“In printmaking. intaglio refers to all metal-plate processes, such as “engraving” and “etching,” in which the recessed areas which have been created and then inked are printed from (as opposed to the raised areas of relief printing…).”
Got that? Yeah, I know. Printmaking in all forms is one of the most complicated, confusing and difficult-to-explain of all art processes. There are so many different printmaking techniques! Screen-printing creates images based on a stencil, or a series of stencils. Woodcut, linocut and similar processes print the raised surfaces of the plate, so the areas that are cut away will remain white. It’s necessary, then, to think of the plate like a photographic negative.
Lithography is a process that allows images to be replicated perfectly. A drawing, done originally on a stone or special plate, will print lines, stippling, shading, even erasure marks. It depends on waxy inks and crayons that repel water, and – if this discussion were about the lithographic process – I could attempt to explain it in better detail. Since my topic is intaglio, I’ll just leave it here: lithography is complicated.
There are, of course, many printmaking methods that use non-manual means of duplication, from mass produced copies of paintings to photographs and computer-generated images. They live in a new, gray area: some are considered art, though they are not; some are limited-edition (often signed and numbered) copies of art that are often confused with traditional prints; still others are a brand-new, often misunderstood form of art. Printmakers who work in traditional, time-consuming, hands-on methods often struggle to differentiate their work from machine generated images.
On top of all that, there’s the idea that, in most printmaking processes, the original is not the actual work of art, but only the means to create the artwork. In many instances, including the intaglio process, the image created will be reversed when printed. Today, my goal is to simply make sense of the intaglio process.
Traditionally, an intaglio print is made based on an image created on a metal plate. The simplest engraving process employs tools to carve lines into a copper or zinc plate to create the desired image. Etching is a broader term that includes engraving, but also often refers to lines that are etched into the plate by acid. In that method, the entire plate is covered with a “ground” that the solvent can’t permeate. Lines are drawn through the ground, revealing the surface. The plate is put into an acid solution that etches the exposed areas, creating linear channels in the surface of the plate.
These are the most basic descriptions of the process. There are variations that involve special boxes and air-born grounds to create areas of texture that result in rich, velvet blacks. There are “soft grounds,” that will allow the plate’s surface to pick up delicate patterns of fabric or lace. There are “rockers” that cover the entire plate with texture, that is then painstakingly smoothed out, in areas, to create the desired image. Whether simple or complex, the premise is the same: the textures, cracks and crevices are the areas that hold the ink, and release it onto the paper.
To print, ink is spread over the plate, scraped into all of the textures and crevices, then wiped away from the surface with a series of heavily starched cloths called “tarlatan.” Properly done, and depending on the size of the plate and complexity of the image, this can take an hour or more. The ink remains only in the textures and engraved lines. When dampened paper is placed on the surface, and it is run through the printing press, the paper picks up the ink and results in an image.
To create a second print, the inking, wiping and running-through-the-press process has to be repeated. A good zinc plate can produce a thousand or more identical images…but every single image requires the same inking and wiping process. This hands-on method is certainly far removed from the processes that print hundreds of copies at the press of a button!