By Ushio Takahashi born 1944
By Ushio Takahashi born 1944 - Mezzotint
Sound of Water
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In part one of this article the basic printmaking techniques relief printing and intaglio printing were discussed and the relief techniques woodcut, wood engraving and linocut were introduced. This second part is about the intaglio printmaking techniques - engraving, drypoint, etching, aquatint, stipple, mezzotint.

First Publication: May 2001
Latest Update: April 2013

Intaglio Printmaking

The intaglio printmaking techniques work by incising into the surface of a plate (steel, copper etc.) with tools or with acid. Afterwards the plate is coated with ink. The surface is wiped clean so that the ink remains only in the incised areas. Finally a dampened paper is pressed against the plate.


By Paul Binnie born 1967
By Paul Binnie born 1967 - Engraving
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Engraving is the oldest and most common of the intaglio techniques. Lines are cut into a metal plate using a tool called burin or graver. After the process of incising lines has been finished, the plate is inked. Then the surface of the plate is cleaned and only the ink in the incised lines is left. A dampened paper is put on the plate. With the paper being pressed firmly against the plate, it absorbs the ink left in the lines.

In the beginning copper plates were used. This technique required a professional engraver with skills that could be acquired only in a long apprenticeship. The disadvantage of the use of copper was the limited number of impressions.

Like for a woodcut, hardly more than 2000 or 3000 impressions could be obtained from one plate. This changed drastically with the invention of steel plates by Thomas Lupton in 1822. Now the number of impressions was nearly unlimited.


By Ryohei Tanaka born 1933
By Ryohei Tanaka born 1933 - Etching
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For etchings the plate is first covered with an acid-resistant wax or resin ground. Then the image is incised into the wax or resin layer with an etching needle. Finally the plate is dipped into acid. The acid bites into the exposed lines where the wax or resin was removed. These acid-bitten areas hold the ink.

It is one of the very old techniques dating back to the fourteenth century when it was used to apply decorations on armor. Rembrandt in the middle of the seventeenth century pushed the etching technique to new heights.


For the drypoint technique, the lines of the image are scratched directly into a plate with a sharp needle called the drypoint needle. Where treated with the needle, rough metal edges are thrown up, the so-called burr. This burr holds the ink very well. Different from engraving, this burr is not removed before the printing process. The drypoint technique typically produces prints with irregular, more fuzzy lines.

For the plates, tin or copper is the preferred material for the drypoint technique. From a commercial point of view, drypoint has the disadvantage of a fast wear of the plates.


By Kaoru Saito born 1931
By Kaoru Saito born 1931 - Mezzotint
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Mezzotint is another intaglio technique. It was invented by Ludwig van Siegen, a German soldier, around 1642. Later it was improved by Abraham Blooteling and became were popular in England and was sometimes called la maniere anglaise.

For the mezzotint print, the surface is completely marked with a dense network of lines. For this process, a tool called a rocker is used. When a print is drawn at this stage, it would show a rich black only. Therefore in the next step, the plate is smoothed in the areas where the artist wants the color to print in a lighter tone or not at all.

Mezzotint requires high skills as the working process goes from dark to light. It is an ideal technique for creating shadowed areas and different tonal qualities. It therefore was particularly used for portraits.


By Emiko Aida
By Emiko Aida - Aquatint
Swim Around VI
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Aquatint is a special form of etching. It is created by etching sections rather than lines of a plate. First a porous ground of powdered or melted resin or asphalt or a similar ground is dusted onto the plate.

Next the plate is heated from below and as a result the applied dusty coat adheres to the metal and is acid-resistant. The acid is spread over the plate and bites into the tiny holes left in the coating.

Similar to mezzotint, aquatint is a technique to produce prints with the effect of printing rather whole areas than just lines. Typical for acquatint are the finely dotted areas.


A stipple print is created from a metal plate upon which the design has been produced using different sized small dots grouped together in order to create areas of continuous tone. The technique of stipple goes back to the fifteenth century.


Lithography was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder. He used the technique to print sheet music. One year later, Senefelder even had it patented in Munich. The name comes from the Greek word lithos which means stone. The technique is based on the fact, that water and grease do not like each other.

The design is drawn on a special, flat stone (limestone) or on a metal plate with a greasy water-repellant substance (greased crayon or a greasy ink called tusche).

By Zhang Minjie, born 1959
By Zhang Minjie, born 1959 - Lithograph
Galloping Horses

Then the stone was dampened with water and inked. The ink is absorbed by the greasy parts only. To enhance this effect, the plate can be treated with a chemical fluid after drawing the image. Afterwards a print can be produced by putting the plate in a press.

Like for the woodcut, several plates - one for each color - are used to produce a color lithograph print. A colored lithograph is called a chromolithograph.

Intaglio Lithograph
Intaglio Lithograph - Detail from Galloping Horses
Detail from Galloping Horses

In later years, the stone plate was more and more replaced by the use of zinc plates. Examples of early artists who used this technique, are Goya, Gericault and Delacroix. But until the late 19th and the 20th century it was more seen as a technique for producing commercial printing stuff like advertising posters. Lithography took an upswing with artists like Toulouse-Lautrec or Marc Chagall.

Silk screen or Screen Printing

By Hideaki Kato born 1954
By Hideaki Kato born 1954 - Silkscreen
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Silk screen is the same as Screen printing. Another expressions is serigraphy or stencil printing. There are many variations to this technique. What they have in common, is the use of a screen and a stencil. The screen can be made of silk or nylon.

The stencil is suspended to the bottom of the screen. For modern printing the stencil can be replaced by a method of photoprinting. The print is produced by applying ink/color across the screen. The whole image is produced by using several screens with specific stencils - one for each color. A famous example for a silk screen print is Andy Warhol's popular print series of Marilyn Monroe from 1967.

Video - Intaglio Printmaking

This video explains the artist intaglio printmaking techniques in 8 minutes - concise and precise. Credit and thanks to artsmia for sharing this with us.

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

Literature source used for this article about intaglio printmaking

  • Griffiths, Antony, "Prints and Printmaking - An introduction to the history and techniques", Published by British Museum Press, London 1980, ISBN 0 7141 2608 X.
  • Söhn, Gerhard, "Kleine Grafik-Kunde", Graphik-Salon Gerhard Söhn, Düsseldorf, 1981, ISBN 3-921342-34-1.

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