Escher was a printmaker, but what exactly is that? Read the pages below to find out more about the techniques he used: woodcut, wood engraving, linocut, lithography, etching and mezzotint. Each of them has its own particular qualities, so the prints made using these techniques differ in terms of their complexity and visual character.
Like mezzotint, etching is a form of intaglio printing. In intaglio techniques the image is incised into a metal plate with an etching needle or with acid. In an etching a waxy coating known as the ground is applied to the smooth printing plate, and the image is incised into this layer using special etching tools. The plate is then dipped into a mordant, an acid solution, which bites into the metal where the wax has been scratched away, leaving an incised line.
Escher began his career as a printmaker in 1916, at the age of 17, with a linocut portrait of his father. The linocut or lino printing technique is a relief printing technique in which parts of a piece of linoleum are cut away to create the image. The technique is similar to the woodcut. However, because linoleum is softer, it is easier to cut than wood.
Lithography is a planographic technique. The name is derived from the Greek words λίθος (lithos - stone) and γράφειν (graphein – to write or draw). In lithography the stone is not incised, scratched or cut as in the woodcut technique, for example. This technique uses the chemical properties of oil and water, which do not mix. This is the basis of lithographic printing.
Escher used the mezzotint technique for the first time in 1946. In this special, labour-intensive intaglio technique, the surface of a copper plate is roughened using a rocker. The raised edges along the incised lines are known as burrs. A lot of ink is caught by the burrs, leaving a deep black on the paper when printed. Lighter areas are created by removing the burrs using a sharp scraper.
Wood engraving is a relief printing technique which closely resembles the woodcut. In a woodcut, the block is cut along the grain, using planks that have been cut vertically from the trunk. In wood engraving the artist cuts across the grain.
The woodcut is the oldest known graphic technique. The Chinese were cutting images into wooden blocks over 2000 years ago. Traditionally, a woodcut is made using wood from a fruit tree such as an apple or pear tree, which has a nice fine grain, making it robust yet soft enough to carve. All the wood apart from the image itself is cut away using gouges.