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Print Making Techniques

These as some of the more common print techniques associated with the production of antique prints:


Possibly the most complicated and time consuming of the print making techniques.
The aqua of the name is slightly misleading, in that it does not refer to water but probably
to aquafortis which is nitric acid, for the prints are acid-etched and not as they
are sometimes referred to as 'aquatint engravings'. The introduction of this technique
was an attempt to emulate the soft tones of a watercolour, for which they are sometimes mistaken.

Introduced to Britain by P.P. Burdett in 1771 aquatints were initially used to produce naval,
military and sporting subjects. A copper plate is covered with a powdered resin which is fused by heat,
the plate is then immersed in acid which is repelled by the resin but which bites the spaces
in between forming a granular texture. In 'biting' the plate the light areas were treated first and then
the plate was removed from the acid bath, washed in water and the area required to
remain light (i.e. the sky) was stopped out with acid resistant varnish.

The aquatinter worked from light to dark, the final biting being the darkest areas of the print.
The tonal quality was revealed at the printing stage, with the lightly bitten
areas carrying small amounts of ink,while the deeply bitten areas carried larger ink deposits and printed darker.
The printing commenced with the cleaning of the plate, which was then inked with a roller.
The surplus ink was removed leaving the remaining ink in the acid cut line or groove, a piece of lightly
dampened paper was placed on the plate and then both were fed through
a hand operated roller and the ink was absorbed onto the paper.


This magnified image of an aquatint
illustrates the finished 'granular' texture.


The Latin term intaligo which means incise applies to the printing techniques which result in the
image being created below the surface of the plate. The material used for forming plates up to
the early 19th century was copper sheet, this diminished after the the invention of the
more economic mild steel. So to engrave literally means to incise furrows or grooves on a
copper or steel plate with the use of a graver or burin.

Line Engraving

The Technique
The engraver worked with the lozenge shaped tool called a graver or burin,
rotating the plate as he worked. The lines were incised into the plate with varying widths
and depths by altering the angle at which the tool met the plate and the amount
of pressure exerted on the handle. Differing tones were achieved by changing the
space between the lines, closer together gave a darker area. Cross hatching also
produced tonal and textural effects as well as providing a more three dimensional image.

Engraving an Image


The Latin term intaligo which means inciseapplies to the printing techniques which result in the
image being created below the surface of the plate. The material used for forming plates up to
the early 19th century was copper sheet, this diminished after the the invention of the
more economic mild steel.

Etching Needle and Graver - Print Making Tools

The Technique
The Etcher prepared the plate by covering it with a wax based 'ground'
and the image was drawn in the wax using an etching needle,this technique allowed the artist to produce
a much more free and expressive image. The edges and underside of the plate were
sealed with varnish for protection and the plate was them immersed in nitric acid. The acid would bite into
the plate where it was exposed by the needle producing an incised image on the metal.

After the plate was bitten to the satisfaction of the etcher, it was removed from the acid bath and
washed in hot water to remove all traces acid and the remaining wax. An ink charged 'dabber' was
then used to work the ink into the incised areas of the plate which was then wiped to remove any
surface ink. A piece of paper was then laid on top of the plate and then passed through a
press allowing the ink to be absorbed by the paper and produce the printed image.


Developed in Germany, this technique was introduced to Britain by Prince Rupert (1619-82). First practiced by Luwig von Siegen, he instructed the Prince regarding this new method and the first dated British example was by William Sherwin in 1669 and was a portrait of Charles II.

The British engravers excelled at mezzo tinting, producing both portraits and landscapes. Mezzotints displayed a tonal quality which was not possible until the introduction of aquatints in the late eighteenth century. Until circa 1820 and the invention of mild steel, prints were usually prepared on copper plates which due to its soft nature, limited the size of editions.

Mezzotint Rocker

The Technique
The first step in the process was to 'ground' the plate and for this, the engraver used a tool called a 'rocker'. With it he traversed the plate, working at first horizontally across the surface, then vertically and finally diagonally. The sharp file-like teeth of the rocker scored the surface of the plate producing a rough finish similar to that of coarse sandpaper.

Work with the rocker was far from popular and proved to be tedious and time consuming, the task usually fell to a senior apprentice or journeyman. From this we derive the well known phrase 'off his rocker', probably an indication of the stress induced by this initial preparation.

The plate was then passed to the engraver who commenced scraping up the highlights, working from dark to light with a sharp scalpel-like tool. This 'scraping' demanded a great degree of skill , the more an area was scraped, the smoother it became, thus reducing its capacity to retain ink at the printing stage. The light areas on a portrait, especially the skin tones were treated in this manner and would print white, due to an absence of ink. This ability to depict light and shade by scraping, resulted in the tonal excellence and almost photographic quality of many of the fine portraits mezzotints of the 18th and 19th century.

Mezzotint showin the cross hatching

Stipple print

The introduction of this method is attributed to the engraver William Wynne Ryland (1732-83). He prepared many of his early prints using a narrow 'roulette wheel' for much of the detail and may have worked with this through a wax ground on a copper plate.

The Technique
The stipple process is an adaptation of etching and the plate was prepared with a wax ground in the same manner as for an etching. The dotted detail was pricked through the wax using an etching needle and bitten by immersion in acid. It was the practice to re-enter or deepen the dots with engraving tools, including the punch and graver.

This method was largely popularised in Britain by Francesco Bartolozzi RA (1725-1815). Many examples were printed in colour by applying coloured inks directly by hand to the plate which was cleaned off and re-inked after each impression.

Stippleprint detail


Discovered by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) in the late 18th century this technique revolutionised the printing industry. Lithography is a planographic system, that is, the image is on the surface of the medium (limestone), with little pressure ('a kiss') being required to make a print. For this reason there is no plate mark associated with a lithograph, only four in hole where the paper was secured during the printing process.

The Technique
The process relies upon the principle that oil and water do not mix. The artist worked on a specially surfaced slab of limestone drawing the image with a greasy pencil. On completion of the drawing was treated with a solution of diluted acid which was repelled by the greasy drawing but bit into the surrounding stone. The stone was then soaked with water and printing ink applied by roller. The ink from the roller would not adhere to wet limestone but was attracted to the grease of the drawing. Providing the stone was kept moist and the design regularly inked, almost unlimited copies could be made.

The image was obtained by placing the paper on top of the prepared drawing and then placing in a press. One of the best known proponents of this technique was James Duffield Harding (1798-1863) who produced many topographical views and animal studies.


Charles Hulmandel was an early practitioner of colour printing called 'litho-tint'.  He introduced the basis of colour printing to lithography, hence the term 'chromolithography' using a second tint-stone that produced a print with a 'biscuit' coloured background wash.  Pinholes on the corners of early lithographs betray the registration points that were used to locate the print on the tint-stone.

The process reached its zenith in the late nineteenth century, by which time as many as twenty different tint-stones might be used in the production of a single image.

Chromolithography is essentially a  chemical process, where an image is applied to a limestone block or zinc plate with a grease-based. After the image is drawn onto stone, the stone is gummed with gum arabic solution and weak nitric acid, and then inked with oil based paints and passed through a printing press along with a sheet of paper to transfer the image to the paper. Colours may be added to the print by drawing the area to receive the colour on a different stone, and printing the new colour onto the paper. Each colour in the image must be separately drawn onto a new stone or plate and applied individually to the paper.

In order to achieve subtle tones and shades, colours were overlapped and superimposed.  Modern photo-litho printing techniques are based on this process but rarely produce the sophisticated, tonal quality of the chromolithograph.


Antique print making techniques