Today we think nothing of taking a quick photo with our mobile phone and instantly send to a friend or relative. Prior to Queen Victoria’s day, however, the idea of capturing an image through photography was unknown. A picture of anything had to be drawn by hand, a process that dates back to cave dwellers. For the last 500 years or more, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes were painstakingly created in oil paints or watercolors. Every picture was one of a kind. Around the time of the first printing press it was discovered that multiple images could be produces from engraved copper plates, and later, lithography stone. Prints made on plate or stone were mainly black ink on soft handmade paper. Color could be added by hand if desired.
The basic print techniques are engraving, etching, block print, and stone lithography. Engravings are done by carving or scratching lines into a copper plate or wood block. The lines in the plate are inked and wiped off. Paper is pressed against the plate with enough pressure to pick up the image. An etching uses a wax or asphalt coated copper plate through which the image is scratched. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath that etches where the design penetrated the coating. The “resist” is removed and the plate is used to print as in the case of the engraving. Stone lithography employs a milled-surface stone block on which an image is drawn with a wax pen. The stone is soaked in water and then a “wax loving” ink is used to ink the stone. The ink only adheres to the wax image. Paper is applied to the stone, and under pressure the image is conveyed to the paper. The process can be repeated until the image wears off of the stone. Original engravings by Rembrandt and lithos by Audubon or Currier & Ives are still found in the marketplace by astute antique collectors.