Intaglio printmaking: An evolution of tone and texture


Many printmakers will tell you that one of the aspects they enjoy most about the printmaking process is the reveal; that magic moment when you peel the paper back from the matrix to see your image that you have spent hours, often weeks, sometimes months working on, looking back at you. And in reverse, let’s not forget. This impression left on the paper, is naturally thought of as a two-dimensional image, yet, on closer inspection, you’ll often discover a textural aspect created by the fusion of the ink, matrix and paper under the pressure of the press. For intaglio printmaking, this couldn’t be more true, with the dark velvety ridges rising above the paper formed by the undulating grooves of a matrix incised by various tools and mordants, forming the intrinsic quality and characteristic of an etching. The process of constantly reworking the plate by relentlessly adding and subtracting marks is a sculptural one, and the endless possibilities of varying intaglio techniques often results in artists combining several on one matrix, pushing their materials to achieve their conceptual ideas. With the earliest engravings and etchings lacking this sense of dimensionality, in what context did this emerge, who were the innovators, where were they and how did they achieve illustrious surface texture? To answer this question, we’ll have to go back to the beginning, but first of all it’s important to understand that Intaglio has two strands, one being direct techniques (engraving) which involves carving directly into the plate using a cutting tool such as a burin, and the other being indirect techniques (etching) whereby the grooves are achieved through the biting action of acid where the acid-resistant waxy layer has been removed using an etching needle or similar tool. Both techniques then require the ink to be pushed into the grooves of the plate and the surface wiped clean before transferring it onto a support, usually paper. 

Early engraving and etching 

Before the widespread availability of paper in Europe in the early 1400s, engraving and etching was used solely for the decoration of metal tools, armour, swords and locks. It is little surprise then that the first innovators in intaglio printmaking were goldsmiths and metalsmiths working in centers where these trades were flourishing at the time: Germany, Italy, France and Flanders. It is believed that these metal-engravers saw how the industry for printed images was booming and wood-engravers were the sole benefactors of this burgeoning trade, producing mainly religious devotional images, missionary pamphlets and decks of playing-cards, which were decorated with five suits depicting flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men.  Due to the increase in demand for this new printed visual media, numerous engraving studios were established, with the focus being more on the reproduction than the artistic integrity of the print, using minimal shading techniques to create essentially flat images. The most successful engraving studios were run by artist-trained engravers, such as Master E.S. and Master of the Playing Cards, who had several engravers working for them to reproduce and print their plates, often long after the Master had passed away.

Not only were these early engravings simple in composition and tonal variation, they often appeared slightly smudged or hazy in places, with the ink appearing as a light greyish green, as they were rubbed or pressed by hand. But as the demand for printed media continued to grow two important innovations emerged, resulting in engravers being able to achieve finer, crisper lines. First was the roller press about 1460, providing the pressure needed to transfer the ink sufficiently from the grooves of an engraving to the paper. The other occurred around the same time in Northern Italy, where iron and steel plates were replaced with copper, a much more durable material extending the longevity of the printing plate, resulting in larger print-runs and therefore increased profitability. Still, engraving was used primarily as a reproductive tool rather than an art that could stand alongside sculpture and painting. There were, however, some engravers who rejected the overly ornate and decorative details that dominated the art of goldsmith trained engravers and instead applied painterly concerns of achieving balanced composition and perspective through subtle manipulation of light and shade. Here, the distinction was made between reproductive-engravers and painter-engravers, the latter being credited with the originality and creative genius to use engraving to serve the purposes of high art. 

