Generally speaking, metal is used for intaglio techniques in which the ink prints from down in the little carved areas instead of printing from on top of the uncarved surfaces of the plate. Common techniques on metal plates are engraving, where the lines are scratched into the metal with sharp points, and etching, where the lines are eaten into the metal with acid. Relief printing, by contrast, is usually done with softer materials that are easier to carve - the usual wood, linoleum, and rubber I'm always featuring here. But there's no intrinsic reason that any solid material can't work, from the classic potato to the Inuit stonecuts I wrote about a few weeks ago. And today I've got some relief prints made from metal plates, and using a distinctive technique: dotted metalcuts.
From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth century metal plates were sometimes used instead of wood blocks and, when done with similar techniques, produced a very similar result. But there was a technique unique to metal. Craftsmen could hammer the level of the metal down instead of carving it away. Sometimes this was used simply as another way to follow the lines of a drawing, but sometimes the craftsmen used punches to produce dense, repeating patterns to fill space and decorate areas of an image. This technique gives a unique look to a print. (Don't forget to click on these pictures so you can see the detail better.)
The craftsmen who worked in this dotted metalcut technique are all (at least as far as I know) anonymous, but the speculation is that they were probably trained as goldsmiths, since the punches they used look like goldsmithing punches. They worked on relatively large plates, compared with contemporary woodcuts, and it appears that many of the worked plates were kept as decorative plaques in their own right after printing.
My favorite is the first up top, showing St Jerome removing a thorn from a lion's foot. I love the variety of patterns the artist has used, from the wonderfully geometric floor to the sprinkling of dots across the grass and Jerome's sleeves. There's a nice mix of carving and punching on the chunks of flowered grass on the lower left. You can find a few different punch shapes in this one. Plus, I really like the flock of birds in the sky. (One note - apparently the design for this piece was copied at about third or fourth hand from earlier artists, as was quite common at the time. I'd be curious to see how the dotted version differs from the original, but I couldn't track down the original source of the design.)
In my second example here, Jesus's robe is absolutely beautiful with two sizes of dots. I love the way all the wrinkles have been left black. I also enjoy how the men taunting Jesus are portrayed in what was the height of trendiness when this piece was made in the 1470s. It must have made a statement to the viewers to see such fashionable dandies cast in the role of villains. (By the way, I scanned this image from a book with black and white photos, but the original must have been colored - hence the smudgy grey areas.)
And one last example, once again with the lovely and inventive variety of textures that I like so much in these dotted metalcuts. The artist has varied the size and spacing of the dots to create different areas, as well as using lots of the more usual carving to make such patterns as the leaves on the trees in the left, the tiles of the church roof, and the petals of all the wonderful flowers.
I'd really love to try this technique, but alas, this isn't one that adapts to the materials I have to hand. I once tried using leather punches on a wood block, but the grain means that nothing short of a sharp nail is able to make a clean cut. I have successfully used nails and metal rings on wood, but even so the result is much rougher and less precise than on metal. But these pieces show what the punching technique can achieve, and I'm sorry that it was in use for such a brief period.
[Pictures: St Jerome and the Lion, dotted metal relief print by anonymous German artist, c. 1470-1480 (image from the British Museum);
Christ Crowned with Thorns, dotted metal relief cut, Netherlands, 1470s (image from Prints & People by A. Hyatt Mayor, 1971);
St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, dotted metal relief print by the "Master of Jesus at Bethany," c. 1470-1485 (image from the British Museum).]