A brief history of Printmaking

A print, simply put, is an impression on paper of an image left by another object. Unlike painting, where an impression is left by a brush, the image is (usually) already fully formed. A major difference between a print and a painting is that the printing object (block of wood, metal plate etc.) is usually used to make a number of prints. Each act of printing from an object is called a pull, and the print resulting from this an impression. If there is more than one impression it is part of an edition. More impressions could be made in the future, should the printing object still be in good condition, though the number of impressions made from an object is limited, as the object becomes worn. For this reason, the first impressions printed are generally the most valuable 2. The printing object can also be changed slightly, or the printing process altered, to produce varying impressions – the impressions are then called states (Rembrandt in particular produced a number of states from one plate). There are many arguments about the issue of reproduction and uniqueness, and the status of painting or drawing over printing. But in fact the line between the two can be rather fuzzy: certain techniques such as lithography and some types of etching allow for great freedom of expression, while some printing processes involve painting colours on the block or plate, a process which can never be exactly repeated. In some cases (for example, monotypes) only one impression is produced. Before the advent of modern printing processes, many of the materials used were unstable, uneven or wore down quickly (handmade paper varied hugely, as did the quality of ink, and the plates or blocks tended to wear down fast, particularly in techniques such as drypoint) which meant that the impressions could be quite different.

The idea of making a stamp and impressing it in or onto a material has been around for millennia. Long before even the inventive Romans, the Sumerians, Cretans, Egyptians and Chinese were marking property, decorating fabric and so on, all through a basic form of relief printing, while practising intaglio techniques marking inscriptions on stone. The gap between these techniques and printing on paper, however, was huge, and to our knowledge was not bridged until after 105 AD. At that date, the eunuch T’sai Lun at the court of Emperor Ho-Ti of China is said to have manufactured paper for the first time by combining a number of materials. The manufacture of paper slowly spread first East to Japan then West through the Arabs (a legend has it that during a skirmish in 751 Arab warriors captured a group of Chinese papermakers, from whom they learned the secret of manufacture). The first paper mill in Europe appeared in Moorish Spain in around 1150, and even the most cultured towns in Europe did not manufacture their own paper until at least the late thirteenth century or early fourteenth centuries (although some already used it, obtaining supplies from the East). Cultural exchange during the Crusades was likely to have been a factor in the development of the European paper industry, but it was itself to create another huge industry – printing.

Before the fifteenth century, writing materials had been scarce and expensive, and illumination, though beautiful, was painstaking and uneconomic on a large scale. To reach the illiterate masses, therefore, the church illustrated the story of the Bible (admittedly mostly the scary bits) through the medium of stained glass. The advent of paper, then printing, changed all that and facilitated the flow the ideas around Europe, allowing Luther, for example, to print his revolutionary ideas and a version of the Bible in everyday language.

The first printed images, crudely cut woodcuts, appeared in Europe at the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries (the oldest known printed image in Europe – the Chinese were way ahead of us – is the Bois Protat, a fragment of an image of the Crucifixion found in France and believed to date from the end of the fourteenth century) and at first mostly represented simple religious images. Secular images were also produced, notably by the aptly named Master of the Playing Cards (who was also an early copper-engraver), and cheap devotional or secular prints or cards were sold by pedlars1,3. The next major development in Europe was the invention of book blocks (again already in existence by that date in the East), printed leaves joined together (the blank versos of leaves sometimes stuck together) to form a kind of printed, and often illustrated, book. The earliest printed bibles, appearing in the mid fifteenth century (called biblia picta or pauperum), were book blocks illustrating scenes from the life of Christ.

Everything changed again, and for good, in the 1440s when the printing legend Johannes Gutenberg, a printer in Mainz, developed moveable type, his revolutionary 42-line Bible appearing in 1454-6, using a predecessor of the modern printing press adapted from a wine press1. His new techniques spread through central Europe like wildfire. A few years later the first European illustrated book printed with moveable type, Pfister’s Bamberg Bible, appeared, and suddenly woodcut artists were in great demand. The first extra-illustrated printed book on the scene was the spectacular Nurnberg Chronicle (also known as the Weltchronik, or Liber Chronicum) printed by Anton Koberger (Dürer’s godfather)3, and illustrated by Michael Wolgemut & Wilhelm Pleydenwurff with more than a thousand woodcuts1. Dürer himself excelled at woodcutting, and also was another early practitioner of the technique of engraving on copper, an intaglio technique which had developed from the habit of goldsmiths recording their designs on copper (niello) – Dürer’s grandfather had in fact been a goldsmith. The earliest dated copper engraving is the anonymous Scourging of Christ of 1446 from Germany, but the invention of the technique as an art form has been attributed to Tommaso Finiguerra, an Italian goldsmith1, who worked with Pollaiuolo. Probably its best exponent in the fifteenth century was the multi-talented Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna.

