In A Nutshell
If you’d like to impress some literary-minded or artistic friends, you can learn to tell the difference between early printmaking techniques by looking for a few simple giveaways. Illustrations made by relief printing will typically have shadows that are made with straight lines rather than the cross-hatching techniques used in intaglio printing methods. Most intaglio methods also leave traces of the print plate behind because of the pressure required to transfer the image, and sometimes a crisp line will even tell you that the original plate was made with an engraving process rather than an acid bath.
The Whole Bushel
During the Middle Ages, there was a certain sort of personal touch given to manuscripts by scribes who were tasked with the unforgiving task of copying them word for word, by hand, in a crippling and rather mind-numbing enterprise. The advent of the printing press changed all that, but there were a number of different print-making techniques that were used to illustrate early texts.
If you know what to look for, you can tell which one was used.
First, there were two main ways images were reproduced into texts. Relief printing is the one most people are familiar with. Relief printing is basically stamping: The background of an image is cut away, the rest is inked, and the image is stamped onto the page.
That’s the blanket term for woodcuts and metal plate prints, and one of the telltale signs that it’s relief printing is found in the shading. It’s usually done fairly simply, with solid lines as opposed to cross-hatching that you might see with other methods.
Intaglio is much the opposite of relief printing, and the term comes from the Italian word meaning “to carve”—intagliare. These prints are done, usually on metal sheets, by removing the parts of the illustration that the printmaker wanted to show on the page. The grooves—made in a variety of different ways—were then filled with ink and pressed onto the page after the surface of the plate (what would become the background) was wiped clean.
When plates were placed on a press, there was a considerable amount of pressure needed to create the image. That pressure would leave obvious marks (as opposed to relief printing) and in some cases, there’s still a clear indentation on the page where the illustration was pressed.
You can sometimes tell how old the imprint is by the plate marks, too. More modern plates show edge marks that are very close to the image itself, so much so that it’s easy to think they’re an intentional part of the graphic.
If telling the difference between intaglio and relief printing isn’t enough of a party trick (admittedly, for a very particular sort of party), you can also spot the difference between the types of intaglio printmaking techniques and sometimes tell exactly how the plate was made.
Some of the methods involved chiseling the grooves with a tool of some sort, while others employed acid to burn depressions into the plates.
The “soft ground” method stands out to an observant eye, as the method of making the plate involves covering a plate with a pliable material that allowed for the impression of natural textures like plants or cloth, used to create specific texture effects within the print.
The images made from an etching—drawing the image through a substance resistant to the acid bath that the plate will eventually be submerged in—results in an image that’s less defined than one that’s engraved, and it’s also a catch-all term for plates made with the help of acid.
Often, plates were made with a combination of techniques that could be used to create a variety of textures and images in illustrations that got more and more complicated as technology advanced.
One thing that you won’t be able to tell, though, is the difference between an image made on a copper plate and one made on a steel one. They may look the same, but it helps to know that steel plates only came into use in the 1820s.