A Brief History of Printmaking

Before the printing press came into existence, printmaking was not considered to be an art form. It was viewed as a way of communicating. It was only in the 18th century when art prints began to be viewed as originals, and then in the 19th century, artists began to produce limited edition of their work and signing those prints so that the work could be authenticated.

Engraving is as old as the cave art when it was used not just on stones and bones, but also on the walls of caves. Some 3,000 years ago, the Sumerians were engraving designs on stone cylinder seals. However, historians believe that it was the Chinese who were responsible for the first form of printing in 2nd century AD which they did by means of rubbing. However, the first authentic prints were made in the middle of the 8th century by the Japanese which consisted of wood block rubbings made into Buddha charms.

The Europeans were printing textile in sixth century, but paper printing started later when the technology of making paper arrived from the Far East. The first paper was produced in 1151 in Jativa, Spain. In the 15th century, the first woodcuts printed on paper were in the form of playing cards. Just before that, Henry VI made the first royal seals and stamps.

A few decades after woodcut, metal engraving started. It was an art that only the goldsmiths and weapon makers used. The earliest printed engraving is from 1446 which is a German print. Germany gets the credit for developing intaglio printing from where it made its way to Italy and the Low Countries.

In the 17th century, printing was seen as ornamental decorations all over Europe. This form of printmaking was primarily used for decorating portraits and paintings. Intaglio printing at this time was done with the help of acid as artists at that time considered it to be a work of creativity. Although etching was primarily done in Italy, most of the etching artists were foreigners like Jacque Callot and Claude Lorrain from France and Jose de la Ribera from Spain. In Netherlands, etching was done by the master painter Rmbrandt, who produced nearly 300 etched plates.

In the 18th century, the entire printmaking was concentrated in Italy with the rise of Tiepolo. It is believed that Francisco Goya was highly influenced by Tiepolo. After that came Canaletto, who is considered to be most important architectural printmaker, making around 3,000 architectural etchings.

In the 19century, printmaking had made its way to France and printmakers like Ingres, Delacroix, Theodore Rousseau and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot were in great demand. Also Impressionist like Manet and Degas are considered to important printmakers during that period.

In the first half of the 20th century, printmakers were led by Pablo Picasso, and then Malaga. In fact, Picasso gets the credit for making France the hotbed for printmaking. After that came Braque, Matisse, Rouault, Chagal, Joan Miro, Max Ernt, Jan Arp, and Salvador Dali among many others. Germany saw the likes of Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Ernt Barlach, Erich Heckel and Oskar Kokoschka. These were the Expressionists.

In England, Henry Moore was busy creating sculptures and lithographs. While in the US, printmakers like George Wesley Bellows produced lithographs, John Sloan and Reginald March etchings, and Milton Avery drypoint. However, the most important printmakers in America was Edward Hopper and Ben Shahn.

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