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Tim Mara, Self Portrait with Contour Gauge, 1981
Tim Mara Artist's Alphabet

T: Techniques > Intaglio

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Brief History of the Technique

There are several processes grouped together under the category heading ‘Intaglio’ these include etching and blind embossing (as seen in the print above) and also wood engraving, metal engraving, dry point, mezzotint and aquatint. They are all techniques, which have printing areas depressed below the surface of a plate or block and create a print by the incision of lines or images into its surface. Once the surface has been cut or bitten these depressed areas are filled with ink and the non-printing upper surface is wiped clean. The plate and paper are forced together under pressure and the plate makes a contacted impression with the paper transferring an image onto it.

The principles of the Intaglio technique can be traced right back to the middle ages to goldsmithing and armored engraving techniques but it did not become a specific art form until the 15th Century when paper became more generally available.

During this period engraving served for two quite separate purposes, serious religious imagery and popular secular themes. It is worth remembering that at this time the population was mostly illiterate and print works could act as a method of image based instruction and communication.

The two main centres for the development of the Intaglio arts were Germany and Italy where it manifested itself in the production of quite different works. The German Artists achieved a much greater technical facility but their imagery and design remained basically medieval whilst the Italians, who were caught up in the classical aesthetic of the Renaissance period created works characterised by a greater degree of freedom in invention and grandeur of design but were technically less advanced. Most of their works were made by hand burnishing and had a very real handmade uneven quality whereas the Germans had the advantage of both the drum and roller presses which assisted them in producing extremely clear and precise lines and tones. The most influential developments being made by Johan Guttenberg’s invention of the block-press in 1438.

By the 16th Century the art of Intaglio had begun to reach new heights via the interest and usage of it as a medium by great Masters such as Albrecht Durer and Andrea Mantegna who both elevated it to the form of a fine art rather than a craft through extraordinary ambition, dexterity, draughtmanship, skill and sensitivity. The technique also began quite commonly to be used for creating reproductions of Artists paintings, as well as book works, illustrations, map making and playing card designs. The basic languages of etching and engraving were expanded and developed to include variations on the standard processes; throughout this period to accommodate it’s many roles and usages.

In the 17th Century the potential for line engraving was being exploited throughout Europe, particularly in France where it became standardised through the work of several generations of specialist Artists most notably Claude Mellan, Robert Nantevil and Jacques Callot.

Their skill and technical prowess went on to inspire Flemish Artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt to use the techniques both of who used it extensively adding a greater impressive and experimental freedom to the language. Rembrandt explored developments in aquatint whilst later on a amateur printmaker named Ludwig Von Siegen would be credited with the invention of the “mezzotint’ or ‘half tone’ process which was to offer a new means of achieving textural effects and prove especially successful in the reproduction of painted works.

By the 18th Century the techniques were popular and widely used all over the world and Intaglio works achieved a huge popularity with the general public due to their relative inexpensiveness, democracy and large edition numbers, which Artists such as Honore Daumier, Franciso Goya and especially William Hogarth, James Gilray and William Blake in England took full advantage of.

The popularity of Intaglio prints continued throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries with Artists investigating every nuance of its technique from Cliché Verve glass techniques to dry point to photo engraving.

The 20th Century saw an increased general interest in the use of photo mechanical print processes and evidence of this can be seen in its use in Intaglio printing with a whole range of Artists utilising photo etching, photo gravure and collotype techniques. Intaglio is still one of the most popular techniques used by contemporary print Artists and has proved to be an extremely durable medium.

Description of the Technique

As mentioned in the history section an Intaglio print is created by making an incision into a plate (or block) and creating a depressed area, which then creates an image when transferred to paper via some kind of pressure. This is done in several ways and using various materials;

In “etching” a metal plate (often copper, steel, zinc but sometimes, aluminum and magnesium or even brass) is used. These plates are prepared with an acid resistant coating called a ground which is then drawn onto with an etching needle or sharp tool which exposes the metal wherever the point breaks through the ground. When the design is complete the plate is set in an acid bath so that the drawn areas, which have been exposed, are etched or ‘bitten’ into. The length of time in the acid and the strength of the solution determine both the width and depth of he mark being created.

When the desired image is etched the remaining ground is removed with a solvent and the plate is prepared for printing. The plate is printed by putting ink onto it’s surface which is pushed into the depressed areas. The non-printing surface (i.e. the top surface where no lines or images are required) is then wiped clean with a scrim or cloth. The plate is then placed on a press and specially dampened paper is placed upon it, packed to secure and protect it and then run through the press (or alternatively hand burnished for a less even result) putting pressure onto the plate and transferring the image onto the paper. This is a simplified description of the etching process and many permutations and variations exist of it all of which require an adaption of this basic technique, and can include photographic based and digital imaging approaches.

Other Intaglio techniques include “engraving”. The engraved line as exemplified by bank note designs are characterised by a much sharper and infinitely crisper detail than the etched line, which tends to be slightly irregular due to the action of the acid biting into the metal plate.