For a while Basle and Venice dominated the new printmaking industry. They both had certain advantages – located on busy trade routes, their inhabitants had a cosmopolitan attitude, and among them were certain highly talented individuals. Basle was blessed with the presence of, among others, Urs Graf, who invented the white cut technique and is credited with making the first reliably dated etching in 1513 (though this could have been Dürer’s St Jerome of 15121) and Hans Holbein, who worked with Erasmus in Basle. Venice had, of course, the great figure of Manutius, and many talented engravers from Northern Italy including Pollaiuolo and Mantegna. During the sixteenth century some great works of book illustration were seen, and the techniques of copper engraving and etching were developed (meanwhile the Reformation called for the use of woodcuts for cheap propaganda, chap-books3 etc rather than finely illustrated treatises). After the turn of the century woodcuts became largely a thing of the past as copper engraving and etching proved more suited to finer, detailed work.

The most important development in the next century or so were the invention of the mezzotint technique (by von Siegen in 16421), and then about 100 years later the aquatint technique (by a French engraver at the Russian court in St. Petersburg1. Schools of engraving were set up, and royal engravers appointed, the engraver enjoying a justifiably high status (though in early printmaking the designer was rarely also the woodcutter, with copper engraving the work was so fine it became important that the artist was in charge of that as well). Then at the end of the eighteenth century Thomas Bewick popularised the craft of wood engraving – a variation of woodcutting using hard wood, finely polished, worked with a graver to the same detail as copper engraving or etching. Cheap compared to copper engraving, it became hugely popular (and is still used by some artists now). The only ongoing problem was the durability of the blocks. Also towards the end of the century Alois Senefelder perfected the process of lithography, which was neither a relief nor intaglio process but relied on the mutual rejection of oil and water, and printed from a particular type of water-absorbent limestone. Lithography offered an amazing range of subsidiary techniques making it possible to replicate almost any effect on paper. The stones, however, were heavy and friable, so were at length mostly replaced by zinc plates.

In the nineteenth century, things suddenly started to move very fast again. Traditional copper and wood engraving continued, but were usurped to an extent not only by lithography but also by steel engraving (made possible through the discovery of a technique to soften steel enough to engrave it then toughen it again afterwards1) which though expensive at first was perhaps cheaper in the long run as the plates were virtually indestructible. The technique of aciérage, patented in 18573, saved the traditional techniques to an extent: the plates were coated by electrolysis with a thin layer of steel which hardened the face of the softer material without losing any of the detail. Everything, though, suddenly seemed redundant with the invention of photography, which really impacted on the printmaking world in 1852 with the discovery of the collotype and in 1878 with the development of photogravure3. Steam-powered cylinder presses had started to appear early in the century and proliferated, sounding what seemed to be a death knell to the traditional printmaker as popular reproductions of prints flooded everywhere and the artist-engraver was written out by the process-engraver.

But artistic printmaking did not in any way disappear. William Morris was one of those most in favour of preserving traditional methods1, and the Essex House Press, along with many other private presses, kept these methods alive, producing some beautiful books. Also in France and Germany techniques such as woodcuts and linocuts proved perfect vehicles of expression for avant-garde artists (such as Gaughin, Cézanne, members of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke3) searching for new media, and remained popular with later artists such as Picasso (who in 1968 was still producing series of engravings) and Miró. Samuel Simon in 1907 patented silk screen printing3, which in the sixties provided Warhol with an ideal iconic technique for his Marilyns and Campbell Soups. Now of course the off-set process which dominated twentieth century commercial printing is itself endangered with the coming of the digital image, which some argue will make, or is making, paper evolutionarily disadvantageous (extinct).

  1.  (Weelen, A.J. (ed)), Printmaking techniques. A guide to the processes and the history of print-making. London, Octopus Books 1982.
  2. Rota. Anthony, Apart from the text. Pinner, Private Librairies Association & Delaware, Oak Knoll Press 1998.
  3. Griffiths, Antony, Prints and printmaking, an introduction to the history and techniques. British Museum Press, 1996.