Renaissance Printmaking: How Albrecht Dürer Changed the Game

In the early sixteenth century, printmaking in Europe saw a radical change due to the innovation of the genius artist Albrecht Dürer. Here's how he revolutionized the medium.

Nov 24, 2022By Eve Cobb, BA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)
how albrecht durer changed printmaking renaissance
Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe by Albrecht Dürer, 1500, via Alte Pinakothek, Munich; with Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1504, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


During the early Renaissance, printmaking was considered a craft; its use limited to mass-produced book illustrations and devotional prints. However, in the late fifteenth century, fine artists began exploring the medium. Beautiful engravings and woodcut prints began circulation across Europe. The figure who most ingeniously made use of the new artistic medium was the German artist Albrecht Dürer (21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528). His artworks marked a decisive point in the history of printmaking. Dürer’s investigation into the possibilities of printmaking saw him produce over 300 prints throughout his artistic career, mostly woodcut and engraving. These two types of printmaking were difficult to achieve complex and naturalistic designs in – yet Dürer became a master of both.


The Emergence of Printmaking as Art

anonymous apocalypse woodcut print
A Rider on a Black Horse with a Pair of Balances in His Hand; and A Pale Horse with Death as Its Rider, from an Apocalypse blockbook, Anonymous, 1450, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The invention of the printing press by German Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) in around 1440 led to the production of thousands of woodcuts in Northern Europe. Woodcuts were in demand for illustrating books printed in movable type. This was efficient as both the text and the woodcuts required the same type of press. Most significantly, the printing press allowed for greater detail in designs. Previously, woodcuts were printed by hand and so required simple compositions because any small details would have been rendered blurry. This wasn’t the case with the printing press. Its introduction was a critical juncture that allowed artists to experiment with a medium previously limited to simple illustrations.


Engraving similarly had its roots outside of fine art. It originated in the traditional craft of metal ornamentation. Goldsmiths had been using a sharp steel tool called a burin to incise decorative patterns into luxury metalwork products since at least the twelfth century. The skill required for engraving was therefore widely practiced by metalworkers and well-known prior to its application to the print medium.


christ crucifixion medieval chasse
Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty, French, c.1180-90, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The mass commercial precedent of woodcut book illustrations proved to be revolutionary for artists. The reproductive potential of prints, in which one woodcut or engraving could produce hundreds of copies, allowed Albrecht Dürer’s art to be shared across Europe. He took advantage of the new technology to successfully shape his artistic identity. Each of his prints included his iconic monogram, ensuring that his personal reputation spread alongside his artworks.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


How Dürer Made His Prints 

durer flight into egypt woodcut print
The Flight into Egypt by Albrecht Dürer, c.1504, via National Gallery of Art, Washington


Dürer’s success with both woodcut and engraving was partly due to his ability to produce designs with a level of detail and naturalism previously unseen. Both printmaking techniques rely on intrinsically different processes and come with their own difficulties. Woodcuts are a form of relief print. This means that areas of the design intended to be covered with ink are left intact on the wooden block (the matrix), which acts as a stamp to transfer the ink onto paper. All the areas intended to remain blank in the final print are cut away. However, the opposite is true for engravings, called intaglio prints. Here, the ink pools into the grooves that the burin incises. Excess ink on the surface of the metal matrix is wiped away, and the remaining ink is transferred onto the paper when put through a printing press.


durer knight death devil engraving print
Knight, Death, and the Devil by Albrecht Dürer, 1513, via Art Institute of Chicago


Printmaking during the fifteenth century was a restrictive medium compared to painting and sculpture. Artists were only able to use lines of varying lengths and widths to convey features such as form, spatial depth, and light. Tonal gradation was reached through hatching, which was widely used in intaglio engravings. In woodcuts, cross-hatching was usually too intricate a detail to achieve without damaging the matrix. Additionally, most prints during the Renaissance period were monochrome, in contrast to the vibrant colors found in paintings and illuminated manuscripts.


These restrictions were not shortcomings for Dürer, however. They offered his prints unique potential in the realm of naturalism. Dutch philosopher Erasmus (1466-1536) famously praised Dürer:


“What does he not express in monochromes, that is, in black lines? […] He depicts that which cannot be depicted: fire, rays of light, thunder” (Panofsky, 1955).


Dürer didn’t need to rely on the freedom of form found in painting or drawing to create great art. He was able to express beauty through line alone. The difficulty of the printmaking process meant that any naturalistic effects achieved in this medium were all the more impressive.


Workshop Training & Early Influences

durer martyrdom saint catherine alexandria woodcut print
The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Albrecht Dürer, 1497, via Cleveland Museum of Art


Dürer’s artistic training paved the way for his ability in both techniques. His father, Albrecht Dürer the Elder (1427-1502), was a goldsmith. As such, the young Dürer was well positioned to realize the potential of engraving techniques. In his father’s Nuremberg workshop, he learned the skill of incising ornamental illustrations into metal using a burin. He would then be able to apply this method to printmaking.


Additionally, Dürer’s father would have taught him the precise draftsmanship so characteristic of his work. In 1486, he learned more naturalistic methods in the workshop of the German painter and printmaker Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519). Dürer also had connections with the production of woodcut illustrations for books through his publisher godfather, Anton Koberger (1440-1513), who printed books in Nuremberg. This early experience and engagement with two key trades connected to printmaking significantly set him up for a brilliant application of skill over the course of his career.


martin schongauer entombment engraving print
The Entombment by Martin Schongauer, 1491, via Yale University Art Gallery, Hartford


One of Dürer’s biggest influences in printmaking was the artist Martin Schongauer (1448-1491). His prints were immensely popular during the 1470s. Their effect on Dürer can be seen in his early drawings, which emulated Schongauer’s hatched methods. This hatching technique would later be translated into Dürer’s engravings. Despite Schongauer’s clear skill, Dürer would eventually surpass him in both naturalism and dynamic compositions.


