Engraving in the 21st Century
When asked if I would review the new textbook on engraving, Design to Touch, written by Rose Gonnella and Erin Smith and published by the International Engraved Graphics Association (IEGA), I of course leapt at the chance. As someone enchanted by letterpress printing, I am equally fascinated by its sister art. Physically, the processes are opposites: while in letterpress printing, type and imagery are pressed into the page, the letters debossed from the surface, in engraving, the image and text are embossed or elevated above the surrounding surface. Results from both processes are beautifully tactile and inviting – which is surely one of the first things anyone picking up this textbook will notice. It is filled with thirty actual engravings and over one hundred photographs. The engravings are truly a treat: they allow the reader to see and feel firsthand the embossment, the heavyweight papers, the exquisite saturation and opacity of color. It is a book designed, in part, to proffer an education about and appreciation of a craft that, like so many that rely on outmoded technologies, has become replaced by and large with more expedient and economical methods. But its larger purpose is even more ambitious: to advocate to design students for the continued commercial use of engraving, offering guidance and exercises in how to plan for that particular end.
The book walks the reader through a logical trajectory, from the history and origins of intaglio printing and engraving in chapter one to engraving’s present and future use (especially in conjunction with other technologies) in chapter two to a more thorough technical explanation in the third chapter of the engraving process, from making the plate to selecting paper and matching ink to lock up and registration. The book also offers, in chapter four, a long list of the multiple applications for engraving, called “touchpoints,” and then rounds out in chapter five with some coaching and exercises for student designers in how to think creatively with engraving in mind.
As a letterpress printer, I am especially curious to understand what engraving can offer, apart from the obvious differences, that letterpress printing cannot, and this book gave me an in-depth answer: very fine detail, opaque and saturated color, and exquisite metallics. Because images are rendered in relief for letterpress printing (the area to be printed is raised above the surrounding plate), details cannot get too fine or they will be in danger of washing away during the plate preparation process. But in the intaglio process, the image is etched into a plate, meaning that the lines, however fine they are, are never “exposed”. They are always surrounded by a stable base, making it much easier to work with, from a calligraphic perspective, the very fine hairlines made with a pointed pen nib (which is where “Engraver’s Script,” a hand for pointed pen, gets its name). Letterpress printing also utilizes inks which can certainly have a nice saturation but are translucent, meaning that the paper hue will “come through” the ink color. For this reason it is difficult to print light colors on dark substrates because the colors often don’t read legibly enough. (I should note that my experience is with rubber-based inks; I don’t know how oil-based inks compare in this respect). Because the engraving process, however, uses opaque inks, you can print light over dark without a problem. Finally, while there are metallic rubber-based inks for letterpress, they don’t actually read as metallic – they are muddy and muted approximations, which means that while I love to use gold and sliver leaf and gouaches in my calligraphic work, I almost never employ metallics in my printing. But engraving can yield gorgeous metallics that can also be burnished.
While one of the clear strengths of Design to Touch is the sheer volume of images and visual examples of engraving, this also becomes a weakness at times: text frequently feels secondary to the plethora of images in every chapter, which for me, made it difficult to always follow the instructional thread. And while the many photographs of engravings and actual prints offered plenty to appreciate even as a layperson, I would have loved to hear the authors analyze what makes some of their chosen examples so successful in their eyes. It is a gorgeous textbook to be certain – the prettiest I have ever laid eyes on! – and an informative one. But for a textbook it is relatively light on text, which perhaps hinders the book from having as much pedagogical heft as it might.
What the book lacks within its covers, however, it points the reader to online. The authors don’t shy away from their digital era; rather, they teach by example. Asking readers to consider engraving in a digital world, they invite the digital world in, creating a kind of hypertext out of the printed book. Gonnella and Smith frequently send the reader outward: to the Met’s digital timeline of historic hand-printmaking techniques, to an engraving timeline on their own Design to Touch website, to the IEGA’s website, to a video of the engraving process, and to a handful of other resources. The authors have given the curious student numerous avenues for continuing exploration.
And Design to Touch has indeed fostered an impatient curiosity on my part: Where can I go to witness this process? How can I incorporate engraving into my own personal design work? Can I learn how to do engraving myself? What equipment is necessary? The answers can all be found by pursuing the many leads Gonnella and Smith offer. And given their insistence that engraving need not break the bank, I am inspired and hopeful to actually explore this as another potential avenue for printing – which means that Design to Touch has succeeded, for this reader at least, in achieving its goal: I’ve been well persuaded to figure out how I can take advantage of this centuries-old craft. And in a culture that’s perhaps less in touch than ever with the material world and its tactile pleasures, engraved paper goods are sure to figuratively achieve their own physical nature: they will stand above and apart from the surrounding flat expanse of copy paper and laser prints that we usually trudge upon, arresting the viewer and leaving a lasting impression.
Gonnella, Rose and Erin Smith. Design to Touch, Engraving: History, Process Concepts, & Creativity. Nashville: International Engraved Graphics Association, 2013.