An Intaglio Introduction

By Katie Reinhart

As my archaic dagger gets stuck, then skips along the piece of shiny copper, I wonder ‘how is this helping me as a historian?’

An engraving burin with a piece of copper
An engraving burin with a piece of copper

The sharp object in my hand is a burin, a carving tool used for copper plate engraving. At the moment I am trying my hand (unsuccessfully) at the technique of intaglio engraving, an early modern printing method.

Intaglio printing (which includes the techniques of engraving and etching) refers to the technique where the line incised into the plate (either with burin, dry point needle, or acid) is what will eventually appear dark when the plate is printed. This is in contrast to relief printing (like woodcuts) where what you carve away are actually the spaces that remain blank or un-inked during printing. All three of these techniques were used in the 17th century, although engraving and etching were most commonly used in the images created for the Royal Society’s publications like the Philosophical Transactions and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

An example of intaglio printing in Robert Hooke's Micrographia, 1665
An example of intaglio printing in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665

Thus, my colleague Sietske and I are attempting to learn the technique of engraving in hopes that it will help us further understand the relationship between graphic skill and image creation. 

@British Museum
Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros is a famous example of a woodcut, 1515, @British Museum

Our ‘intaglio project’ is in its early days, and over the next several months we will post here about how we are progressing and our reflections on what we have learned in the process. So far, we have started at the very beginning. How to hold a burin, how to apply pressure to incise the copper, and how to clip off the curly ‘spur’ created if you do it all correctly.

Making Visible Postdoc Sietske Fransen tries her hand with the burin
Making Visible Postdoc Sietske Fransen tries her hand with the burin

Here are a few things I learned so far:

  • Engraving is difficult. I knew this, but like any skill one takes a go at, I have a new appreciation for the long training and apprenticeships necessary to learn to deploy such a craft, let alone with a high degree of finesse or skill.
  • Engraving is a completely different skill than drawing. The fine lines of engraved images almost make us think they were drawn with a pen, when in fact engraving is really a form of carving. The burin is not held like a pencil or quill with the fingers, but instead is grasped in the palm of the hand and driven along the plate. Instead of moving your wrist to make curves (as you would in painting or drawing) the burin always moves forward in a straight line and it is the plate that is moved to create a curved line.

    The challenging task of holding the burin
    The challenging task of holding the burin
  • Engraving is a complicated and multi-step process. I have also developed a new appreciation for the numerous steps involved in preparing a plate, engraving, cleaning, inking, and printing before a finished image is produced. With the burin and engraver carves lines that, after many more steps, are filled with ink and ultimately create the marks on the page. However, there are many more steps between wielding your burin and the final printed imaged. For instance, since engraving is a form of carving, you have to recon with the material carved away. In the case of burin engraving, this manifests as a thing curly copper ‘spur’ at the end of every line you engrave. These spurs need to be gently clipped off from the plate’s surface to get them out of your way, but also so they do not impact the shape of the line when the plate is printed.

    Copper Spurs
    Copper Spurs

Thus far my dilettante attempts at this 17th-century technique have yielded little more than a few scratched lines on a plate. I am working on making my lines consistent, and regulating pressure to varying their thickness, before I move onto the next challenge – curved lines. Check back here in the coming months as Sietske and I will be documenting the trials and tribulations of our intaglio project, as well as how it is making us reflect upon and think differently about the images that we study and the processes involved in making them.


Further reading:

David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print: 1470-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, 1, (2010), pp.128-179.

Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400-2000. A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes (Amsterdam: HES & De Graaf, 2012).