About Old Master Prints


Most of our prints are black line images on white paper.  Our chiaroscuro woodcuts have additional colour blocks.  Our watercolours are full colour.  These classic images work with decorative schemes in all styles, from the most traditional to modern minimalist.   Our images are all at or close to their original size, and range from about 3 to 16 inches on their longest side.  We have an image for every position in the home or office! 


The term old master prints is used to describe European graphic works printed onto paper before about 1800 - the date has to be stretched in the case of Goya who continued to make prints until shortly before his death in 1828. Included in the term are several different techniques for making prints, the most important of which are briefly described in TERMS below.


A Brief History of Old Master Prints

Even by 1500 prints served two fairly distinct markets. The great majority of prints produced were for a mass-market and generally of a low artistic quality. Religious images in woodcut were the most common type of images in the C15, and even then were affordable by the urban working-class in richer areas. Later other techniques and subject-matter came to dominate.


At the same time more expensive prints, mostly engravings produced in far lower numbers, mainly in Germany and Italy, catered to a more discriminating market that already included collectors, and other artists. Our reproductions are of this second type of print.


The period 1480-1540 saw a huge flowering of the print. Significant artists such as Schongauer, Mantegna and above all Dürer found their printmaking could be as important as their painting to both their finances and their reputations.   Even artists like Titian and Raphael, who did little direct printmaking themselves, took a close interest in prints made to their designs or copying their paintings.


Artists living in smaller cities could address an audience across Europe, and escape often restricted and conservative local clienteles for paintings. Prints had more varied and often more innovative subjects than paintings.  Impressions of Prints were distributed across the major artistic centres of Europe, spreading the fame of the artist more efficiently than paintings. Etching became important alongside engraving, and the woodcut burst into colour.


By the middle of the C16 this phase was largely over. The international market for prints was coming to be dominated by print dealer/publishers, who now commissioned the artists for a flat fee, and retained the plates for themselves.   Reproductive prints that copied paintings became more common than original print-making.   Book illustrations and other types of print that were not primarily artistic in nature, such as maps, plans and images of costumes expanded the range of print subject-matter hugely, but tended to reduce the artistic quality of work produced.


By now techniques had developed so that the number of good impressions of a print that could be produced had greatly increased.   Effective ways of depicting subject-matter with line had become standardised and much easier to learn. Although demand for prints had increased hugely, supply had outpaced it, and prints of high technical quality, but little or no originality, were becoming almost a mass-market product themselves.


From then on many artists regarded prints as important for publicising their work as painters, but as things that could be produced by specialists, who were now considerably reduced in status. But others continued to be drawn to produce original prints themselves. Artists such as Rembrandt, Castiglione and Goya produced considerable numbers of prints, many among their most intensely personal works. Exploration of ways of achieving tonal shading effects was a preoccupation of these three and many others.


See our LINKS PAGE or BOOKS PAGE for more information



(see LINKS for links to sites with fuller definitions, or the Glossary in Prints and Printmaking by Antony Griffiths).  Within this section, other terms defined are in BLOCKS, but not linked.



The main tool of the engraver, with a rounded wooden handle and a sharp angled metal cutting face. It is pushed across the copper plate to cut a line with a V-shaped section. See some modern burins  and other tools - noting the different head cross-sections shown below.  There are various types with different shapes of cutting face to achieve different effects. The line will have BURR - rough edges on the plate where metal is raised above the flat surface. These may be burnished (rubbed) away before printing, and usually were. But if left they will give the line a thicker, blurry quality for the first few impressions. The burin requires great skill and practice to be used effectively - skill at drawing cannot be transferred easily to engraving. In this it differs from etching and drypoint. The burin was often used in combination with ETCHING or DRYPOINT.



Tiny raised edges or strips of metal left at the side of an engraved line, especially in DRYPOINT.    They can be rubbed or burnished away but if left, the rich blurry tone they give the first few impressions (probably only up to about 10 or 20) may be desired by the artist.   Much used by Rembrandt and C19 artists.


Chiaroscuro woodcut

from the Italian meaning "light-dark". A technique invented c1508 to make prints with a range of colours by cutting a number of different blocks. The print would be put in the press and printed with each block using a different colour of ink.   See the notes on our Burgkmair and Baldung reproductions of two of the earliest chiaroscuro woodcuts for more information


Colour Print

There are many types of colour print, especially from the C19 on. Also many prints were intended to be coloured by hand (usually in watercolour) after being printed - for example the caricatures of Rowlandson and Gilray, or the Audubon bird prints.   Many C15th religious prints were also hand-coloured, either before or after sale. The only type we have reproductions of is the CHIAROSCURO WOODCUT.



in print terminology "copy" means a print which copies another print. The word used for an individual physical example of a print is an IMPRESSION. Popular early prints were often copied many times, as only a limited numbers of impressions could be made from a plate. Some artists producing copies identified themselves; others continued to use the monogram of the original artist. Many are in effect forgeries; some may have been done by the original artist or his workshop. Famous prints continued to be copied in the original technique until (in the case of Rembrandt) the late C19.



a tool, giving its name to a technique. The drypoint is a large needle, which is used to scratch a line in a copper plate.   It is held like a pen, and is much easier for an artist trained in drawing to learn to use than an engravers BURIN.   But the lines made on the plate are far shallower, and far fewer impressions can be printed. The drypoint throws up more BURR than a burin and, if not burnished away, this can very significantly alter the printed impressions. Many artists, notably Rembrandt, sought these effects. Typically only 10-15 impressions with good burr can be taken from a plate. The drypoint was very often used to add final touches to engraved or etched plates.



