Illustration Techniques


This is a basic overview of some illustration techniques used in the examples we are analyzing, with the addition of some others that became popular in England in the course of the eighteenth century. David Bland, one of our main sources of explanations, claims that few English illustrators confined themselves wholly to a single method of engraving. They were likely to mix several techniques in one plate whereas the French procedure of completing an etching with the burin was much more rigid.

For a detailed description of these and other illustration and print techniques, please visit this map at the University of Kansas.



Relief Printing

In relief printing, the artist carves the image into a block of wood, either as a woodcut or as a wood engraving.



First seen in China around the 1st century, wood engraving or xylography is the oldest engraving technique known. Woodcut is achieved by carving into a block of wood (generally a plank of wood, as opposed to an end-grain block). The tools used include knives, chisels, and gouges. Some artists have used these tools so as to disguise the natural marks that knives and gouges make in an attempt to emulate the lines of engravings or of pen and ink drawings.

Albrecht Dürer is one of the most prominent artists who used this technique, and the illustration on the left is his View of Nuernberg, late 15th and early 16th centuries.


Wood Engraving

wood engraving

"Wood engraving" is a form of woodcut that makes us of a carving tool that resembles an engraving burin. Nonetheless, wood engraving is a form of relief printing that differs from traditional woodcut in the use of end-grain blocks and in the standardization of their thickness.

The use of relatively featureless end-grain allows the carver a great deal of detail, and the standardized height ("type high") allows the block to be combined with moveable type so that image and text can be printed in one pass in the press. Hallmarks of the technique include a "vocabulary" of white lines throughout, indicating that the print is a relief print (in which the marks made by the wood engraving tool are un-inked, being lower than the surface of the block). The black lines are the areas that have painstakingly been avoided by the wood engraving tool (whereas in copperplate engraving, printed lines are the marks made by the engraving tool). White lines are especially evident in areas where the wood engraving tool has been used for cross-hatching, revealing a grid of white lines.

The illustration on the left is a famous work of the English engraver Thomas Bewick, 18th century.


Intaglio Printing

Intaglio printing is the opposite of relief printing, in that the image is cut or incised into a metal plate with various tools or with acids. The wide variety of methods used gives this medium its enormous range. The two basic types of intaglio printing are engraving the image into the plate with finely ground tools called needles, burnishers, scrapers, and rockers, and etching the image with acids.


copper etching

Printing technique in which a metal plate is first covered with an acid-resistant material, then worked with an etching needle to create an intaglio image. The exposed metal is eaten away in an acid bath, creating depressed lines that are later inked for printing.

This technique was thought to have been developed by Daniel Hopfer (1493-1536). Etching surpassed engraving as the most popular graphic art during the active years of Rembrandt and Hercules Segher in the 17th century, and it remains one of the most versatile and subtle printing techniques today.

The example on the left is Johann Wilhelm Schirmer's Aus dem Park Chigi, 19th century



copper engraving

Printing technique in which an intaglio image is produced by cutting a metal plate or box directly with a sharp engraving tool. In an engraving, the artist, by the placement and thickness of the line, determines either a dense and detailed image, or an image with a sketchy or feathery quality. After the image is cut into the plate (usually metal or wood), soft ink is applied with a roller across the entire plate, making certain that all the incised lines are filled with ink. Then the surface of the plate is carefully wiped clean, leaving behind only the ink held in the drawn lines or crevices. The plate is then placed on the bed of the press; dampened paper is placed over the plate, and felt blankets or padding are laid on top of the paper. Under the pressure of the rollers from the press, the paper and padding draw the ink up from the incised lines onto the paper.

Illustration: Albrecht Duerer's Knight Death and the Devil, late 15th and early 16th centuries




Mezzotint (mezzo = half and tinta = tone) is a reverse engraving process used on a copper or steel plate to produce illustrations in relief with effects of light and shadow. The surface of a master plate is roughened with a tool called a rocker so that if inked, it will print solid black. The areas to be white or gray in the print are rubbed down so as not to take ink.

Mezzoting was the favorite method of reproducing paintings in the 18th and the 19th centuries because of its range of tone. It was invented in Holland, and first used in a book in 1662. It became popular in England during the eighteenth century and was known abroad as the maniere anglaise. It became obsolete with the introduction of photoengraving.

The rich quality of the print depends on the sophistication of physical relief on the plate, but even despite the highest quality artisanal work, the plate is worn away after a very few impressions. This is why later prints are much inferior to the first taken from the plate. This made the process unsuitable for mass-produced books, although its quality was considered tolerable for the reproduction of paintings. During the nineteenth century steel was used instead of copper for mezzotinting and this allowed a larger number of impressions.

The illustration on the left is John Martin's Fall of Babylon, early 19th century



Stipple was another engraving technique very popular in England during this century. This was one of the techniques imported from the Continent, and its practitioners were generally foreigners like Bartolozzi and Schiavonetti. Engraved lines were replaced by dots, and the result is something like a coarse half-tone print of today. Apart from its use in France, it was rarely used for book illustration in England.

Jacques Bellange's Annunciation, early 17th century




As the latest of the engraving techniques to be discovered, it was not until the turn of the century that it came into vogue, and only then imported into England. It was then used most extensively for books, especially for the topographical books which became so popular. Along with etching, this is the engraving technique most favoured by painters from Goya onwards. The artists using this technique work on a grained ground produced by powdered resin. The result is a faintly dotted texture much less insistent than stipple, and much more successful in producing tone. Aquatint plates were often touched up or colored by hand.

The example on the left is Francisco Goya's Estan calientes (They are Hot), late 18th century

Sources: David Bland, A History of Book Illustration,,,, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia