What were the methods used to copy detailed illustrations for distribution throughout the period between 1500 and 1900 (excluding photography)? I'm particularly interested in techniques common in Europe, for the precise reproduction of these drawings for wide distribution in books and the like.

As the scientific revolution progressed through Europe, and the age of exploration brought people to faraway lands full of wonder, a hand-drawn picture was often worth a thousand words to those who had never seen what was being described. For example, Leeuwenhoek drew detailed illustrations of microscopic organisms and sent them across the channel for the Royal Society, who could not produce microscopes of Leeuwenhoek's quality.

In my own quick perusal through Google, I've most commonly found references to woodblock printing and hand tracing. Were there other methods? Were they precise enough? Imagine being a 17th century botanist trying to identify a plant based on a book with an image that was incorrectly traced, with misshapen leaves and descriptive arrows rotated a few degrees to point to the wrong location.

  • 1
    There were a lot of them, as printing of images was undergoing a lot of innovation during those 400 years.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:51
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    What exactly do you mean by "copy"? Do you want techniques used for book & newspaper illustrations - that is, many copies of an original - or just one or a few copies?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 16:52
  • @jamesqf Good point, I've added a minor update to clarify that I'm curious about cases where many copies are made, such as for books and newspapers.
    – RToyo
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 16:58
  • Woodcut and etching are pretty much the main ones for mass reproduction.
    – user31561
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 18:10

2 Answers 2


If you literally mean "copied", (from an existing original, as opposite to multiplied) then the only method before the invention of photography was "by hand". I mean if you have a picture, and want to reproduce it, the only method was to redraw it, perhaps by putting a transparent paper over it, or using other technical means, like transfering distances between chosen points with a compass. One mechanical tool for copying a line drawing was the pantograph, known since antiquity.

If by "copy" you mean multiplication (producing many similar pictures), there were several methods, including woodcut, etching, lithography, mezzotint, aquatint, and similar technologies. In 19th century hectograph was invented which is essentially a chemical process of making multiple images of the same. In the middle of 19th century photocopying was invented which displaced this technology.

You may also consult the Wikipedia article History of printing


Intaglio was a very common method of image reproduction between 1500 & 1900 and the resulting images were incredibly precise.

It’s quite simple; 1. Cut into a hard surface (such as a copper plate) 2. Cover it in ink, wipe off the excess. 3. Press paper or fabric onto the surface, remove it and the image will have been transferred. Force from pressing causes ink to transfer from the grooves of the engraving onto the print medium.

Bank notes have illustrations which were originally copper plate engravings (intaglio).

Woodblock prints are in relief. Relief printing was an alternate and common method where ink is applied to the surface details of an engraving but not to the grooves or recesses. The image is transferred by pressing paper or fabric onto the engraving. Or in the case of a stamp, the engraving is placed onto ink, then onto paper - transferring the image.

You make relief prints at home with your shoes when you track mud from outside, creating foot prints.

Relief printing is more primitive in that it requires less force to transfer the image than intaglio and can be reproduced by hand. Intaglio printing commonly involved a heavy rolling press to industrialize image reproduction, retain incredible detail and image integrity.

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