An INTAGLIO technique where the plate is covered with a ground of resinous substance, which is then removed by the artist with an etching needle where black lines are desired.  The plate then has acid poured over, which bites into the exposed lines.  The rest of the ground is removed and the plate can be printed in the same way as an engraving.  Etching and engraving can be, and very often were, used on the same plate in different stages.   For the artist, etching is far easier to learn as it is much more similar to drawing than is engraving with a BURIN.   Early German etchings were done on steel plates, with less satisfactory results.  Only after techniques for etching on copper and easier to use grounds became disseminated did etching largely take over from engraving as the choice of the creative artist.



An INTAGLIO technique where the copper plate is worked directly by the artist pushing a BURIN to cut the lines of the print.  For the artist, the hardest technique to master.  By the C17, engraving was largely overtaken by ETCHING, or a mixture of the two, for original prints other than portraits, but it remained important for REPRODUCTIVE and illustrative work.  Wood engraving was a development of the C18, and has been mostly practised in Britain.



The term for each single physical object printed - what would normally be called each "copy" of a print.  But COPY has a special meaning in print-making, so impression is used.   Impressions of a print vary enormously (as does their value).   The plates for a few old master prints still survive, and very poor impressions were sometimes being printed into the C20, or still are.  To give very approximate figures, a DRYPOINT will give perhaps a maximum of forty good impressions (many fewer with BURR), an engraving perhaps a few hundred, depending on the artists technique, and a WOODCUT a few thousand.  Lithographs can potentially be printed in far larger numbers.



A term for techiques, including ETCHING and ENGRAVING, where the flat surface of the plate prints white, and the lines (or dots etc) to print black are sunk into the plate.  The whole plate is inked and then wiped clean.  The ink is not wiped out of the sunken lines, and when the print is put through a press under high pressure the paper is pushed into the lines and collects the ink.  Drypoint, Mezzotint and acquatint are other Intaglio techniques.  The different intaglio techniques can be combined on a single plate, and often were.  The other main families of techniques are RELIEF and planographic (lithography etc).



Ink is manipulated on a clean plate by the artist, and the plate is then printed.  Only one good impression can be taken, but often a second much poorer one can be got.  Either the whole plate can be inked, and the whites wiped away, or only the black areas applied to an uninked plate.  See our reproduction of Theseus Finding the Arms of his Father, one of the first monotypes.



A term for techniques, including WOODCUT, where the lines to print black stand out as the surface of the block or plate, and the white background has been lowered - in the case of a woodcut by chiselling it out.  It is therefore the opposite of INTAGLIO techniques.  Text printing with moveable type is also a relief technique, and so woodcuts were the normal form of book illustration until the middle C16, as they could be relatively easily combined with printed text on the same page.


Reproductive Prints

are those whose main purpose is to copy another image - most often a painting.  They became important in the early C16 and remained so until photographic reproductions took over their function in the late C19.



A print will appear as the mirror image of the original matrix (plate, block etc) - the right edge will become the left edge etc.  Compared to a preparatory drawing, or an object depicted, the design is referred to as reversed, or in reverse.  Especially in the early years of printmaking, images sometimes were reversed and rereversed a number of times as images were copied from drawing to print to copy print etc.  Later reproductive printmakers became adept at making the matrix in reverse so that the image came out the 'right' way round.



Many prints have been printed at several stages of work on the plate (or block), and so survive in different "states", which are described in the standard catalogues.  The term has nothing to do with the condition in which an impression has survived since printing.  Only intentional changes to the image (including adding text below etc) will constitute an additional state; many plates pick up accidental scratches which will not be counted for this purpose.  Nor will manipulation of the ink during printing count - only changes to the plate itself.  Many states result from changes made by printers or publishers, especially adding text inscriptions within the image itself, or below it.   For old master prints, all 'proof' stages are usually counted as states; for later prints (after roughly 1750-1800) this is usually not be the case.  



A RELIEF technique where the white background is chiselled out of a wooden block to leave the lines of the print as the only remaining surface of the block.  Normally this was done by a specialist craftsman, in German known as a "formschneider" (blockcutter), whose skill was crucial to the quality of the print.  The artist either inked his design onto the block, or produced a drawing which was glued to the block.  Sometimes early woodcuts are described as "designed by" or "after" an artist, rather than "by" him, as he would not have cut the block himself, but this is an over-scrupulous view derived from the modern art-world.  Woodcuts could be produced in very large numbers - into the thousands - before a well-designed and well-cut block showed signs of wear.  If stored for a long time, however, the blocks often cracked or warped.