Historical Book Arts Collection

Illustration Techniques



Woodcuts were the most common form of illustration techniques in early printed books and continue to be used in modern limited edition books today. Relief prints had been used in Asia for hundreds of years before they were created in Europe. Prior to letterpress printing in Europe [1450-55], books called block books used single planks of wood with both text and image carved out.

Woodcuts in European books were the primary form of illustration in letterpress printed books from 1460 to 1550 and continued to be used long after that heyday. The LIBER CHRONICARUM of 1493 is the most highly illustrated book of the incunabula period. Woodcut images are carved with the grain into wooden planks by hand using special knives or chisels. The wood that is not part of the design is cut away, leaving the image in relief. Woodcuts are fragile because of the tendency of the wood to split along the grain. This led to images that are wider in line [fine detail was difficult to do] and a block with a limited printing lifespan. The relief image was then inked using an ink ball. Paper was placed over the block and the surface was rubbed. When the printing press was invented in Europe, pressmen made the height of the images blocks and the relief type the same height. This allowed the text and image to be inked and then printed at the same time, saving time and resources.

Famous early wood cut artists were Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Jost Amman and Virgil Solis.

By the seventeenth century, engraving and etching had displaced woodcuts as the most common form of printed image.

Wood engraving

The term “wood engraving” is a little misleading. It, too, is a relief block process where the wood around the image is removed, leaving the image in relief. What differentiates the wood engraving from the wood cut is that the image is cut on the end grain [against the grain] of the wood rather than the plank side [with the grain] using a tool similar to an engravers burin. Because the close grain of the block allows for a more detailed and finer line, they were more precise then woodcuts. Often wood engravers could achieve a tonal quality not obtainable by printing with woodcuts. Although used early in conjunction with woodcuts, after 1600 this medium was used only with small printing jobs, such as head and tail pieces and small vignettes. During its revival at the end of the 18 th century, wood engraving achieved popularity through its rediscovery by Thomas Bewick, an English engraver. Bewick’s discovery was of phenomenal importance because the images had all the detail of one made in a copper plate but could be printed at the same time as the text, decreasing the amount of press work by half.

Wood engravers, however, were often not the artists themselves but craftsman diligently copying the work of artists who would present their drawings to the “blockmakers”. When ten of thousands of editions were required for the populace during the years of steam powered printing presses, this technique was the only one that could produce cheap, but acceptable quality products.

Other types of relief printing are: metal relief printing, color relief printing, chiaroscuro, line blocks, halftones.

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Intaglio prints are characterized by an impression on the printing paper of the frame of the original metal plate, often called a plate mark. Except where the plate mark has been trimmed off after printing [not normally done], all intaglios should have a plate mark. There are some other processes which create a shadow behind an image that appears to be a plate mark but isn’t.

Copper engraving

Copper engravings made their first appearance in the mid-fifteenth century. This is an intaglio process by which the design is incised into a relatively thin metal plate surface with a tool known as a burin instead of the image being cut away from the surface as with woodcuts. Details of these copper engravings show the characteristic tapered line style imposed by the use of the burin. Toning and modeling in an image are achieved by crosshatching and changing the width of the engraved line. After the plate is made the entire surface is covered with ink. The “u” or “v” shaped channels in the metal fill with the ink and the surface is wiped clean. The plate is then put into a special press, called an intaglio or etching or engraving press, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the plate. Damped paper is used and the paper draws up the ink from the plate.

Copper engraving became quite popular with artists who used the form to design and create their own images. One such artist was William Hogarth [1697-1764]. Hogarth obtained an Act from the English Parliament to give artists the sole right to print and sell copies of their own work. Other famous English engravers are Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank [more].

During the sixteenth century, however, some copper engravers became craftsmen who were relegated to reproducing the works of others, often paintings. Copper engravings remained popular until eventually being replaced by steel engravings in about 1820. The disadvantage with the engraving process is that it is incompatible with relief printing required for text. Engraved illustrations generally were done on separate sheets and inserted into the text, frequently following the instruction from the printer to the binder as where the plates should go.

There are a number of specialized engraving forms: crayon manner andstipple engraving, line engraving, steel engraving


Etching is also an intaglio process. In the etching process a heated copper plate is covered with a ground made of wax, gum mastic and asphaltum that is impervious to acid. The engraver then uses a etching needle to draw his image into the wax exposing the copper plate underneath. Immersion in an acid bath allows the acid to eat or bite into the metal forming grooves that are later inked and printed. The longer the plate stays exposed to the acid the deeper and broader the line becomes. The etcher can control the intensity of the line by the stopping-out process. In that process the plate is removed from the bath, and lines that have been bitten deeply enough can then be varnished over making that portion of the plate impervious to the next submersion in the acid. Alternately, the etcher can impose newly etched lines into the wax to achieve light and dark lines.

Many intaglio illustrations are a combination of etching and engraving. Backgrounds and major elements of images would be etched and then fine details added through engraving. Most of the time these terms were used interchangeably, even on the title pages of books.

The first etchings appeared at the beginning of the 16 th century. By the 17 th century engraving and etching had replaced the woodcut as the most common form of illustration. After 1900, most engraving and etching had been replaced by printed photographic processes.

Other types of etching processes are: aquatint, soft ground

Other types of intaglio are: mezzotint, drypoint, nature prints, photogravures

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Planographic prints are characterized by having no plate mark [see under Intaglio above].


Lithography, a planographic method, was invented by a German, Alois Senefelder, at the end of the 18 th century and became increasingly popular in artistic and commercial work. There are two types of lithography: chalk style and line style. Both were originally done on a printing surface of limestone. In both forms a heavy, thick stone blocks is used for the surface of the image. The image is drawn with a greasy ink or pencil and the stone is then dampened. Ink is applied. The ink sticks to the image and is repelled by the water. The print is made using a special press that will accept the stones.

Later on zinc plates replaced the stones, being easier to handle and lighter.

The look of lithographic images can vary remarkably. The surface can be grained, stippled, sprinkled or dabbed changing the quality of the image. Sometimes a second tint stone was used to add overall color to the background. This required a second run through the press [second impression] and is called a tinted lithograph.

Other forms of lithography are: chromo-lithography, transfer lithography, collotypes, photolithographs

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Brown, Louise Norton. Block Printing & Book Illustration in Japan London: George Routledge & Sons, 1924.

Gascoigne, Bamber. How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Inkjet. Second Edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Hind, Arthur M. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut. New York: Dover Publications, 1963.

Wakeman, Geoffrey. Graphic Methods in Book Illustration. Loughborough, England: The Plough Press, 1981.

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