A Photogravure
A Hand Pulled Etching
Gary L. Temple and Marylee M. Moreland
Copyright October 26, 2000

"On any type of artwork one must verify everything and take nothing for granted."

Gary L. Temple and Marylee M. Moreland
Copyright October 26, 2000

For many years, we have been continually asked, "How do you tell the difference between a photogravure and a hand pulled etching?" Our answer: it is not that easy, nor is it all that simple. Sometimes the individual with the question appears to think that we are making it into a very "scientific" process, so that one will have to seek out an expert to get an evaluation, but that is not the case. This document provides some basic guidelines and examples for field evaluation, however you still need to depend upon your own logic and some common sense.

What is a hand pulled etching?

The artist creates a design in reverse on a zinc or copper plate that is covered with an emulsion. By drawing on the plate, the artist removes the emulsion. The plate is then placed in a diluted bath of nitric acid. All of the areas where the emulsion is removed, the acid "bites" into the plate. The artist may block an area from the acid bath in various methods to create different depths to the acid biting and also the effect of the appearance as to the biting of the acid.

When the acid biting is done, the artist may then pull some test prints to determine if there needs to be more texture. The artist also works with a stylus to "scratch" the plate in areas to create a softness which is known as drypoint. The bites from the technique of drypoint are not as deep and must be reworked by the artist during the edition of the printing.

The artist then cleans off all of the remaining emulsion from the plate and applies the ink "by hand" to the plate so that the ink is retained in the bitten areas. A moistened piece of paper is laid upon the plate and the two are literally pressed together using an etching press. After coming out of the etching press, the artist "pulls" or lifts the paper away from the plate. The artist may pull several impressions to decide on which ones that they want to pattern the edition after. These selected impressions become known as the artist's proofs. These are the images that the artist uses to compare each pulled print to them and to decide if it is worthy of being part of the edition.

What is a photogravure?

A photogravure is produced by basically using a light sensitive tissue on a plate or plates. Each plate is exposed the same way and placed in a diluted bath of nitric acid as with an etching. The difference being is the "bitten" areas are all exactly the same depth, appearing noticeably flat. Unlike a hand pulled etching, the ink on a photogravure plate is applied and cleaned with a mechanical squeegee. The mechanical squeegee applies the ink exactly the same way each time to the plate so thus the impression is the same each time. When a photogravure is printed, the paper is not wet like with a hand pulled etching but rather the plate is "stamped" against the paper. The ink then lays upon the paper and not into the paper as with a hand pulled etching.

Further Comments:

Probably one of the most well known producers of photogravures was Brown and Bigelow. Over the years, Brown and Bigelow has done everything from reproductions of etchings for calendars, posters, and, or greeting cards.

"Gliding" by Richard E. Bishop
Medium: Reproduction

There are several factors to consider when evaluating an impression that looks very good initially to the untrained eye. First, in this case, notice the verbage to the immediate right of the signature area and the small symbol on the left side of the image.

This is a detail view where one can see the letters of "repro."

The term "REPRO" can be found in various areas depending upon the choice of the photogravure publisher.

This is a good example of the Brown and Bigelow copyright and logo.

Another example of the Brown and Bigelow logo.

Here is an example of the signature and copyright notation. Notice the evenness of the signature.

Notice the embossment in the paper along the outside which is normally assumed to be the plate mark.

Notice the location of the Brown and Bigelow logo. The insertion of the jockey on the horse was done by Brown and Bigelow to make it appear as a type of remarque done by the artist.

Example of a Richard Bishop photogravure, the Brown and Bigelow logo is just barely visible on the left bottom corner of the image.

Here is an example of a photogravure produced from an etching by Richard E. Bishop of "Geese Overhead." The hand pulled etching was done in 1934 and the photogravure was done in 1938. The prospective collector must be aware of the proper image sizes of the hand pulled etchings versus the photogravure images.

Just a suggestion, read the fine print and you will soon begin to enjoy the marketing efforts for photogravures.


The conceptual confusion of a photogravure versus a hand pulled etching is like the old saying, "I am not confused, I am just well mixed." Are there clear answers to determine whether an image is a photogravure or a hand pulled etching? The answer is "No." Just because it may have some factors of a hand pulled etching does not mean that it is one.

The Question Of A Photogravure Versus A Hand Pulled Etching
By Gary L. Temple and Marylee M. Moreland
Copyright October 26, 2000

Additional References:


The following is from "The Etchings of Edward Borein, A Catalogue Of His Work" by John Galvin: "A plate of copper (or sometimes of zinc)is cleaned and polished, and a coating of varnish--the etching ground--is applied in preparation. The artist then draws his design through the ground with an etching needle, aware that in the print it will appear reversed. In a bath of diluted nitric acid, the lines traced by the needle are bitten into the plate, the rest of the plate being protected from the acid by the varnish. Lines can also be scratched onto the plate with a thin steel tipped needle if no varnish is applied, and the result is called a drypoint. However, drypoint lines wear out much faster than etching lines. Etching and drypoint are sometimes used in combination. Aquatint is an etching process in which tonal areas are created instead of lines. This is achieved by dusting powdered resin on the plate which when heated will cause the resin to contract and thus allow the acid to bite the plate in the small crevices of the grain. The finished plate is inked so that all furrows are filled, excess ink is wiped off, and a sheet of dampened paper is pressed against the plate in an etching press. The resulting impression, a sheet of paper which has absorbed the ink from the plate, is called a print. Generally, black ink is used, but some artists have preferred sepia or other colored inks."

"The Etchings Of Edward Borein, A Catalogue of his work" by John Galvin, Compiled with the assistance of Warren R. Howell, In collaboration with Harold G. Davidson; page vi; John Howell--Books, 1971.

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