Historical Book Arts Collection

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More on Intaglio Prints


Books made from single planks of wood with both text and image carved out, BLOCK BOOKS, were used for centuries in Asia and the oldest dated block book from 868 AD is a Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra. Asian printing continued to use page-size blocks for convenience for many years. Languages with the thousands of characters were more efficiently printed with blocks than with the individual letters. European block books began to be made in the last quarter of the 14 th Century, prior to letterpress printing [1450-55]. Text created in this fashion had to be carved backwards so when printed the text would be right reading. This form of printing is called xylographic printing.

When letterpress printing began, it worked well with the Western 23 character alphabet and the block book form fell into disuse. This alphabet lacked “j”, “u” and “w”; “u” and “w” developed from “v” about 1,000 years ago and “j” came from the letter “i” about 500 years ago.


Aquatint is an etching process [intaglio] used to create tonal areas. It was invented in France in the 18 th century and was popular in England to the 1830’s. Generally an aquatint is used in conjunction with straight etching, since the aquatint process cannot produce a line. After the plate is etched in the usual way, particles of acid resistant resin are fused onto the plate by heat to create a grained surface pattern. Areas to remain white are stopped out [covered with some type of resist]. When the plate is immersed in nitric acid it etches away the area in pools around each resin coated area. The desired mottled effect in created because these small depressions fill with ink when the plate is wiped. A watercolor wash effect can be obtained when the resin particles are of particularly fine quality. An aquatinter can vary the effects of the process by biting to different depths or by laying grounds which vary in thickness or using grains of various thicknesses.

Aquatints became an increasingly popular form of reproduction technique from the 1770s on. The name reflects the aquatints ability to imitate the quality of a watercolor wash. There was a particularly strong tradition of aquatinting in Great Britain between 1790 and 1830. The process was especially used for illustrating travel literature and natural history material. Aquatint plates, in those cases, were frequently handcolored. In the 1830s aquatints were supplanted by the technique of color lithography.


Mezzotint is primarily a tonal form of reproduction. A copper plate is first "grounded" using a rocker to create an overall rough surface area. The rocker produces a raised burr that will hold ink and the rough area will print dark. To create light areas or gradations in tone, the engraver smoothes out the surface with a scraper or a burnisher removing the ink holding burr thus working down from dark to light. The height of the burr remaining determined the dark or light of print. The resulting print has a velvety quality. The mezzotint process was a German invention created in the 1650s and was first used in England in 1662. It achieved popularity in Holland, Germany, and also in England during the mid 18th century primarily for the use in portraiture reproductions from paintings. Mezzotint quality shifted in the early 1800s when the use of steel plates which has a less rich burr was used instead copper. It was commonly used in conjunction with other processes such as etching.

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