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line engraving

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Term applied to a method of making prints (and the print so made) in which the design is cut directly into the surface of a metal (usually copper) plate. In normal parlance the word ‘engraving’ usually refers to line engraving, but it is also used as a generic term, covering a variety of printmaking processes (see print). The line engraver cuts the design into a smooth metal plate with a tool called a burin. The essential character of the medium is linear, though shading and tone may be suggested by parallel strokes (hatching), cross-hatching, or textures compounded of various dots and flicks. Typically, line engravings have a quality of metallic hardness and austere precision, compared with the spontaneity of etching or lithography, in which the artist draws the design freely. Often, however, engraving has been combined with etching (or with other intaglio techniques such as mezzotint) on the same plate. Line engraving seems to have originated towards the middle of the 15th century in the workshops of goldsmiths, arising independently in Germany and (perhaps slightly later) in Italy (see niello). Martin Schongauer, who died in 1491, was the first major artist to work mainly as an engraver, and the medium had its finest flowering in the early 16th century in the work of Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden. Active at the same time was Marcantonio Raimondi, who was the great pioneer in the use of engraving as a means of reproducing the works of other artists. This soon became the primary function of line engraving, and ‘the entire history of Western art would have been quite different if engravings had not rapidly disseminated every stylistic innovation all around Europe’ (Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking, 1980). Line engraving remained the principal method of reproductive printing until the 19th century, when it was challenged by wood engraving in the popular market and then superseded by photomechanical processes. In the 20th century, however, line engraving was revived as a means of original expression, the most important impetus coming from S. W. Hayter.

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