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Engraving, also known as gravure, is an artistic discipline, which encompasses a variety of printing techniques. These techniques share common processes, including the creation of an image on a rigid surface (the matrix), an application of ink to the matrix, and the transfer of the ink from the matrix to another surface, such as paper or canvas, through pressure. The outcome can be a decorated engraving or a gravure printing plate, typically made of copper or other metals, which is then used to create printed images or illustrations on paper.

Background blue engraving on yellow paper, representing a city river shore, sailing boats, chariots and workers. Foreground a purple engraved dragonfly with the words "Anax Imperator, Emperor Dragonfly"
© “River Scene And Dragonfly” Intaglio Printing by Duranote, from “Sandgate Shore” by John Carmichael and Mark Lambert (1829), Dragonfly Engraving by Sidney Fletcher (1994)

Among the various engraving techniques, one common tool used is the burin, a specialised engraving tool that cuts lines and segments of dots into a metal plate, forming the basis of printmaking today. The burin consists of a handle and a metal shaft with a sharpened, bevelled tip. By applying controlled hand gestures and strength, the artist works with precision and technique to express tonalities, contrast, and volume through different thicknesses of lines; this results in a work of art, consistent with the shared processes mentioned earlier, and is transferred from the metal plate to paper or other substrates using ink to generate colours and textures.

Here the artist will develop a concise and comprehensive understanding of the most important aspects of engraving and how this technique relates to the banknote printing processes.


The technique of engraving originated in China following the invention of paper in the 9th Century. The first known engravers in Europe date back to the 13th Century. Most were goldsmiths and silversmiths, or expert draftsmen who made engravings on metal. However, it was not until the 15th Century, with the advent of papermaking that relief engraving became important.

The images which were carved on blocks of wood were also termed “engraving.” This expression comes from the act of incision on wooden supports. It was the generalisation of the term that led to the erroneous naming of any image produced by hand as an engraving.

One of the greatest exponents of engraving was German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Dürer was introduced to the world of engraving most likely due to his economic situation, and from then on, the artist’s production of engravings accompanied his entire career to the point of placing him at the absolute pinnacle of the history of antique prints.

Like Rembrandt and Goya, Dürer considered engraving to be an autonomous art, not subordinate to painting, and developed pioneering techniques and themes for it. It’s important to note that Dürer’s engravings were produced and gained widespread recognition, in part, due to the presence of skilled typographers in Nuremberg at the time. These typographers played a key role in the production and distribution of his engravings, which contributed to the remarkable diffusion of Dürer’s art throughout the region. Fortunate series of prints, such as The Life of Mary and The Great Passion (on copper), were studied by painters of various nations and influenced the development of Renaissance Art in Europe.

Talking About Engraving Techniques

Black and white picture of hands engraving a portrait of Juana de Asbaje on a metallic plaque for the 200 Nuevos Pesos Mexican Banknote released in 1994.
© “Engraving the portrait of Juana de Asbaje” – Martha Sasian

Engraving systems consist of various techniques, including relief engravings, intaglio, flat systems, and serigraphs. Relief engravings involve using a cutting tool to roughen the surface of the matrix, which can be made of wood, linoleum, or metal plates, and print the reserves left on the surface.

The most common techniques used in relief engravings are:

  • Xylography: In woodcutting, the matrix is wood, on which the incisions made with gouges, creating different reliefs that are later inked with a roller, leaving the ink on the surface. When the paper or support is placed and pressed on wood, the image will be copied, and a print is made.
  • Linocut: This is the same technique as woodcut, but the matrix is a sheet of linoleum, which is a malleable material and easy to work with.

In intaglio engraving systems, incisions are made on metal plates to establish the printing areas. Mechanical or chemical products were used to create the depth of each cut depending on the desired result.

The most common techniques used in intaglio engraving are:

  • Burin or sweet engraving: a cutting tool made with a handle and a piece of metal cut on the tip, sharpened to a bevel. It is used against the grain to create clean grooves of different thicknesses.
  • Dry point: So-called because of the tool used for engraving, this is a very hard cylindrical steel point with which the incisions are made, resulting in a slight burr.
  • Mezzotint (Black Manera): is a technique where a previously grained black plate is used to achieve lighter areas within the artwork by utilizing the cuts. The graining can be achieved with a graining tool, a curved tool full of small teeth, or with aquatint, a technique in which resin is sprinkled and acts as a resist when the back of the metal plate is heated. The duration of exposure to heat determines the degree of graining, which influences the contrast between dark and light areas in the final print.
  • Etching: In etching, the metal plate is covered with a varnish on which the incisions are made. When the metal plate is dipped in acid, the hollows of the cuts will have different depths depending on the time of exposure to the acid. In this way, different shades and tones will be reflected in the print.
  • Aquatint: Resin is applied to the metal plate using a sifter. When the plate is heated on the back, the grains of resin adhere to it, and when the plate is placed in the acid, these areas with resin are protected as it acts as an insulator. This technique refers to the creation of shades of grey in the works.
Red on white engraved portrait of actor Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump with a beard and a Bubba Gump cap with the words "I'm pretty tired... I think I'll go home now. Forrest Gump"
© “Forrest Gump” Engraving by Ohm Chanitrapirak