The engraved lines are often smooth and flowing – thinner where the engraving tool cuts less of the metal surface swelling to heavier and wider lines where the tool is pushed deeper into the metal. Tonalities are achieved by engraving parallel lines close together (hatching) or by making parallel lines that intersect at various angles (cross hatching) or by many closely spaced fine dots (stippling). An engraved plate or block can yield several hundred good impressions especially when it is coated with a steel facing, which protects the surface.

A preliminary drawing can be made on the polished plate in many ways (it must always be remembered that with all Intaglio techniques the image will be reversed when printing and this should be considered when planning an initial design). One of the simplest ways is to draw on the plate with carbon paper and a hard pencil. The grease of the carbon paper will act as a mild acid resist. The plate can then be immersed momentarily in a weak acid solution (usually nitric or acetic). When the plate is then cleaned with an alcohol-based solution the traced lines will appear shiny on the dull background of the metal (another method is to clean the plate with ammonia and water making it grease free).

Next, a thin layer of gum arabic is applied to its surface and allowed to dry; this can then be drawn directly onto. The drawing can then be used as a guide to engrave the plate that is achieved by cutting into the surface with a series of Burins or related sharp tools.

A similar approach exists in ‘dry point’ engraving which is one of the most direct and straightforward Intaglio techniques. This involves using a dry point needle or other sharp instrument to scratch and draw into a soft metal plate directly without any ground. The scratched plates are printed in the same way, as an etching would be, but require no additional preparation. The line produced by a dry point is much rougher than that created by the specialist engraving technique, often producing a raised burr as the metal is displaced by scratching. Also, because of the wear from inking and wiping and printing on a soft metal the plate will yield no more than a few good impressions (unless it to is steel faced).

‘Mezzotint’ has the ability to capture the subtlest nuances of tone and value from rich velvety blacks to glowing highlights. It is a laborious and intensive technique and can be highly skilled. The making of a plate involves several steps, the first of which is to roughen the entire plate with the aid of a mezzotint rocker. In this state the plate would print a solid black. Tones are then burnished and scraped into the plate, working from black to middle values to highlights (the more an area is burnished or scraped the lighter it becomes). As a reverse technique where the image is created from dark to light in this way Mezzotint is unique among the Intaglio image making process.

‘Aquatint’ is also a tonal technique, and is normally used in combination with other etching techniques to add tone and atmosphere to a linear or photographic work. The tone is created by dusting particles of resin or asphaltam powder onto a plate, which is then melted onto its surface until they adhere. Different weights and thickness of aquatint can be achieved by controlling the amount of powder dusted onto the plate. It can also be adjusted when it is etched in the acid solution, which is the next stage in production. Again, like etching the amount of time and the strength of the acid solution will affect the Aquatint, in this case the longer it remains in the bath the darker the tone produced will be.

’Embossed’ prints (or Inkless Intaglio as they are sometimes called) are simply prints in which a raised image is forced into the paper under pressure but since ink is sometimes not used, the image can be represented by the paper relief alone on the surface as opposed to by contrasting lines and tones. Prints can be embossed on both sides of the paper, the choice of which is important and as a rule the heavier the paper used the more embossment it will retain and the more evenly it will lie in drying. Thin paper will tear easily as it becomes overstretched when trying to accommodate the embossing plate, like all Intaglio techniques a dampened paper should be used when being presented to the press or any pressure to stretch and soften its fibres.

Tim’s Use of the Technique

Tim produced several prints using Intaglio techniques particularly in the mid to late 1970’s and then sporadically in the 1980’s and 90’s. His interest in this technique centered on the process of photo etchings and various embossments and he created several works using photomontage designs and his own photo negatives. The majority of these prints were experimental in mood. Tim’s innovation, versatility and knowledge of advanced Intaglio techniques were considerable and he continually explored new developments in the medium.

The first photo etchings were monochrome works very similar in composition and intention to his early complex narrative silkscreen prints. Then came a number of composite prints, which were made up of a number of small etching plates etched with fine half-tone images and often combined with blind embossing techniques. The imagery in these works was varied and eclectic and signaled interests which would manifest themselves more completely in later works. In 1977 Tim produced a large series of sequential prints combining Intaglio processes and for the following two years he would investigate their potential further including and combining additional materials such as small objects, four colour silk screen processes and colour photographs and even include real ‘hundreds and thousands’ cake sweet decorations to create both image and texture. (The sugar in the cake decorations has eventually disintegrated and deteriorated the paper and the prints involved in this approach have subsequently been withdrawn and recalled from the market).

This period of work demonstrates an exciting curiosity and improvisation of both technique and the materials used and reveal a great sense of creativity and humour in his thinking process.

After this intense period of investigation and concentrated usage of Intaglio techniques Tim began to use etching and embossing on a much more sporadic and occasional basis, as one of the many print languages available to him. In 1988 he did produce a series of eight small prints using photo etching which depict individual household objects and items of clothing featured in his other works his usage of the technique receeded in the later periods of his practice.

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© Text: Mark Hampson / Images: Belinda Mara
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