Dürer would additionally have seen engravings by the Italian artists Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1432-1498) and Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), whose classically inspired Renaissance styles were unlike those of Northern Europe. Many of their figures would have been depicted nude, following the classical tradition. A key theme in Dürer’s works was a focus on rendering the body in an accurate fashion, which made his art only more naturalistic.


His interest in anatomy was further explored on his first trip to Italy in 1494, where ideal proportions were a characteristic feature of fine arts. Theories of proportion rooted in Italian Renaissance works continued to be relevant to Dürer throughout his career. In 1528, Dürer’s Four Books on Human Proportion, a treatise on the correct representation of anatomy, was published posthumously. It showed the clear influence of Italian Renaissance figures like Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). The period of Dürer’s career directly succeeding his trip demonstrates the fusion between Northern and Italian styles in his work. By merging aspects from both Italian and Northern European art in his prints, Dürer is often considered to be a pioneer of the Northern Renaissance.


Breaking the Mould: Dürer’s Early Woodcuts

durer samson rending lion woodcut print
Samson Rending the Lion by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1496-8, via Princeton University Art Museum


Fresh from his trip to Italy in 1495, Dürer opened his own printmaking workshop in Nuremberg. Dürer’s woodcut prints in these early years excellently demonstrated his potential as an artist. His printmaking could display a high level of detail and begin to enter the realm of naturalism. In Samson Rending the Lion (c. 1496), Dürer created a radical new style of woodcut. Its predecessors were simpler compared to its rich detail and complexity of composition. In contrast, Dürer insisted on pushing the medium to its limit. By employing the notoriously difficult cross-hatching, he created deeper shadows compared to the sections of hatching. In these areas, all but the tiniest areas of wood were carved away. This would have required extreme intricacy during production.


durer samson rending lion woodblock
Woodblock for Samson Rending the Lion by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1496-8, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


There is debate as to whether Dürer carved the woodblock for Samson himself instead of solely acting as the genius behind its design. Designing woodcuts and cutting blocks required different skills. Dürer would have likely relied on a workshop of well-trained artisans who could carve his designs into soft wooden blocks. Early scholars have argued that the block shows a “characteristic personal quality” (Ivins, 1929). It’s not impossible to imagine that someone as multi-skilled as Dürer could venture into woodcutting. However, the carver of the Samson woodblock was clearly highly technically skilled, which would have required a considerable amount of training to achieve. At the very least, Dürer would have closely supervised the production of the block. The detailed network of undulating lines shown in the block would have required his input. This was a pioneering new way of suggesting movement in the traditionally linear woodcut.


Dürer also approached light in a new way in his early woodcuts. In The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1497), a simple ink outline delineates the clouds and the light of heaven. Their interior space is left blank. Dürer contrasted this empty space of blank paper against the linear hatching of the sky, incredibly creating an illusion of spatial depth and sacred light shining down on the scene. The Martyrdom represents Dürer’s early realization of print’s potential to express qualities of light. The prints of this period showcase a flexibility of line and inventiveness. Because of Dürer’s early experimentation with woodcut printmaking, the medium was now able to express a new level of dynamism and naturalism.


Adam and Eve: Behind the Printmaking

durer adam eve engraving print
Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1504, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


In addition to woodcut, Dürer displayed excellent mastery of engraving, his preferred method of printmaking. Adam and Eve (1504) is representative of the exquisite level of detail embedded in Dürer’s work. Every element of the print was carefully executed, from the curls of hair on Adam’s chest to the extremely naturalistic bark of the trees.


The print displays the classical elements that Dürer picked up from Italy and his studies in anatomical proportion. Adam and Eve are depicted as idealized figures in symmetrical contrapposto poses, a feature of classical art. He used a burin to create a stippling effect that models the play of light on the flesh. This technique suggests the physicality of the human with the capability of real movement. Adam, captured mid-motion, looks as though ready to step forward and take a bite of fruit that Eve offers to him.


Here, Dürer achieved depth through multiple techniques. As well as hatching and cross-hatching, he employed double hatching, adding a further layer of lines. This creates high contrast between light and shadow, known as a chiaroscuro effect. In contrast to dark trees in the background, Adam and Eve are bathed in light. Dürer once again employed the blank paper itself for tonal variation, truly making the most out of the medium. Trial proofs of Adam and Eve document how Dürer worked on the engraving in sections, methodically building up the details after first incising the outline. These initial proofs would have allowed Dürer to make sure his design reached his high standards as he progressed through the engraving.


durer adam eve engraving trial proof
Adam and Eve trial proof by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1504, via British Museum, London


Dürer was intent on elevating the status of print as a legitimate form of fine art. He was successful in this partly due to his ability to translate naturalistic qualities into printmaking. Idealist features were balanced with the naturalist, a result of his unique merging of Italian and Northern styles of art. His variety of techniques in both woodcut and engraving allowed him to achieve new effects in depth, light, and treatment of the body. These breakthroughs helped to establish printmaking as a medium with great potential, a legacy that has continued to this day.

Author Image

By Eve CobbBA (Hons) History of Art (in progress)Eve is an art history student at the University of Cambridge, with wide interests ranging from the Medieval and Renaissance to the fin de siècle. She is a particular fan of Christian iconography and looks forward to pursuing this interest once she begins her MA in Medieval Studies. She is currently enjoying researching Anglo-Saxon art for her final year. Outside of her studies, Eve enjoys illustration, going to galleries, and reading essays and poetry.