Art Term Tuesday: Engraving

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

“Winslow Homer: From Poetry to Fiction” opened at the museum on July 28, celebrating the engraved works of one of America’s most famous artists. Winslow Homer, a mostly self-taught artist of the 19th century, is well-known for his paintings and watercolors of American life and marine seascapes. However, Homer also created many engravings for Harper’s Weekly before his painting career took off, and a selection of those engravings are currently on view at FWMoA. In honor of this exhibit, let’s explore what an “engraving” is in today’s Art Term Tuesday.

At its most basic definition, engraving is a printmaking technique. It is a process by which an artist uses a burin (a carving tool) to draw directly onto a surface, called the plate. This surface, or the plate, can be many different materials, but metal engravings have the most staying power. The plate is covered in ink, then the extra ink is wiped away leaving ink only in the carved lines. The artist then flips the plate over onto a sheet of paper or lays a sheet of paper directly on top of the plate, applying pressure to transfer the ink to the paper. The paper and plate are separated, leaving anywhere the artist engraved as crisp inked lines.

Winslow Homer's engraving shows three soldiers in an encampment, sitting on a log, with two of them holding the wishbone for breaking.
Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910. Thanksgiving Day in the Army—After Dinner: The Wishbone, wood engraving, 1864. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Engraving as the process of scratching into a surface is as old as humans, with etchings found on eggshells from between 540,000 to 340,000 years ago. Engraving to add decoration to metal jewelry or engraving glass were the next steps in the technique’s evolution. Art historians think that goldsmiths wanted to record their hard work, so they began to transfer the patterns to paper. These are the types of engravings Winslow Homer creates, which date back to the Middle Ages. By Homer’s time in the 1850s, engraving was so common that it was most often used for advertising and commercial illustrations. Today, engraving is still a popular technique, although with technology, the tools speed the process considerably. Lasers have replaced many commercial engravers, as lasers can be plotted into a computer and set to zapping with ease. Next time you see a wedding ring with something written on the inside, remember that is an engraving!

Passengers on a ship tilt to the left as the boat rises in the swells. Our view is of the tilted deck, with passengers lilting to the side as their hair ribbons blow in the wind.
Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910. Homeward Bound, wood engraving, 1867. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Engraving can sometimes be confused with “Etching,” which is a very similar process but uses acids to carve lines rather than hand carving with a burin. Engraving creates very thin lines that taper at the ends. Etching with acid leaves a “fuzzier” line that can end abruptly. Neither is better than the other, and etching is an easier technique to learn for many artists. An artist just needs to know what type of line they want to create and then select the best technique for their desired effect.

So now that we have explained “engraving” and are all thoroughly informed, let’s introduce “wood engraving,” a separate technique with a very similar name! This was Homer’s process, which uses hardwood cut across the grain. Wood engraving is like stamping, where the place you stamp is inked and the white parts are cut away. In Homer’s prints, he would draw his image, in reverse, then cut away from the block the parts that he wanted to stay white. Looking closely at a print you can see the incredibly fine white lines between black in the shading.

"Snap the Whip" shows 9 children playing the game snap the whip. The children in the front have fallen, while the children in the back are holding onto each other. In the background is a schoolhouse nestled among the hills. Barefoot and playing in the grass, children are dressed in pants, hats, and suspenders.
Winslow Homer, American, 1836-1910. Snap the Whip, wood engraving, 1873. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Those white lines are the empty space where a very careful craftsman chiseled out tiny slivers of wood. Sadly, none of Homer’s woodcut plates have survived to the present – most likely they were cut and smoothed to be reused for another design. Still, we can appreciate the incredible skill Winslow Homer and his fellow artists demonstrated in the final prints of his wood engravings. Would you have their patience to create such delicate lines?

Open now until September 23rd, come to FWMoA to see Winslow Homer’s wood engravings for yourself!

6 Replies to “Art Term Tuesday: Engraving”

      1. I don’t know who to bring it to! It is not a print, it is carved on a light, layered wood like board!

      2. Most museum’s do not authenticate works. I would find a gallery near you to take it to for an appraisal.

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