Elevating engraving to a fine art

In Germany Martin Schongauer (c.1450 – 91) was one of the first painter-engravers who successfully used line to create surface texture, overlapping and varying the length of his strokes on the plate to give form to his figures and shapes. Similarly, the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna (c.1431 – 1506) produced a number of copper engravings that received wide praise for developing a unique technique of mark-making to create perspective through light and dark and tonal richness. The engravings of both artists had a huge influence on Albrecht Durer, widely considered to be the greatest painter-engraver of his time, who combined his highly developed technical skill as an engraver with carefully studied compositions and classical human forms to create harmony and balance in every work. What is striking is it seems that every line in a Durer engraving has been laid with purpose and every mark made with careful consideration for achieving depth and tone. Darkly shaded backgrounds were built up with several layers of cross-hatching to create a dramatic contrast to the focal part of the piece, bathed in light. The ability to produce delicate shades of tone against dramatic backdrops, which Durer mastered so well, spurred subsequent painter-engravers to innovate intaglio further to achieve strong contrasts of light and dark in a single engraving.  

Left to right: 9 of Beasts (c.1430-50) by Master of the Playing Cards. Copper engraving, Elefant (c.1485) by Martin Schongauer. Engraving. Adam and Eve (1504) by Albrecht Dürer. Engraving 250mm x 200mm. Source for all: Wikimedia Commons

In 1642 the German engraver Ludwig von Siegen (c.1609 – 80) completed an engraved portrait of Amelia Elisabeth von Hessen using a secret method, which later became known as mezzotint, or the dark manner (manniera nera) as it is referred to in Italian. The process begins with the laborious task of making the plate completely black using a rocker: a metal-toothed tool creating millions of tiny burrs appearing as dots. A burnisher or scraper is then used to flatten or remove the burrs, resulting in subtle graduations of tone, from rich blacks to luminous whites, depending on how much you remove. He described the process as engraving by dots rather than with lines and was successful in achieving a range of tones. Another tonal technique that utilized a textured surface as opposed to lines was invented about a decade later, by painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde IV (c.1610 – 86), created by a fine layer of a powdered resin (rosin) which is adhered to the plate using heat. The variation in shading is the result of carefully timed exposure to acid, sometimes a matter of seconds between dips. This method didn’t gain traction in the printmaking scene until the late 1700s when the French painter and etcher Jean Baptiste Le Prince (1734 – 81) started introducing aquatints to his etchings and engravings, perfecting and popularizing the technique. The term aquatint was coined by the English artist Paul Sandby (c.1731 – 1809) who used it in his etching to reproduce his watercolour landscapes, having a similar soft, smooth tonal effect.  A contemporary of Sandby, who was also an engraver and etcher living in London, was Francesco Bartolozzi (1727 – 1815). He came to London from Florence in 1764 where he was appointed Engraver to the King. He is well known for popularizing the use of stippling in his engravings. This method, sometimes referred to as the crayon manner, builds up surface texture and tone with the application of many dots and short flicks instead of lines made with a burin, etching needle or similar tool. 

Combining various intaglio techniques to build up surface texture was exploited by many printmakers, one of the earliest examples being the portrait of Emperor Maximillian I (1520) by the Dutch painter-engraver Lucas van Leyden (1494 – 1533). He used the controlled precision of engraving to complete the Emperor’s face while using etching to more freely construct the costume and background. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 69) embraced etching for same reason; to allow for more spontaneous expressive lines. However, he frequently reinforced his etchings with drypoint – an engraving method that uses a drypoint needle rather than a burin to scratch directly into the surface of the copper plate, creating rough burrs which holds more ink, creating rich velvety black lines, a tonal effect that Rembrandt became well known for. Rembrandt also further advanced this technique by manipulating the ink on the plate during the printing process, resulting in a shadowy effect, and further deep contrasts between light and shade. 

From the outset, Rembrandt was more concerned with achieving the overall tone and balance of the composition rather than following conventional mark-making, giving him the freedom to push the boundaries of how lines were laid and layered on the plate, influencing artists well into the 21st Century. It is believed that the inspiration for Francisco Goya’s (1746 – 1828) first etching series; Los Caprichos, was sparked after he had acquired one of Rembrandt’s etchings. Although Goya’s etchings achieve tone by combining aquatint with freely etched lines, his satirical works have the same dramatic intensity and expressive power of any one of Rembrandt’s landscapes. It is clear to see that like Rembrandt, Goya captures the feeling of his subjects in their facial features whether illuminated by a shaft of light or sunken into menacing shadows. For both, the balance in the composition created by these two tonal extremes is always perfectly achieved. 

