Line engraving, also known as gravure, is a traditional engraving technique in which a line is carved into a metal surface for decoration or printmaking. A burin or graver is used to accomplish this. It is primarily used to describe printed commercial or book illustrations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in modern terms. The early Aztecs used line engraving to inscribe decorative elements on their tools, and it was later developed in Italy and Germany in the 15th century.
A burin or graver is a sharpened steel rod with a wooden handle that is pushed across the surface of a metal plate to create a line engraving. Sharpening the tool creates very fine furrows in the metal plate, which are later filled with ink and printed. Because copper plates are softer and easier to engrave, they were originally used for this process. Only 100 to 150 prints could be made before the plate had to be reworked due to the softness of copper plates. Copper plates were replaced harder steel plates in the early nineteenth century, allowing for greater line precision and a greater number of prints.
From Aztec times until the 15th century, line engraving techniques remained largely unchanged. Andrea Mantegna in Italy started using parallel lines at increasing intervals to create shading around this time. In addition, cross hatching and curved lines were used Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer in Germany to create a greater sense of volume. Schongauer and Dürer, both Nuremberg school students, started using line engraving to create technically proficient artworks that they could then reproduce consistently. With the help of Peter Paul Rubens in France and Raphael in Italy, this quickly spread throughout Europe. Line engraving was a common medium used artists and craftsmen to illustrate books and news items, as well as to create reproducible fine artworks, the end of the 16th century.
Line engraving is a time-consuming process that can take weeks or months to complete, depending on the complexity of the image to be engraved. There was a push in the late nineteenth century for a greater number of illustrated books to be produced more cheaply and quickly. Because of the speed and ease with which images could be created, etching metal plates with acid became the preferred method. Line engraving as an illustrative medium deteriorated as a result of this phenomenon, which was compounded the introduction of photographic techniques.