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What types of engravings are there?

Throughout artistic history, printing or engraving has undergone several transformations since its beginnings. Before addressing the multiple forms of engraving that exist today, it is vital to highlight the origins of engraving, from the first Mesopotamian prints, the invention of woodcut in Japan, to the advent of gravure in Europe, highlighting figures such as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya, who have perfected this art. With the arrival of the avant-garde of the 20th century, graphic art diversified into several types of prints, which we describe in detail below.


woodcut engraving
Woodcut and composite plate print, Edvard Munch, “Melancholy I”, 1896.

Woodcut printing captures the composition engraved or carved on a woodblock. The artist sculpts and removes material from the block to form the white spaces of the image, thus reserving the lines or areas that will form the desired image, also known as relief engraving. In woodcut, unlike other graphic methods, the artist obtains the image by removing material.

The wood used must have certain characteristics for carving, withstand a long series of impressions and its own conservation. It must be of uniform texture, compact, hard and without knots or cracks that could obstruct the tool. The most suitable and historically used woods are those of fruit trees such as pear, apple and cherry.

In the different processes of creating the engraving, it is easy to correct an excess of black color, simply by cutting more wood or making new carvings. However, correcting an excess of white is not so simple. If carvings have been removed by mistake, they can be filled with a thin paste made of glue and sawdust. If the defect is a large area, a square or rectangle is delimited and reduced by half a centimeter.


linocut engraving
Linocut traces

Linocut, an art that originates from woodcut, inherits a long tradition in the reproduction of images. It differs from this one in having a more basic, smooth and matte texture, due to the finish of the material and the tools used for engraving, which are small knives with short handles that provide thick, firm and always well-defined lines. In this technique, the shapes corresponding to the first color are engraved and the complete print plus some additional proofs are made. The work continues in the same matrix, which corresponds to the second color: this is printed over the first one and the same process is repeated as many times as colors are desired.

In the end, only the linoleum or black part remains in the matrix, while the shapes are only the edges or contours of the composition. Thus, the matrix is lost for any future edition, making it impossible to start over or reprint the work. Thus, engraving and printing are performed simultaneously, the process of engraving and printing is carried out at the same time and by always using the same matrix, the registration is more reliable.

Picasso also applied a new printing method to his linoleum work, known as the “Rinsed Proof”. It consists of a direct action in printing: an image printed in white ink on white paper, so that the image is barely visible, similar to a shadow. Once the ink is dry, the entire surface is covered with black India ink. Then, the print is subjected to a jet of water, the India ink dissolves and when it disappears it dyes the paper that does not have printing ink in a gray tone with peculiar drops, and the composition is completed.

Intaglio printing

intaglio engraving

In intaglio, a type of metal engraving, the incision is made in depth, hence it is also known as hollow engraving. This process is the opposite of the previously mentioned method, in which the image remains on the surface. In this case, the image is etched on the metal matrix, and the non-etched part, which corresponds to the targets, remains on the surface of the matrix. The ink is inserted into the grooves engraved in the metal and then transferred to the paper, where the strokes appear in relief, this being one of the main distinctive features of this technique.

The metal sheet, either copper or zinc, must have a polished and uniform surface, with an approximate thickness between 1 and 1.5 millimeters. The incision can be made in two general ways: by directly excavating the metal with a pointed tool, burin, etc., generating a whole group of procedures known as direct incision, or by means of corrosion by mordant agents, another group known as indirect incision engraving which, likewise, encompasses many other methods. These two categories of engravings can be combined on the same plate, and also give rise to a wide range of sub-processes, as will be seen below:

Drypoint technique

drypoint engraving
Drypoint and color lithograph, Salvador Dalí, “The Conquest of the Cosmos”, 1974.

The drypoint engraving method gets its name from the main tool used in its realization. An extremely hard steel or diamond point is used to directly scratch the metal. It acts almost perpendicularly on the metal and is handled similarly to a pencil. When incising into the metal, the sharp tip leaves characteristic burrs on both sides of the groove, which are not removed. For this reason, the resulting line at the time of printing is diffuse and irregular both in its trajectory and depth.

The burin

burin engraving
Burin, Albrecht Dürer, “Coat of arms with skull”, 1503.

The burin, also known as a sweet carving, is a tool made of an extremely hard steel bar, with one end sharpened and beveled, and the other end attached to a short wooden handle. There are different types of burins, such as square burins, used for engraving curved lines and wide carvings, and triangular burins, for longer strokes.

