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What Is Line Engraving?

By L. Whitaker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Line engraving, also known as gravure, is a traditional form of engraving in which a line is carved into a metal surface for the purpose of decoration or for printmaking. This is done using a tool called a burin or graver. In modern terms, it is primarily used to describe printed commercial or book illustrations from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Line engraving was first used by the early Aztecs, who incised decorative elements on their tools, and further developed in Italy and Germany in the 15th century.

A line engraving is created using a burin or graver, which is a sharpened piece of steel rod with a wooden handle that is pushed across the surface of a metal plate. The sharpened tool cuts very fine furrows into the metal plate that are later filled with ink and printed. Originally, copper plates were used for this process because they were softer and easier to engrave. Due to the softness of copper plates, only 100 to 150 prints could be created before the plate had to be reworked. By the early 19th century, copper was replaced by harder steel plates that allowed for greater line precision and a greater number of prints.

The techniques used for line engraving remained mostly unchanged from Aztec times until the 15th century. At this time, Andrea Mantegna in Italy began to use parallel lines at increasing intervals to create shading. In addition, Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer in Germany utilized cross hatching and curved lines to create a greater sense of volume. Schongauer and Dürer, who were students of the Nuremberg school in Germany, also began using line engraving to create technically proficient artworks that they could then consistently reproduce. This quickly spread through Europe with the help of Peter Paul Rubens in France and Raphael in Italy. By the end of the 16th century, line engraving was a common medium used by artists and craftsmen to illustrate books and news items, as well as for the purpose of creating reproducible fine artworks.

The process of line engraving is a lengthy one that could require weeks or months to complete, depending on the complexity of the image being engraved. In the late 19th century, there was a push for a greater number of illustrated books to be created more inexpensively and quickly. Etching metal plates with acid became the more favorable method because of the speed and ease with which images could be created. This phenomenon, combined with the onset of photographic techniques, caused the deterioration of line engraving as an illustrative medium.

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