1-LEDE 500 wide

Beauty of Engraving: Michael Osborne

Written by in Collections, Features

On the Money: Michael Osborne and Engraving

Michael Osborne has designed limited-edition print No. 6 in Neenah’s Beauty of Engraving series. He adapted elements from old stock certificates, added an original cartouche, and set some devilishly tiny type. The print shows off the clarity of engraving at its fancy finest, with borders pushing the press quite close to the edge. Each print in Neenah’s ongoing series showcases the work of a different graphic designer, produced by a different engraver.

2-Fanned Prints 500 wide

Producing this print was a great collaboration between designer and engraver, The Ligature in Berkeley, Calif. We asked Michael, who owned a letterpress shop – One Heart Press – for 21 years, for his impressions about engraving.

How would you describe the major differences between engraving and letterpress in terms of effect? 

Well, you can achieve the same sort of luscious tactile beauty with both, but in a sense the techniques are basically the opposite. Both processes rely on pressure to transfer the image from plate to paper, but with letterpress, the plate presses the image down into the stock. Engraving is the reverse – the stock is pressed down, using terrific pressure, onto the inked plate. I never fail to be amazed when I watch engraving – and I thought letterpress was complex. Engraving is downright mysterious.

Order a complimentary copy of Michael Osborne’s Beauty of Engraving art print here: http://thebeautyofengraving.com/issue/issue-six/. Supplies are limited, so click soon to avoid disappointment.

3-Ink Reservoir

Chip Forman of The Ligature comments,
“The ink was specially formulated for the illustrations.
It’s the finest possible  – I’m referring to its consistency
– just pure color and transparent white.” Photo: Michael Osborne.

Why’s that?

The roller puts a thin layer of ink over the entire metal plate, and some of it immediately fills in the recesses etched in the plate. Then a huge roll of special kraft paper mounted on the press swoops down – like some dinosaur neck or something – to wipe off every molecule of ink on the surface of the plate. And then the paper is pressed down and magically picks up all of the ink in the recesses. The detail can be so spectacular, it’s hard to believe it actually works!

4-Atomic Man 500 wide

And how does your print feel to the touch?

The engraved image sits on top of the sheet – which is why many people call it “raised printing.” Again, it’s the opposite of letterpress in this regard. High and Low, Fred and Ginger, Fred and Wilma, Oscar and Felix. That said, on this print you can feel different tactile effects. The “full strength” areas – such as the borders and the type, even the tiniest type, feel raised. Mr. Atomic Energy and the eagle feel much less raised, because they are basically distressed line art. The N-for-Neenah, the big 6 and the border are the largest solids, and they actually feel slightly embossed because they carry so much ink and are etched more deeply in the die. It’s amazing to run your fingers over the whole thing with your eyes closed – and look under a loupe at the details.

5-Package 500 wide

Let’s talk about Mr. Atomic Energy and the eagle.

They come from stock certificates in my not-quite-voluminous collection of ephemera. I had enlarged the certificate several years ago, as the basis for a wrapping paper design – which was offset printed of course. I thought it would be an interesting demo of engraving to recreate the certificate feel. I love to think about the phenomenal engraved works of Old Masters who labored with imperfect tools and little light. Modern technology has made designing imagery for engraving so easy. You scan, you finesse, and voilà! The on-press craft has changed very little.

6-Chrome Die 500 wide

Chip Forman elaborates, “The copper illustration die was chromed to provide
additional durability. Otherwise, chances are high that the wear on the die would
have required making a second die to complete the job, with no guarantee of how
closely it would match the original die.”


7-Green Die 500 wide

This copper die did not require chroming.

Speaking of craft, did you get any tips or pointers from the engraver regarding your design?

Absolutely. I’ve worked with Chip Forman on several projects over the years. He loves – truly loves – engraving. And it doesn’t hurt that he is a serious stamp collector. His suggestion that helped me the most was to open up the negative space in the eagle to unclog some of the detail. He also recommended adjustments to the ink color and a “magic formula.”

8-Eagle cropped 500 wide

The pressman keeps an eagle eye out for any
loss of detail during the run, which can be caused by
specks of ink drying in the etched recesses.


9-Greenback 500 wide

Very dark green engraving ink on
CLASSIC CREST® Sawgrass achieved
the currency effect Michael was after.

Is there anything tricky or challenging about your design?

The dimensions of the border are very close to the maximum size for the engraving die. It requires a lot of ink and a lot of pressure. This could have caused the stock to bow a bit – but the CLASSIC CREST® 100C performed superbly. The Ligature was masterful.

Can you point out some of the tiny type you used?

Of course. My birth date is running up the left margin. The “Neenah” under the big N is even smaller. And I love the contrasts: Mr. Atomic Energy at the top is 2 inches tall, and the renewable electricity icon at the lower left is less than a quarter in. If you look under a loupe at the tiny buzzing bees, they are actually halftones. Chip spotted that and asked me if I wanted to keep them that way, and I said, “Let’s try it!”

10-Press Approval 500 wide

Press approval!

We behold that you included verbal as well as visual tributes to the attributes of engraving.

I wrote the big raves in a tone a friend of mine refers to as “vintage hyperbole.” And the tiny script framing Mr. Atomic Energy’s forehead says, “Technically superior in testing from subject to surface.” This could apply to whatever he’s testing, but it’s also my testimonial to the exacting craft of engraving and the beauty of CLASSIC CREST Sawgrass – the color of money!

All photos except as noted © StudioAlex.

  1. 03
    Tom Wright said:

    I encourage lovers of print to e-mail us per the link at the top of the article above for a copy of this engraved work. This is one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of design for engraving and execution of this print process anyone will ever have the chance to physically own. Spectacular, simply spectacular!

  2. 03
    Allan Haley said:

    It is wonderful to see old crafts in a new light – and produced with such grace and excellence! I’ve admired Michael’s fine work for many years and have used it as examples of fine typography and exceptional design in many of my articles and presentations. He certainly does not disappoint in the “Beauty of Engraving” print.

    Nice going Michael! You continue to delight and amaze.


  3. 03

    At least four dimensions of art & craft are expressed here: design (Michael Osborne), printing (Chip Forman/The Ligature), photography/videography (Studio Alex, PaperSpecs) & writing (Alyson Kuhn). All are working at the highest levels of execution. This captures the process &, if you will, the “mystery” of engraving in away that has no equal. Marvelously accomplished.

  4. 03
    Matt Porter said:

    Michael Osborne and The Ligature are a dynamic team. The name of The Ligature is marvelous. Michael demonstrates again why he is regarded among the elite in American design — a position he has held for decades.