To make a burin engraving, we start with a fully polished copper plate on which we will work completely with the burin. It is operated in a position almost parallel to the plate. The handle rests in the palm of the hand, allowing you to exert force and maintain control of the direction of the stroke. The bar is held with the index finger and thumb, making two movements: one of pressure and the other of direction, to create the desired engraving.


stitched engraving
Color stitching, after Antonio and Gaetano Bicci, late 18th century.

Stippling involves creating an image on the metal by the direct action of points, strikers, mallets in primitive engraving and roulettes. The roulettes, of different sizes and grits, are small toothed wheels attached to a pencil-like handle. As they rotate and move over the metal with a certain precision, they leave very regular dotted lines.

The black way

engraved black way
Black engraving in color and white retouches by hand, according to J.C. Le Blon, early 18th century. Le Blon, early 18th century

Unlike other methods, here we start with an unpolished copper plate. The copper, which must be very hard, grains directly on its surface. If the image is inked and printed, it appears as a large black spot. Once the surface is fully grained, the range of values is determined, from the deepest black to the purest white. For this purpose, the graining is scratched and flattened, forming the image in white on black, as if the engraver obtained the image by erasing on black.


Etching, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, “Suite 156”, 1971.

To make an etching
The following steps are followed: the metal plate, previously polished and degreased, is completely covered with a layer of protective varnish. This varnish is ideal for protecting the metal and resisting the mordant bath. The artist can draw on it with the tip of the image to be engraved without cracking. When drawing the composition, the metal is uncovered at the same time. As a result, the outline of the drawing reveals the copper or zinc while the rest of the surface remains protected by the varnish. Finally, the plate is immersed in a bath of a mordant solution so that it only affects the drawing areas. Once the plate is inked, it is ready to be stamped on paper.


Aquatint, Joan Miró, “El aguador III”, 1962.

The aquatint is based on a fine rounded grid that gives uniform spots in a wide range of tonal values. This small lattice, which is almost imperceptible in the print and avoids any kind of straight line, is achieved by the adhesion of rosin resin powder on the metal plate. In this way, the resin performs a double function: it acts as a protective varnish and a defining element of the characteristic appearance of its shape. Aquatint has variants, such as sugar etching, which is based on the mixture of this element with Indian ink or gouache, allowing drawing on the previously resinated plate.


Carborundum and aquatint, Antoni Tàpies, “Z”, 1979.

The fundamental material used in carborundum, from which the name derives, is silicon carbide powder. This abrasive and very hard powder can be applied in different grain sizes. Generally, it is adhered to the plate together with synthetic resins or vinyl glues according to the artist’s designs. While the dough is fresh, you can model shapes and even make drawings, strokes or stains. Once dry, the paste is extremely hard, allowing the plate to be inked like a hollow engraving. The result is similar to aquatint but much more forceful, without transparency, and with an appearance of strong opacity and texture raised to the surface. This method is considered the printing that gives the material an artistic and expressive language, in accordance with the plastic movements of the 20th century.


Lithograph, Salvador Dalí, “Cosmic rays resuscitating soft watches”, 1965.

In lithography, a limestone is used as a matrix, a stone with properties that facilitate the process because it is absorbent, compact, with small natural grains and a yellowish or grayish color. It is drawn on the stone with grease pencils or sticks composed mainly of greasy materials, such as shellac or other pigments, and with inks of different properties. It ensures that the image does not occupy the entire surface of the stone to allow the printer to adjust the squeegee when printing. Once the drawing has been made, the stone is prepared for printing. The drawing is fixed with a solution of gum arabic, water and nitric acid, which acts as a very light mordant. This film waterproofs the entire surface, so that no greasy substance adheres to the undrawn surface until the time of inking. In this way, the humidity rejects the ink and it only remains on the drawn image.

Screen printing

Silkscreen, Antoni Tàpies, “Als Mestres de Catalunya”, 1974.

Screen printing is a technique that uses a mesh to transfer ink to a substrate, except in areas that have been made impervious to dye by blocking. Those areas that should remain white in the composition are covered, while the rest is left uncovered following the defined contours. The printing process can be manual or using a screen printing press.

In manual printing, the process is quite simple. A completely flat and smooth board base is used, where one side of the screen is fixed by hinges, allowing the frame to be easily raised and lowered. The paper to be printed on is placed under the screen. When this screen is lowered, ink is added inside the frame and a squeegee is used to press and distribute the ink, allowing the image to be transferred to the paper.

On the other hand, printing using a screen printing press follows the same principle, but these machines are equipped for more precise, longer and faster jobs. They feature suction bases that adhere to the paper, mechanical arms that allow one-handed printing and special register stops to ensure printing accuracy.

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