What is intaglio printing?

Intaglio printing refers to a wide range of printmaking techniques in which a plate surface is incised and the resulting lines are printed. Intaglio printing is the direct opposite of relief printing because the incised areas are what is printed rather than the raised areas. Examples of intaglio printing are etching, drypoint, engraving, photogravure, heliogravure, aquatint, and mezzotint.

The process is started by cutting lines into the metal plate. In order to do this, you can either use a cutting tool called a burin or rely on the corrosive actions of acid. If a cutting tool is used, then the process is called engraving whereas if acid is used the process is called etching. To print an intaglio plate, ink must be applied to the entire surface and pushed into the recessed lines. Excess ink is then wiped away so that only the incisions retain the inks. This is what creates the final image on the paper when it is put through the printing press.

Emerging well after the woodcut print, intaglio printmaking is first recorded as being used in the late 1430s. By the 1500s it was used by artists such as Albert Dürer, who has since become known as one of the most famous intaglio artists. The method was previously used for all mass-printed materials but today intaglio printing is reserved for currency, banknotes and passports.

For examples of intaglio prints see Carmen Herrera’s Equilibrio, 2017, Robert Rauschenberg’s Soviet/American Array IV, 1990 and Kiki Smith’s Puppet, 1994.

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