Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Printed Image in the West: Drypoint

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The simplest method for producing intaglio prints is drypoint, in which a sharp stylus or needle is used to scratch lines directly into the metal plate. The advantage of this technique is that the metal scrapings on either side of the lines, known as the burr, hold a dense film of ink which prints as a rich, velvety black. Drypoint, however, is not a very practical technique for producing multiple images, for the delicate burr wears away so quickly that only a small number of good impressions, no more than a dozen, can be taken from the plate. For artists who wished to create a large number of high-quality impressions from the same plate (a large edition), this medium had limited appeal. A well-engraved plate can produce several hundred impressions, at times even a thousand, while a woodblock can generate many more. Therefore, with the exception of the fascinating Master of the Housebook (also known as the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet), Renaissance artists rarely made use of drypoint. The great German printmaker Albrecht Dürer produced three drypoints, including the evocative Holy Family (19.73.51), at a time in his career when he was particularly interested in painterly effects.


In the nineteenth century, when, in a revolt against the mass production characteristic of the age, artists often preferred to produce a small number of handmade images rather than hundreds of identical ones, drypoint again found favor, often in combination with other techniques.

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For an artist who was always concerned with the profitability of printmaking, however, drypoint could be no more than a short-lived experiment. A few, such as Andrea Mantegna and the Master of 1515, created the effect of drypoint in some of their engravings by allowing the metal burr, normally scraped away when engraving, to remain at the edges of the lines they cut with a burin. The whimsical Hurdy-Gurdy Playing Satyr with a Sleeping Nymph (31.31.19) by the Master of 1515 provides a good example of the rich, fuzzy lines that result when the burr remains to soak up the ink. Other sixteenth-century artists made use of touches of drypoint to strengthen the tonal effects of their etched plates (27.78.2[99]), a practice that became quite common in the seventeenth century, when many painters took up the medium of etching (24.63.1829; 22.67.14; 26.70.3[43]). Dutch seventeenth-century painter, Rembrandt, was the first artist to fully exploit the potential of drypoint, both alone (41.1.31) and together with other intaglio processes (29.107.28). In the nineteenth century, when, in a revolt against the mass production characteristic of the age, artists often preferred to produce a small number of handmade images rather than hundreds of identical ones, drypoint again found favor, often in combination with other techniques (16.2.5). The process is also popular with contemporary artists, who usually work in very small editions (2001.602).

Wendy Thompson
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art