Engraving images

The process of engraving orginated some time around the middle of the 15th century.

There were four stages to printing from an engraved image:

It was a time-consuming, expensive procedure. Printmakers were responsible for creating the plates, as well as printing the image. They were regarded as highly skilled craftsmen.

The drawings

Each drawing had to be the same size as the copper plate, to make it easier for the engraver to copy it.

Surveyors like John Slezer went further. They drew a square grid over the drawing, which helped the printmaker transfer the image to the plate.

Sometimes a drawing would be finished off with a 'wash' to indicate to the engraver where there should be areas of light and shade.


Specialist engraving tools had a fine sharp point. This produced deep and clear lines and resulted in a high-quality finished image.

The engraver might be left to finish off part of the design, perhaps by filling in sky detail. Indeed, the engraver might be an artist in his own right.

That was the case with Slezer's 'Theatrum Scotiae'. Robert White, the engraver with overall charge of the plates, had a considerable reputation as a portrait painter.


In the 17th century, etching became a more widely adopted method of producing an image on metal.

A copper plate was coated with a waxy layer. Next, the lines of the template were scratched with a needle. A corrosive liquid was then poured over the plate. Where the lines had been scratched, the liquid burned the design into the copper. The rest of the plate was protected from burning by the layer of wax.

Some of Slezer's plates were made in Holland, where etching was being used by artists such as Rembrandt.

It was a faster process than engraving, although the lines it produced were not as clear. If the finished image need to be sharper, etched lines were sometimes used as guidelines for an engraving tool.

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