Printmaking in the 15th - 17th Centuries
Initially, printmaking was developed as a way to illustrate the printed word, beginning with relief wood carvings. Printing from a metal plate, introduced a few decades after the woodcut, developed independently. Single prints of the early 15th century were not signed or dated, and were usually religious in nature. This makes it nearly impossible to establish with certainty their place of origin.
Renaissance artists quickly took to printmaking, and turned away from religious topics, instead choosing subjects for their decorative and aesthetic values. These subjects ranged from mythology and pure ornamentation to landscapes and portraiture. Early masters like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) inspired major artists to work with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work more widely.
At the beginning of the 17th century, portrait engraving became popular, and the development of the mezzotint allowed printers to easily create highlights and shadows in their work. As engraving became a commercialized, reproductive method—since prints could be manufactured quickly by craftsmen—etching emerged as the dominant technique for artists.