Suite of Methods III: Making a Drypoint Matrix

Drypoint – a brief background

The appearance of drypoint as an intaglio method in its own right, in pre-1600 Europe, is somewhat fleeting. Its use as a way of correcting or enhancing another technique has, however, endured. Although it often overlooked, Drypoint is a unique method of creating an intaglio matrix.

Because of the nature of the mark making on the copper plate, very few impressions (perhaps as few as six, perhaps as many as twelve) can be made from it. So, although it is a very accessible method of producing an image, its limited use as a matrix ensured it had limited appeal to a practising printmaker, especially considering that an engraved or etched copper plate could last for hundreds, and even up to a thousand, impressions.

The first recorded, identified drypoints were produced by the Master of the Housebook, also known as the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet in the 1470’s and 1480’s. He was also a painter and designed woodcuts, but all of his intaglio prints were produced by drypoint.


Smaller Woman with Two Children and a Blank Shield Master of the Housebook detail Woman with Two Children and a Blank Shield Master of the Housebook detail
Woman with Two Children and a Blank Shield (left, full image and right, detail)
Master of the Housebook
German or Netherlandish c1475–80
It is recorded that The Master of the Housebook had a great influence on Albrecht Durer, and Durer is one of the very few other artists in pre-1600 Europe who have been recorded as having produced plates which were solely drypoint. He produced three such plates before realising their limitations and moving back to other forms of intaglio, or perhaps he was merely experimenting.


The Holy Family with Saint John the Magdalene and Nicodemus Albrecht Dürer Drypoint Germany c1512
The Holy Family with Saint John, the Magdalene, and Nicodemus
Albrecht Durer
Drypoint, image size 20.7cm x 18.2cm
Germany c1512


Drypoint – producing a matrix for Intaglio printing

Image based on:


Smaller Fortuna Fortune Sebald Beham Engraving C1541
Sebald Beham


Producing a drypoint matrix requires the least amount of effort in terms of both time and energy of any of the intaglio methods. It begins with a metal plate which is soft enough to be scratched, but durable enough to be put through an intaglio press. In this instance, a copper plate was used.

An image is incised on the plate by means of a scribe, or etching needle. By scratching the surface, a burr of metal and a very shallow incised line are created. It is primarily the burr which holds enough ink to produce an image. Unfortunately, with each pass through the intaglio press, the intense pressure flattens the burrs a little, until the image is no longer worth printing. This may happen as quickly as after 5 or 6 images, or perhaps as many as 10 or 12, but the plate will most certainly become unprintable much more quickly than an intaglio matrix produced by engraving or etching.

Although it is a modern instrument, I decided to use the diamond-tipped scribe I have, to avoid having to sharpen my instrument during the process.

There are two main ways to proceed with planning an image on the matrix for Drypoint. One is to copy from the chosen image freehand, as it is thought the Master of the Housebook did, based on the many fine, sketchy background lines which are part of his style and visual appeal.

The other is to coat the plate with a thin layer of melted beeswax, and transfer an image which has been traced. The main lines of the image can then be drypointed through the beeswax, the wax cleaned off, and then the rest of the picture filled in.

By coincidence, I had a copper plate which had started life as my example plate for etching. At the point of etching, however, the acid was not fresh, and although it appeared to have been biting (etching) the plate, it had barely done so. Part of the problem had been that this had been my first attempt at biting a copper plate, and so had little knowledge as to how the plate would look as it was being bitten, how deeply the lines would appear, or how many bubbles the plate would give off. So what looked like a successful plate was, in fact, a write-off.

At that point, I could have chosen to try and reprocess the plate, but given the intricacy of the image, I felt that was probably going to be a waste of time and energy, and to move on to a new plate for the etching example. What it did leave me with, however, was a plate which already had the faint outline of an image already prepared for the Drypoint treatment. I felt it was worth taking an otherwise useless plate and turning it to my advantage.


WM Smaller Fortuna failed etch WM Smaller Fortuna failed etch print
Above left: the weakly-bitten etched plate and right: the impression from the plate


Using the tracing I had made for the original etching, I filled in the rest of the image by freehand scribing using the Drypoint diamond tip scribe. The scribe is held in the hand as would be a pencil, and the action is the same, taking in account that the tip still has to pass through the surface of the metal. Very fine linework can be achieved this way. As can be seen in the detail of the Housebook Master image above, a drypoint can look very similar to a drawing.

At this point, the burr still feels very fine, and, having no prior experience in the technique, I was unsure as to how the image would turn out. It was hard to tell how much ink the burrs would hold. The image was at the point, though, that I did not want to work it more heavily without proofing.


WM Smaller Fortuna trace and finished plate
Above left: the tracing for the etching and right: the drypoint work completed


The matrix was then inked up as for all intaglio methods, but with the following consideration – because the burr sits above the surface of the plate, and the incised line is very shallow, it is extremely easy to overwipe the plate. Overwiping occurs when the ink is applied to the plate correctly, but then too much is taken off during the wiping process. It is much harder to wipe ink out of a deep, incised line than from a burr sitting on top of the plate.


WM Smaller Fortuna finished plate on angle WM Smaller Fortuna plate inked
Above left: Drypoint matrix angled to show detail and right: inked and ready to print


However, from a plate which was very hard to read, an image emerged, which was very encouraging. I was satisfied with the results of the experiment and given the limitations of the method, would do it again.


WM Smaller Fortuna plate and print
Above left: the printed matrix and right: the resulting print


WM Smaller Fortuna final state