Your Favorite Print Could Be Engraved,
Etched Or Lithographed
The following article was printed in the Old Stuff issue of Fall, 1993, and was prepared by Graham Ashford of the Heaton House Gallery in Edmonds, Washington. He compiled the following information to help one understand the differences between engravings, etching and lithographs. It seems time to offer this information to Old Stuff readers once again.
The date you see by “Circa...” is the approximate year that the print you are looking at was actually produced.
ENGRAVINGS -They were produced by engraving or carving the subject, in reverse, on either a block of wood, a slab of stone or a sheet of copper or steel. With most engravings, the engraver and the artist were different people. Very often, this resulted in some inaccuracies in the final product, since the engraver was working solely from a picture painted by the artist and, therefore, didn’t have the benefit of what the actual subject looked like.
Sometimes the artist would sketch a view on the spot and later work it up into a more finished drawing, possibly emphasizing the “picturesque” elements of the scene or otherwise enhancing certain aspects. Often there was an intermediary who prepared the drawing for the engraver, which may have involved redrawing it to the size of the plate on which it was to be engraved.
Eventually, proofs were made using ink of the period, and the plate amended as required. Unless the artist was there to check and “touch” the proofs, the end product may have been quite different from the original drawing, which itself may not have been an accurate rendering of the scene. The result was the apparent changes which well known buildings seemed to have undergone or the otherwise inexplicable shifts in mountain scenery. With etching and lithography this was less likely to happen, as in these modes the artist was often also responsible for the work on the plate or stone.
For the most part, color was added by hand, either before the print was issued or much later. Engravings of natural history subjects were often colored on issue, as were the political satires so popular in the reign of King George III.
Hand watercoloring has become a very popular process recently and is not considered to detract from the value of the engraving.
In ETCHING the metal plate (usually copper) was covered with a “ground” made of wax or some similar substance into which the design was drawn with an etching needle. The plate was put into an acid bath. The ground was impervious to the acid, which bit the exposed lines on the plate for a required length of time, depending on the degree of darkness needed.
The discovery of LITHOGRAPHY in 1798 marked the first important development in printmaking for several centuries. It was based on the fact that grease (ink) repels water.
The design was drawn on a block of limestone (or, later, aluminum or zinc, which were lighter and easier to handle) with a greasy crayon or ink. The stone was then washed over with water, which the greased surfaces repelled. Ink was added with the image able to attract and hold the ink, while the background (being wet) repelled it. Paper was laid on to the stone in a flatbed press and the design transferred.
The printing process was highly complicated and the skill of the lithographic printer a vital component in the production. A single stone could print only one color. To add to the texture and depth of the picture, a second stone, called a tint stone, was used, usually inked with a pale buff wash.
CHROMOLITHOGRAPHS are lithographs printed in color, with each color represented by a separate stone; hence, up to twenty stones might have been used for printing a single plate.
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