Printing an intaglio matrix without a press

The first intaglio prints appeared in Europe around the 1430’s, and yet it is commonly agreed that the intaglio (roller) press was not developed until the 1460’s. For a detailed account of the mechanised printing process, please have a read of this entry. Before that time, intaglio prints were hand produced. So I decided to try my hand (literally, as it were) at printing an intaglio matrix without a press.

In general, most of the early development of intaglio is characterised by small plate and image size, and an unevenness of impression, sometimes also blurry or hazy. When one looks at works by the Master of the Playing Cards, who is currently thought to be the first to produce engraved intaglio prints, we can see what is very much typical of those early years. The image is soft, and uneven. Her face and upper hand both have a slight double impression, as does to the violet to her left:


Master of the Playing Cards The Queen of Flowers Engraving German c1430–40
The Queen of Flowers
Master of the Playing Cards
Engraving printed from two plates
Image size 13cm x 9.1cm
German (possibly Alsace) c1430–40


This is another print which appears to bear evidence of hand printing, especially around the maiden’s hair and right arm, and the right foot of the man, and his robe.


Master with the Banderoles Meister mit den Bandrollen Das Mädchen mit der Rose und die Spielkarte Hirsch-Unter c 1465 Engraving
Master with the Banderoles / Meister mit den Bandrollen
Das Mädchen mit der Rose und die Spielkarte Hirsch-Unter
Germany c1465


Another example is this very interesting but rather poorly-printed image. One can clearly observe a double impression on the Madonna’s right hand and the robe below it, giving her eight fingers!


Master of the Weibermacht Maria Lactans c1451-75 copper engraving Germany smaller
Master of the Weibermacht
Maria Lactans
Germany c1451-


As far as I am able to tell, manual printing of an intaglio matrix would use the same secondary equipment one would use with a press, but of course with the omission of the press. Instead, something like a burnisher would have been used.


WM Burnisher 2932 detail
Above, the curved plane of a burnisher


As one can see, the lower surface of the burnisher is curved. A curve can only make contact with a flat surface at one point – and therefore with pressure applied, it can exert great force. This force replicates (or rather, foreshadows) the pressure which is used in a roller press, with the cylindrical roller exerting pressure at one point on the plate as it passes through the press. This is what compacts the felt blanket, which acts both as a buffer for the paper and matrix, and as a means of pushing the damp paper into the grooves of the matrix.

After looking at the range of intaglio matrices I have which would be suitable for the experiment, I decided to choose two plates. It occurred to me that different depth/breadth of line could make a difference to the result, and so chose the plate which had the finest lines (the etching of Prudencia done with a wax resist) , and that which had the broadest lines (the etching of Luna with a liquid ground resist). I presumed that one would give me a better result than the other, but had no firm idea as to which it would be.

The plates were inked up and made ready for printing, and the paper put into the water bath. I gathered the materials I would need to replicate, or rather, replace the intaglio press – a burnisher, a piece of an old press blanket and a piece of thick tracing paper.


WM Gathered materials 1703 cropped
Above: materials gathered on the workbench (ignoring the roller/brayer, which slipped in uninvited)


I decided to print the Luna plate first. The plate was covered with the blotted paper, then the press blanket. At this point, in order to be able to apply enough downward pressure and rub without damaging the blanket, it is thought that a piece of something smooth and resilient, like parchment or vellum, would have been laid down. Thick tracing paper is an affordable, reusable and inexpensive substitute.


WM Luna hand print prep
Above: the layers to make ready for printing – the plate, the paper, the piece of press blanket and a piece of tracing paper to protect the blanket


Next came the manual exertion, and plenty of it. I had no idea how long I would have to pass over the surface (and forgot to time it), but it was not easy work. With the buffering layer of the blanket, it was also impossible to tell quite how well the rubbing was progressing or if the paper was shifting. With manual relief printing, one can often get an idea of how the applied pressure is working because one begins to see an impression of the image on the back of the paper.

After trying to make sure I had given relatively even pressure across the plate, I decided to remove the blanket and see if I could observe anything on the back of the paper. Aside from the outline of the plate making an indentation on the paper, there was no information I could glean.


WM Luna hand print lifted blanket 1712
Above: lifting a corner of the press blanket to see if there was any visible impression of the rubbing


After some more rubbing, I decided I may as well finish as there was no way this was going to be a perfect print, and there was no way of knowing when to finish.