The flat system is a technique in which no incisions are made on the matrix. This method of engraving is based on the fact that water and fatty elements repel each other. It is possible to create areas where the ink remains and others where it does not, thus creating printing areas. There are no relief areas. Examples of the flat system are lithography and alphography.

The Art of Banknote Engraving: Bringing Art Fiduciaire to Life

Banknotes are a part of our daily lives, yet many fail to appreciate the skill and artistry involved in their design. Intaglio engraving is the art form responsible for the intricate carvings and engravings we see on banknotes, with master engravers honing their craft over many years.

An engraved banknote is comprised of a series of lines and dots, intricately combined to form a complete image, such as a portrait or a landscape. The original design is typically a drawing, painting, or photograph, which is then enlarged and subjected to quality control, detail work, and anti-counterfeiting techniques. The artist’s work is then photographed and reduced to the desired size, forming the model for the engraver to interpret in the engraving.

Using a substrate support made of metal or a digital screen, the artist engraver draws a precise line from the model, defining the size, shape, and tonal range of the image. The ordered lines and dots are placed in various directions, with different depths, widths, and spacing, allowing printmakers to create a detailed and accurate representation of the original design. The lines and dots also create an illusion of three-dimensional reality on the two-dimensional surface of the substrate.

In intaglio printing, the ink is retained by the incised or etched lines, while the surface of the plate is polished, allowing the ink in the image to be transferred to the substrate under controlled pressure, resulting in an intaglio relief print. The use of fine, bold dotted lines create a visual life that is difficult to reproduce and counterfeit, making banknotes secure and unique. Engravers possess extensive knowledge of their art, coupled with excellent manual dexterity, enabling hand-cut precise and minute details, such as portraits, vignettes, and decorations.

Red engraved portrait of Lord Rutherford of Nelson, on a red and green background, from the $100 banknote released by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 2016, with the words "Lord Rutherford of Nelson".
© “Detail from the NZ$100 Banknote” Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Engraving by Jorge Peral

The 21st Century witnessed a revolution in banknote engraving with the emergence of digital tools, including specialized software and tablets that allow artists to hand-draw designs with great accuracy and efficiency. However, many engravers continue to use traditional tools such as burins, seeing the use of digital tools as an aid to, rather than a replacement for, their art. Digital tools offer practical retouching and reworking of lines, allowing greater accuracy in relation to depth, width, and stroke.

Technological advancements have evolved the origination and reproduction processes of intaglio printing on banknotes, allowing a wider range of expression, tones, and colours with precise effects at different depths. Engraving artists today can combine classic hand-drawn strokes with digital patterns to create a new vision of artistic expression in the Art Fiduciaire.

Engraving is not solely confined to banknote design; it also extends to coins. The practice of engraving on metal coins boasts a rich history, having been used to craft stunning and intricate designs for hundreds of years. The process of engraving on metal coins bears similarities to that of banknote engraving. An engraver utilises a burin to etch lines and dots onto a metal surface, thus forming a detailed design. This design is then employed to create a die, which in turn is used to imprint the coin with the design.

Brown on white engraved aerial view of the Dome Des Invalides in Paris and surroundings buildings black on white. With the words "1/40, LES INVALIDES, A. Bergeran 2014"
© “Les Invalides” Intaglio Printing for Oberthur Fiduciaire, Engraving by Alain Bergeran

The art of coin engraving necessitates significant skill and an acute attention to detail, as the engraver must operate within an incredibly small area to devise a design that is both attractive and practical. The design on a coin must be able to endure the wear and tear associated with everyday use, whilst remaining legible and aesthetically appealing.

As we gain a deeper appreciation for the art of banknote engraving, we can recognize the dedication, skill, and innovation that go into creating these everyday items. The fusion of traditional craftsmanship and modern technology has opened up new possibilities for artistic expression and security features in banknotes. This intricate art form, steeped in history, continues to evolve and adapt, ensuring its relevance and significance in the ever-changing world of currency and design.