Pictures produced through hand printing are indifferently called engravings or prints although both terms refer to different stages of the process: a drawing is engraved on a matrix - plate of wood or metal, inked then wiped so that the ink adheres only to the engraved lines- then the matrix is pressed to transfer the ink on a sheet of paper that now carries a print of the drawing.
Until the middle of the XIXth century, images were published mainly through prints; although this process is largely supplanted today by printing techniques linked to photography, prints remain very popular among art lovers and collectors.
The process was implemented for the first time in China in the VIIth century to print Buddhist prayer books; it was rediscovered during the XIVth century in the West by artists like Schongauer to illustrate the first printed Bibles.
During the Renaissance, artists like Dürer in Germany or Raimondi in Italy, will apply this discovery to more secular works: portraits, mythological scenes, while in parallel prints are turned to more practical uses such as navy maps, books of architecture and ornaments -inspired by the antiquity, anatomy or botanical textbooks, etc. At the same time painters, either by themselves or with the help of engraver craftsmen, produce prints of their painted works to capture a new following. Rembrandt in the seventeenth century is one of the painters who showed the greatest interest in engravings; at the same time painters gained access to artist’s status and the notions of painters’ free will in the choice of the subject and protection of their intellectual property began to emerge.
With the Enlightenment, the development of the print as a media as well as an artistic discipline accelerates: Diderot’s Encyclopedia relies heavily on it to present the state of the art of science and techniques, prints become collectibles and Joseph Smith produces a catalogue of engraved works of Canaletto’s paintings to attract potential customers among the English aristocracy.
The development of prints accompanies the political and industrial revolutions of the XIXth century: Goya denounces the atrocities of the war waged by Napoleon in Spain, Daumier’s caricatures mock Louis Philippe, Gustave Doré stirs the imagination of the readers of Dante, Shakespeare, Rabelais or Victor Hugo works. More prosaically engraving techniques are applied to illustrate school textbooks and to produce banknotes and stamps.
Photography invented in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the development of offset and photogravure printing techniques on an industrial scale, will supplant a century later prints in the mass production of images. But hand printing remains quite topical as an artistic discipline: after Matisse and Picasso’s interest in lithography in the 50s, artists like Andy Warhol explore the artistic diversion of printed images emblematic of the consumer society using artisanal screen printing techniques.
Totally divested of its function in the mass production of images, printmaking today knows a new vogue through innovation and expression of the most contemporary sensibilities; a combination of methods is often involved: etchings are easily edited using the chisel, aquatints are generally complemented using burin and etching, etc...
Original prints, defined by law as "entirely designed prints and hand made by the same artist, irrespective of the technique used, to the exclusion of any mechanical or photomechanical" remain collectibles the same even if the emergence of new technologies such as digital prints does not facilitate authentication.