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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Line Engraving

( Originally Published 1917 )

ENGRAVING (gravure en tailledouce) is drawing in intaglio-i.e., with incised lines. It is perhaps the oldest known form of drawing, for even the pre-historic races have left records scratched on the surface of bone. In this sense Egyptian hieroglyphics might be called engraving. In its more general sense it covers all methods of drawing by incised lines, and therefore includes etching and dry point. The restricted and more common use of the term is to limit it to a design cut on a metal plate with an instrument called a burin, the resulting impression constituting a line engraving. Vasari relates how printing from engraved plates was discovered about r46o by Maso da Finiguerra, a Florentine silversmith. Having filled the lines of a plate on which he was engraving some ornaments with lamp black and oil, the more readily to see his work, he happened to lay the plate face downward on a sheet of paper, and thus produced the first line engraving. The Germans, however, practised the art some years before, and it probably originated there. So far as the student is concerned, engraving may be said to begin with Albrecht Durer.

The instrument used in line engraving is the burin, a steel rod, lozenge-shaped in section, sharpened by being cut obliquely at the end. The handle is shaped to fit the palm of the hand, and the instrument, held between the thumb and second finger, is used by pushing it forward, thus cutting a clear, sharp V-shaped furrow in the metal. This furrow may vary in width from the moment the point digs into the metal until it leaves. It is a most laborious method, and the resulting line is naturally more formal than the etched line. It is this absence of spontaneity, together with the varying thickness of the line, which distinguishes line engraving from etching. The burin leaves very little burr, as the metal forced above the surface of the copper by the instrument is called, since most of the metal comes up as a shaving. This burr is removed with a scraper. All engraving is based on the line, and as there are no lines in nature, artistic convention plays a most important part, tones and textures being translated by the line.

Stipple engraving is a form of engraving where dots are employed instead of lines; it if often used in parts of line engravings. To save labour engravers sometimes bite their lines in with acid, afterward going over them with the burin. Line engraving is chiefly employed in translating painting into black and white; that is, the colour and tones of the painting are interpreted by the lines on the plate. It is practically a lost art to-day. Some confusion may occur through the misuse of the term "steel engraving." As used nowadays, "steel engraving" is nearly always a misnomer. All work previous to 1820 was on copper, when steel plates were first used to enable the printer to get more impressions from the harder metal. However, since the invention of steel facing of copper, steel is seldom used on account of the difficulties in its manipulation. We are all collectors, more or less, of modern steel engravings, as American bank-notes are engraved on steel. They are the only real "steel engravings" of the present day.

There are three kinds of printing used in the graphic arts-relief printing, surface printing, and intaglio printing. In relief printing the ink is taken from a raised surface, as exemplified in woodcuts, wood-engraving and process. In surface printing, the ink is transferred to the paper from a flat surface, as in lithography. In intaglio printing the ink is taken by great pressure from below the surface of the plate, as in line engraving and etching. In relief printing the process is a flat squeeze, in surface printing it is a scraping motion, and in intaglio it is a roller motion.

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