Left: The Three Trees (1643) by Rembrandt van Rijn. Etching and drypoint, 213mm x 279mm Source: Wikimedia Commons. Right: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1798) by Francisco Goya. Etching with aquatint and other intaglio media. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The revival of engraving in modern art

With the introduction of photography and the complete mechanization of the printing industry at the end of the 1800s, the demand for engraving as a tool for commercial reproduction declined, freeing it up for use by printmakers for pure artistic expression. A more organic style of drawing, imitating loose pencil sketches became increasingly popular sparking a revival of the craft of manual engraving and etching as an original art form. Many printmakers strove to be in control of every stage of the printmaking process from designing, to printing the image, and even including making their own ink and paper. This laid the groundwork for a new wave of innovation where artists pushed the boundaries of the materials they were working with, rejecting classical intaglio printmaking rules and imagery for more expressive, abstract work. 

A major advocate of this new approach was English artist Stanley William Hayter (1901- 88) who studied copperplate engraving with Joseph Hecht in Paris. Realizing the potential for engraving as a tool to achieve the aims of modern art, Hayter and Hecht co-founded Atelier 17, an informal printmaking workshop in Paris in 1928, which Hayter later relocated to New York in 1940 at the outbreak of the Second World War. Hayter gave basic instruction on the technical aspects of printmaking from which point artists were encouraged to experiment and invent new ways of mark-making. In this spirit of collaboration and exploration of new textural and aesthetic possibilities, copperplates were gouged and scraped with unconventional tools such as can openers, steel wool, sandpaper and nails and using open bite etching to cut deep, wide grooves into the plate so that it became just as much the work of art as the printed impression. In fact, it was common practice for the students of Atelier 17 to exhibit their deeply etched plates next to the corresponding print.  

Another textural innovation developed among Hayter’s students was the use of soft ground etching to create layered modernist collages made primarily from different fibres and textiles. The effect is achieved by covering a copperplate with acid-resistant ground that is softer than an etching ground so that anything that comes in contact with it, such as a piece of lace, leaves a mark that is then incised by the acid. Soft ground was often used as a starting point after which other intaglio techniques such as engraving where added creating overlapping textures, shapes and lines. American artist Sue Fuller (1914 – 2006), who studied with Hayter in 1943, expanded the soft ground method to make intricate abstract images using thread and string, which she later used to create her signature three-dimensional string compositions.

Left to right: Hen (1945) by Sue Fuller. Engraving and soft-ground etching, 372mm × 302mm. Source: Crown of Thorns (1969) by Sheigla Hartman. Color Viscosity Intaglio, 560mm x 370mm. Source:, L’Oeil (The Eye) (1971) by Stanley William Hayter. Color Viscosity Intaglio, 380mm diameter. Source:

Atelier 17 became a hub for modern printmaking in America, attracting artists from all over the world, some of whom went on to run some of the top printmaking studios and departments in the country, which were instrumental in disseminating the technical innovations realized at this time. Hayter’s belief that risk, and failure are an essential part of the artistic process is still embraced by many practicing printmakers today, who collectively refer to this outcome as a happy mistake that can take their work in a new direction. Despite the introduction of new materials, mediums, conceptual frameworks, styles and subject matter, intaglio printmakers continue to honor the sculptural ethos of the textured surface in their prints. 


Hind, A. (1908) A Short History of Engraving and Etching, the Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd.

Shafer, A. (2019) Atelier 17 and its Founder Stanley William Hayter in Rossetti de Toledo et al. Atelier 17 and Modern Printmaking in the Americas, Sao Paulo: Museu de Arte Contemporeanea de Unniversidade de Sao Paulo (MAC USP).

Stijnman, A. (2012) Engraving and Etching 1400 – 2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes. London: Archetype Publications.

Weyl, C. (2017) Innovation and Abstraction: Women Artists and Atelier 17. New Jersey: Rutgers University.