what is an intaglio print?

Intaglio refers to any print made by forcing the print surface (like a piece of paper) into the plate, which has a recessed, textured surface made by acid, carving, collage, or gouging.
Aquatints, collagraphs, drypoints, engravings, etchings, mezzotints, and even relief blocks can be printed in intaglio.

how is an intaglio print made?

1. First, I make my plates.

  • There are LOTS of different ways to make indents in a plate which you can peruse in the section below on intaglio print types.

2. Next, I prepare my paper.

  • That means cutting it to size, placing registration marks on it, and placing it in a tub of water to soak. Some papers fall apart if you try to soak them, so I spritz those with water before printing or place them between wet sheets of newsprint.
    All of these actions soften the paper and make it stretchy, so it can be pushed into the textures in my plates without tearing.

3. Then I get the press ready.
Takach etching press

  • This is an etching press. It has a roller above and below the press bed. The height of the upper roller can be adjusted by turning pressure screws at the top of the press.

  • To prepare the press for printing:
    1. I place my uninked plate face up in the middle of the press bed, put a couple of sheets of newsprint on top and then add a few printing blankets (wool blankets in a variety of thicknesses) to the pile.
    2. I then center the bed on the press and lower the top roller as far as I can.
    3. I finish by rolling the bed back and forth, adjusting the pressure of the roller until I see the right amount of indentation in the papers on my plate.

4. Now I can ink all the plates I’ll need to create the print.

To ink an intaglio plate:

  • I spread ink over the surface of the plate
  • Then I wipe the surface with a ball of starched cheesecloth called tarlatan like you see me doing in the image to the left. Wiping the plate pushes the ink into the crevices in the plate. I start with a really dirty tarlatan in the same color as the ink I’m using and change to cleaner and cleaner balls of tarlatan as the plate’s surface clears.
  • When most of the ink is gone from the surface of the plate, I switch to paper wiping. Pulling sheets of paper over the plate ensures that the surface gets nice and clean and the ink stays in the plate’s recesses.
  • If I want the plate to be really shiny, I’ll dip my hand in whiting (like chalk), rub it into my skin and then wipe the plate with my palm. This is called hand wiping.

Here is a video of Sean Hurley inking & wiping a plate: Printmaking: Sean Hurley, Gloucester, Massachusetts

5. Finally, I can print!

Order of printing materials on an etching press
Order of printing materials on an etching press

To print a plate:

  • I place an inked plate in the center of the press bed.
  • I blot my soaked paper and align it to my plate.
  • Like in the picture above, backing papers and the printing blankets go on top of the printing paper.
  • Then I crank the pile through the press, which transfers the ink to the paper, creating a physically-textured mirror image of the plate.

If I have more than one plate to print:

  • I trap the blankets, backing paper, and printing paper under the press rollers
  • Rolling back the printing paper, I remove the printing plate and replace it with the next one in the series.
  • I then gently roll the papers and blankets back down over the plate and crank the pile through the press
  • And I’ll repeat the process until I’ve worked through all of my printing plates.

Here’s a video of Alfons Bytautas of Edinburgh Printmakers, Scotland demonstrating different types of intaglio platemaking methods as well as how a print is made: Etching at Edinburgh Printmakers

intaglio print types

Wedding Party by Heather Page, Aquatint on paper, 11.25”h x 15”w
An aquatint is a continuous tone image (drawn in shades), like you see in Wedding Party, to the left.
To make an aquatint, we create a random dot pattern on the plate. The old way to do this is by coating a plate with rosin dust (a.k.a. pine resin) and then melting it to the plate. The newer (and less toxic) way is spray acrylic paint onto the plate.
To make images on the plate, we draw, paint, or expose a photograph on it. Anything that resists the etching solution will work–paint, crayon, resin, soap, tape…
To create a range of tones, we control how long each part of a drawing stays in contact with the etching solution. So, a light gray will be in the etching solution for maybe a minute, while a dark gray will take 5 to 20 minutes or more. The timing depends on the strength of the etch. To stop a part from being etched, we simply cover that spot with something it can’t eat as I mentioned above. Or we can skip all of the above and just paint with the etching solution. That’s called a spit bite.
Here’s a video of the aquatint process: How to Aquatint a Print by Snake Artist
A collagraph is a print made from a collaged plate.
Plates can be made from cardboard, plastic, metals… there’s really no limit. Likewise, the design on the plate can be made with any sort of material. My students have tried string, glue, foil, paint, cardboard, seeds, etc.
Here’s more information on collagraph printing by Lisa Takahashi: Collagraph Printmaking by Suzie MacKenzie
A drypoint print is made by scraping, sanding, and/or abrading a printing plate. No etch is required. Drypoints have lovely fuzzy edges to the lines that get squished quickly in the press, so editions tend to be of less than ten prints.
Here’s a video of printmaker Belinda Del Pesco making a drypoint print on Plexiglas: How to make a drypoint engraving on plexiglass & inking multiple colors à la poupée
Key block for Beeline by Heather Page, wood engraving in birch plywood, 12 inches by 12 inches
We make engravings by gouging into the surface of a plate.
It’s a bit like calligraphy, in that we change the angle of the engraving tool to manipulate the width of a line. We can also play with the depth of a line, which makes it darker.
Many engravers use tools called burins paired with a leather pad to create their work. A burin is a hand-sized, shaped steel stem with a wood knob at one end. The leather pad goes under the plate to control the angle of our cuts.
I engraved the key block of Beeline, to the left, with xacto knives and woodburning tools.
Like drypoints, engravings don’t need to be etched. Engravings are much longer-lived than drypoints, however, because the plate is carved rather than scratched.
Here’s a video of Andrew Stein Raftery of Rhode Island School of Design making an engraving: From Paper to Copper: The Engraver’s Process
An etching is a general term for a print that is made from a plate that has been etched. Aquatints and photogravures can be etchings, for example.
How we etch a plate:

