mezzotint is a printmaking process of the intaglio family, technically a drypoint method. It was the first tonal method to be used, enabling half-tones to be produced without using line- or dot-based techniques like hatching, cross-hatching or stipple. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening a metal plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a "rocker". In printing, the tiny pits in the plate retain the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. This technique can achieve a high level of quality and richness in the print.

Drypoint intaglio printmaking technique

Drypoint is a printmaking technique of the intaglio family, in which an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed "needle" of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle, the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Like etching, drypoint is easier to master than engraving for an artist trained in drawing because the technique of using the needle is closer to using a pencil than the engraver's burin.

Aquatint etching technique

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching that only produces areas of tone rather than lines. For this reason it has mostly been used in conjunction with etching, to give outlines. It has also been used historically to print in colour, both by printing with multiple plates in different colours, and by making monochrome prints that were then hand-coloured with watercolour.

Collagraphy was introduced in 1955 by Glen Alps and is a printmaking process in which materials are applied to a rigid substrate. The word is derived from the Greek word koll or kolla, meaning glue, and graph, meaning the activity of drawing.

Rotogravure Printing process

Rotogravure is a type of intaglio printing process, which involves engraving the image onto an image carrier. In gravure printing, the image is engraved onto a cylinder because, like offset printing and flexography, it uses a rotary printing press. Once a staple of newspaper photo features, the rotogravure process is still used for commercial printing of magazines, postcards, and corrugated (cardboard) and other product packaging.

Photogravure printmaking technique

Photogravure is an intaglio printmaking or photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is grained and then coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio plate that can reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph.

Hatching Drawing technique

Hatching is an artistic technique used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing closely spaced parallel lines. When lines are placed at an angle to one another, it is called cross-hatching.

Line art two-dimensional art style without gradations in shade or hue

Line art or line drawing is any image that consists of distinct straight or curved lines placed against a background, without gradations in shade (darkness) or hue (color) to represent two-dimensional or three-dimensional objects. Line art can use lines of different colors, although line art is usually monochromatic. Line art emphasizes form and outline, over color, shading, and texture. However, areas of solid pigment and dots can also be used in addition to lines. The lines in a piece of line art may be all of a constant width, of several (few) constant widths, or of freely varying widths.

Master E. S. printmaker, goldsmith, artist

Master E. S. is an unidentified German engraver, goldsmith, and printmaker of the late Gothic period. He was the first major German artist of old master prints and was greatly copied and imitated. The name assigned to him by art historians, Master E. S., is derived from the monogram, E. S., which appears on eighteen of his prints. The title, Master, is used for unidentified artists who operated independently. He was probably the first printmaker to place his initials on his work.

Viscosity printing is a multi-color printmaking technique that incorporates principles of relief printing and intaglio printing. It was pioneered by Stanley William Hayter.

Stipple engraving technique used to create tone in a print

Stipple engraving is a technique used to create tone in an intaglio print by distributing a pattern of dots of various sizes and densities across the image. The pattern is created on the printing plate either in engraving by gouging out the dots with a burin, or through an etching process. Stippling was used as an adjunct to conventional line engraving and etching for over two centuries, before being developed as a distinct technique in the mid-18th century.

The multiple lining tool is a burin chisel used in engraving with multiple cutting blades for making parallel lines to create a hatching effect.