National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
Colorful Impressions: The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France

Introduction | Techniques


Many of the techniques invented and used by eighteenth-century French printmakers in the manufacture of their color prints are no longer in regular use and may well be unfamiliar to visitors to this exhibition. The following definitions and descriptions may assist in the understanding and appreciation of the complicated processes by which these works were produced.

Note: Please move the mouse over each image to view an enlarged detail of the technique used. Click to see the full image.

Image: Anne Allen after Jean-Baptiste Pillement, Chinese Arabesque with a Tightrope Walker (detail), c. 1795 À la poupée (literally, "with the doll") describes a method of inking intaglio prints in which two or more inks of different colors are selectively applied to different parts of a single copperplate. The inked plate is then printed in a single pass through the press. The method takes its name from the poupée (doll), the small ball-shaped wad of fabric that is used to ink the plate.

Francois-Philippe Charpentier after Jean-Honoré Fragonard, La Culbute (The Tumble), 1766Aquatint is a tonal printing process. The preparation for aquatint consists of a porous ground, usually created by sprinkling powdered rosin liberally and evenly over a copperplate and then heating the plate from below to liquefy the powder and fuse it to the copper. When this prepared copperplate is dipped into an acid etching bath, the minute irregularities in the ground allow the acid to bite into the plate in an overall pattern that, when inked, prints as tone.

Image: Gilles Demarteau the Elder after Francois Boucher, Le Maraudeur (Head of Flora) (detail), 1769 Chalk manner (also called crayon manner) is a printmaking technique that imitates the appearance of chalk lines. Chalk-manner prints were made in as many as three colors--black, red, and white--from one or more copperplates worked either in etching or engraving, or in a combination of the two. Special toothed tools--roulettes, mattoirs (punches), champignons (literally, "mushrooms"), and the like--were used to create dotted patterns on the plate that suggest the grainy appearance of chalk strokes on paper.

Engraving is an intaglio printmaking process in which the design is incised directly into the surface of a metal plate, usually copper, with a sharp graver or burin. The ink is spread on the surface of the plate and carefully wiped off until it remains only in the incised areas. The ink is transferred from the incisions to the sheet of paper by means of a printing press.

Etching is an intaglio printmaking process in which the design is worked onto a copperplate through a protective, acid-resistant ground, usually with an etching needle. The plate, still covered with the ground, is then dipped into an acid bath, which corrodes the exposed areas and creates furrows and troughs that will hold the ink. The depth of the etched lines is controlled by the strength of the acid and the amount of time the plate is exposed to it. After the ground is cleaned off, the etched plate is inked and printed in the same manner as an engraving.

Grounds, hard and soft, are acid-resistant waxy or varnish preparations that are applied to copperplates as part of the etching process. The design is worked through the ground to expose the copperplate beneath. With a hard ground, an etching needle is usually used. With a soft ground, which never hardens completely but remains sticky, a variety of tools can be used to create designs on the prepared plate. The entire plate, still covered by the ground, is then dipped into an acid bath, which corrodes the exposed areas of the plate. The ground is removed before the plate is inked and printed.

Intaglio is an Italian word that describes any printing process in which the ink is held in furrows below the surface of a metal plate and is transferred to paper through the application of pressure, usually from a printing press. All the prints in this exhibition were made with intaglio processes.

Image: Jakob Christoffel Le Blon after Nicholas Blakey, Louis XV (detail), 1739Mezzotint is a tonal engraving process in which the entire surface of the copperplate is roughened by repeated rocking with a curved, grooved blade--called a berceau or a rocker--in a regular pattern over the surface. When fully rocked, the inked plate prints as a solid dark tone. The image emerges as the artist creates a range of lighter tones by selectively and carefully smoothing the rough surface of the plate with scrapers and burnishers.

Image: Louis-Marin Bonnet after Francois Boucher, Tete de Flore (Head of Flora) (detail), 1769Pastel manner is a printmaking process that imitates the appearance of pastels. Pastel-manner prints were made in many colors from multiple copperplates worked in the same manner as those used for chalk-manner prints.

Image: Louis-Marin Bonnet after Jean-Frédéric Schall, L'Amant écouté (The Lover Heard) (detail), c. 1785 Stipple is a dotted tonal printmaking technique in which patterns of closely massed dots are made by repeatedly impressing pointed or pronged tools directly into the copperplate or through an etching ground.

Tool work describes any mark made on a copperplate with steel tools (either directly in engraving or through a ground in etching). When inked and printed, some specific tool work can be identified, such as the work of punches and roulettes in chalk manner, points in stipple, or work with a berceau in mezzotint. However, most of the work done with the many tools available to eighteenth-century printmakers is given the generic designation "tool work" because the specific combination of tools used cannot be determined.

Image: Descourtis, Noce de village, (detail)Wash manner is a printmaking process that employs any tonal intaglio technique or combination of tonal intaglio techniques in order to imitate the appearance of ink, wash, watercolor, gouache, or oil painting. These techniques may include aquatint, mezzotint, stipple, and tool work. In prints executed in a combination of techniques from multiple plates, it is virtually impossible to identify with confidence the specific techniques used. These prints may also include linear work executed in etching or engraving or both.