Sunday 30 December 2018

Engraving and Etching: a handbook for the use of students and print collectors. By Friedrich Lippmann (1907)

Engraving is a print making technique, in which the artist cuts their design into the smooth, flat surface of a metal plate or woodblock. There are two related techniques. In relief printing, the uncut surface of the engraved block is inked and these areas transfer ink onto the final print. The material that was cut away by the engraver does not accept any of the ink and so these areas of paper in the final print remain without ink.  The intaglio technique is the direct opposite of relief printing. This method also uses a line cut into a metal surface, but now it is the cut line that accepts the ink. After the surface has been wiped with a cloth and the palm of the hand, an impression of the cut design is then made onto dampened paper. Impressions taken from either of these methods are usually called prints or engravings. 

Intaglio printing is a technically demanding process. The engraver sketches out a mirror image of the composition onto a prepared copper plate with an engraving needle. The final engraving is then created on this drypoint sketch with a burin or graver -  a sharpened tool of square or diamond shape that creates a v-shaped groove in the metal surface. Mistakes are removed using a burnisher.  

Two related techniques are used in intaglio engraving to create texture and shade. Hatching involves the cutting of closely spaced parallel lines. Cross-hatching involves the cutting of lines at an angle to a set of hatched parallel lines. By varying the length, width, angle and closeness of the lines that are hatched or cross-hatched, an engraver can create brightness, texture, form and volume. The intaglio technique can be used to create exquisite details as it allows a much finer line to be printed than is possible from a relief printed wood block. 

Claude Mellan (1598-1688) was born in Abbeville in Picardy. As a youth, Mellan was sent to Paris by his father to study drawing with the artist Simon Vouet (1590-1649). However, Mellan became increasingly interested in the art of  engraving and at 16 he went to Rome to further his study of Italian engraving techniques. By the time he was in his early twenties, Mellan had developed a new technique for creating shade in his engravings. Instead of using cross-hatching with lines of equal thickness, he developed a way of regulating tone simply by varying the breadth and closeness of a system of undulating parallel lines. Joseph Strutt describes his technique as follows;  
... he adopted a new mode of working with single strokes only, without any second strokes laid upon them; and the shadows are expressed by the same strokes, being made stronger, and brought nearer to each other. The effect, which he produced by this method of engraving, is soft and clear.

One of Claude Mellan's most celebrated works is the Sudarium of Saint Veronica which he engraved in 1649. Although a sudarium was originally a `sweat-cloth' used for wiping the face, it is better known as a religious image that bears the likeness of the face of Jesus Christ. The Sudarium image by Mellan shows the face of Christ, with long flowing hair, a beard and wearing a crown of thorns. What is extraordinary about this engraving is that Mellan has created the whole image by unfurling a single line that spirals outwards from the tip of Christ's nose. The contrast in the image is created solely by varying the thickness of this single line and the distance between lines. The author of this volume notes that: 
His technical skill is so extraordinary that the bravura of his style almost drives into the background his undeniable artistic talent. He expresses form by bold, sweeping lines, without the aid of cross-hatching, and obtains his modelling merely by widening his lines in the shadows and making them finer towards the light.

Between 1635 and 1637, Claude Mellan worked with the gentleman scientist Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) and the astronomer Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) to make a detailed lunar map based on observations made through Gassendi's telescope. This was part of a larger project to make a detailed annotated map of the Moon's surface.  The technical difficulties in this endeavour were substantial. 

The three engravings that resulted from this collaboration were finalised in 1637. They were the clearest and most detailed observational records of the moon then available. In part, their quality was due to the high quality optical components from Galileo that they had used for the observations. Scott Montgomery describes these images as follows:
Mellan's images, with their near-photographic precision, are such a startling leap beyond everything that had gone before -- even Galileo's pictures -- that we are left almost breathless ... Gassendi, Peiresc, and Mellan presented art as a domain of expertise within science.    
The exquisite quality of these images of the Moon's surface was primarily due to the artistic skills and superb engraving technique of Claude Mellan. This was high art in the service of high science.

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: A detail from a portrait of Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc that was engraved by Claude Mellan in 1637.


Montgomery, S.L. (1999). The Moon and the Western Imagination. University Arizona Press.

Strutt, J. (1785). A biographical dictionary: containing an historical account of all the engravers, from the earliest period of the art of engraving to the present time. Robert Faulder, London.