  • First, we apply a ground to the plate. A ground is something that protects the plate from the etch. Grounds can be made with wax, tape, various paints, soap, etc.

  • Then we then dip it in an etching solution (the etch). The etching solution we use depends on the plate. Zinc, for example, can be etched with nitric acid or copper sulfate.
    • We make a range of tones by controlling how long the etch eats at the plate. The longer the plate is in the etch, the deeper the bite, and the darker the area will print.


  • Once the plate has sat in the etch long enough, we pull it out, wash it off and dry it, and then either draw some more on the plate or cover parts of the drawing. We let the new coating dry and then put the plate back into the etch.
    • A plate might go into the etch anywhere from five to twenty times before it has the right range in tones.
    • We can also switch grounds from one dipping to the next, so a plate might contain a whole range of marks. That’s one of the best things about making etchings—there’s so many ways to make a mark that can’t be made in any other way.

Etching grounds I use in my work:

A hard ground is a thin, dry ground that covers the plate.
Hard grounds can be made with all sorts of materials like wax, asphaltum, and paint, each material affecting the kind of line we get when we draw in it.
We make an image on the plate by scraping through the ground, usually with a needle or a roulette (a texture on a roller). It’s like drawing with a pen. We can play with line thickness, density, and depth to create a range in tone. Depth is created by etching the plate, not by scraping deeper into the plate.
Here’s a video of Alessandro Caneppele making and printing a hard-ground plate: Acquaforte : Semisfere Volanti /Etching: Hemispheres Flying by Alessandro Caneppele
Oceanside by Heather Page; white and soft ground etching on paper, 22.75 x 14.5
A soft ground is a thin, malleable ground that covers the plate.
We create shapes and textures on the plate by pushing into the ground rather than scraping through it. I’ve used lace, burlap, foil—all sorts of things. I used seaweed to make some of the textures in Oceanside, to the left.
I tend to use soft ground like a collage—my images are built out of the textures I press into the plate. Others like to place textured materials under a drawing and then draw over the textures, so their images are more like crayon drawings.
Here’s a video of Bill Ritchie creating and printing a softground plate: Soft Ground Etching
Printing plates for Beeline by Heather Page, wood engraving on birch plywood and etching on steel, each 12 inches x 12 inches
A lift ground is a hard ground poured over a drawing or painting made in something soluble by water or solvent.
Here’s how it works:

  • We draw or paint an image on a plate. We can even do a Xerox transfer on a plate to get a photographic image.
  • Once the image dries, we coat the plate with hard ground or stop-out (resin dissolved in solvent).
  • Once the hard ground dries, we pour boiling water over the plate it if we used water-soluble materials, or we gently rub solvent over it if we used something like ink for the drawing.
  • Any hard ground over the drawing dissolves, leaving the plate exposed like in Beeline’s top plate (the right one) in the image to the right.
  • We then aquatint the plate.
  • And etch it.
  • When we remove the hard ground, the image we drew on the plate is now etched into it.

Key block transparency for High Peeks by Heather page, digital print on frosted mylar, 24 inches by 18 inches
A photogravure is a photographic etching.
All photogravure methods start with an object that we want to expose on the plate. This can be a three-dimensional object (like a hand), it can be a cut-out shape, or a transparency (an opaque image on a transparent or translucent sheet), like the one I used for High Peeks to the left.
We place the object directly on a photosensitive plate and expose the two to light.
Anything that is blocked from the light stays soluble, while the parts exposed to light harden. When we develop the plate, the soluble parts wash away, leaving the image on the plate.
The types of photogravure I use are:
ImagOn is a photosensitive film we can attach to any kind of plate. Once exposed, the film dissolves wherever light was blocked, exposing the plate underneath.
ImagOn can be used as an etching ground, it can be double-exposed, and it can be layered to create photographic collagraph plates.
Plate for Reverb by Heather Page, etched steel, 12 inches by 12 inchesTo the left is an example of using ImagOn as an etching ground. Once the plate was exposed, I aquatinted the plate and etched it. This is one of eighteen steel plates I used to create some of the prints in my Reverb series.
Key block for High Peeks by Heather Page, intaglio Solarplate, 24 inches by 18 inches
Solarplates are a type of photopolymer plate that come with a thick layer of photosensitive material already attached to a plate. Since the layer is so thick, they can be used as relief plates after a single exposure, or as intaglio plates after a double exposure of a dot pattern then the image.
To the left is the final key block for High Peeks.