Engraving is an intaglio printmaking process in which lines are cut into a metal plate in order to hold the ink. The process was developed in Germany in the 1430s from the engraving used by goldsmiths to decorate metalwork. Engravers use a hardened steel tool called a burin to cut the design into the surface of a metal plate, traditionally made of copper or zinc. Engraving using a burin is generally a difficult skill to learn.
The engraving technique, widely used in prehistoric times, both on stone (rock engravings) and on ceramics (engravings and dry engravings), and in classical times, in Greek black-figure ceramics, in the decoration of metals (Greek and Etruscan mirrors) and wall paintings (graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum), was widely used, through time and up to the present day, in the decoration of art objects and architecture applied to a wide variety of materials and often associated with other techniques. Alongside these generic decorative applications, from the Renaissance to the present day, the application of engraving to the preparation of matrices for printing has assumed predominant importance.
Matrices can be engraved in relief (xylography or wood engraving, linoleumgraphy or linoleum engraving) or in hollow (on metal, copper, zinc or steel plates) depending on whether the aim is to reproduce the image by spreading the ink on the projecting parts or by having it penetrate into the hollow parts; hollow engraving can be done directly, i.e. by hand with different tools (burin, drypoint, mezzotint), or indirectly on plates prepared and subjected to clamping of different acids (etching, aquatint, soft varnish); finally, there are engraving techniques based on electrolysis and mixed techniques. All types of engraving have in common the industrial character of the technical procedure, which is based on the distinction between the creative moment, that is, the preparation of the matrix, and the executive moment, that is, the printing of identical specimens in a limited series; engraving therefore constitutes the first valid attempt to apply an industrial procedure to artistic representation.
Gravers come in a variety of shapes and sizes that yield different line types. The burin produces a unique and recognizable quality of line that is characterized by its steady, deliberate appearance and clean edges. Other tools such as mezzotint rockers, roulettes (a tool with a fine-toothed wheel) and burnishers (a tool used for making an object smooth or shiny by rubbing) are used for texturing effects.
To make a print, the engraved plate is inked all over, then the ink is wiped off the surface, leaving only ink in the engraved lines. The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of paper (often moistened to soften it). The paper picks up the ink from the engraved lines, making a print. The process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions (copies) could be printed before the printing plate shows much sign of wear, except when drypoint, which gives much shallower lines, is used.
In the 20th century, true engraving was revived as a serious art form by artists including Stanley William Hayter whose Atelier 17 in Paris and New York City became the magnet for such artists as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Mauricio Lasansky and Joan Miró.