WM Luna hand print reveal 1715
Above: revealing the hand printed image from the Luna plate


The result was not as good as I was expecting, although to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. After looking at extant early prints, I confess I thought my effort would look better than it did. It probably needed more rubbing, or more pressure, or both.


WM Luna hand and press printed comparison
Above left: the hand-printed Luna image and right: the press-printed Luna image


After getting the print home, though, and looking at some more early extant prints, I was really interested (and heartened) to stumble across this print from the Master of the Weibermacht:


Master of the Weibermacht The Power of Women Macht des Weibes c1451-75 copper engraving Germany
Master of the Power of Women/Master of the Weibermacht
The Power of Women/Macht des Weibes
Copper engraving
Germany c1451-


This print comes from a plate which has been engraved quite boldly in some areas, notably the hats and robes of the figures on the right. On observing closely, I could see that some of the thicker lines had printed in a very similar manner to my Luna plate. It would appear that some of the deeper and wider lines printed with a ‘halo’ effect, or a hollow line where it should be a solid ink line. The ink around the very edge of the incised/etched line was transferred, but not enough of the ink which was trapped deeper inside the line. I believe this is due to it being very difficult to be consistent and maintain enough force to manually push the paper into the deeper lines to pick up all the ink.


WM Luna and Macht des Weibes hand print detail
Above left: detail from Macht des Weibes and above right: the Luna plate, showing a halo (or hollow lines) where the ink cannot be forced out of the deeper lines very easily


As previously mentioned, I inked up two plates that day – Luna, with the thicker, deeper lines, and Prudencia, with the fine lines caused by using a wax resist for the etching process.

The plate with finer lines was inked up and then hand printed in the same way. Even with prior experience, it was still difficult to know where the plate had been well rubbed and where it had not, and still took a lot of energy. It doesn’t seem like an arduous task, but the combination of maintaining hard downward pressure on a small implement and rubbing was quite tiring, not to mention boring, in comparison to the relative ease of using a press. In hindsight, if I repeat the process to try and improve the result, I think I would use more circular motions rather than the back and forth that I mainly used. It seems an easier motion to maintain and is the method I use when hand printing relief matrices. On the other hand, it may result in the paper moving and shifting.


WM Prudencia hand print 1726 cropped
Above: revealing the hand-printed image from the Prudencia plate


As can be seen, the result for this plate was much better. In part, this may have been due to an improvement in technique, but I think it mostly likely to be due to the finer (and therefore shallower) lines transferring ink to paper better. The paper did not need to be forced into quite such a deeply etched line.


WM Prudencia hand and press printed comparison
Above left: the hand-printed Prudencia image and right: the press-printed Prudencia image


The areas which are less successful are similar to areas on extant prints I believe have not been subjected to enough pressure, such as this print by Master ES.


Master ES Tier-Dame Das kleine Kartenspiel Kupferstich Animal-Queen The small pack of cards c1460-67 Engraving Germany smaller
Master ES
Animal-Queen from The Small Pack of Cards / Tier-Dame from Das kleine Kartenspiel Kupferstich
Germany c1460-67


The hazy areas of printing are very similar. In the Animal Queen/Tier-Dame print, one can also observe a double-impression on the hind legs and the plant in between them.


WM Prudencia and Animal Queen hand print detail
Above left: detail from Tier Dame and right: detail from the Prudencia plate


As discussed at the end of the post on the Intaglio Studio, Ad Stijnman mentions in Engraving and Intaglio 1400 – 2000 the studies done on the development of the roller press. There is no documentation of the development at the time it occurred, as the first evidence in both writing and image does not appear until the mid-16th century, nearly a hundred years afterwards. However, the intaglio press would appear to have been adapted from a mangle-like machine called a calendar, which pressed material through two rollers, much like the mangles used for clothes washing right up into the 20th century.

Interestingly, evidence would point to the first extant prints made by intaglio press to have been produced by Master ES. Certainly, there would seem to be a difference of quality between what has been dated as his earlier work, such as the playing cards, and the later images. I believe it is possible that the use of the press had an influence on the way he engraved, as his later works make rich use of hatching and cross-hatching – linework which suffers in quality and consistency when hand printed, but is crisp and bold when printed with a press. Compare the following two prints – the first I believe to be printed by manual means, and the second I believe to be printed using an intaglio press:


Master ES Garden of Love Engraving Berlin 1459 smaller
Master ES
A Garden of Love with Chess-Players
Berlin 1459


Master ES Virgin Praying Engraving Germany 1467 smaller
Master ES
Virgin Praying
Germany 1467