Friday, October 12, 2012

Banknote Engraver

Christopher Madden is one of the few people who creates the artwork that appears on U.S. paper money. He works at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving in Washington, DC, one of only three master artists and three apprentices. I visited him last month for a rare tour of his workshop.


It took ten years of apprenticeship for Mr. Madden to get where he is now. One of the milestone projects was to do an engraved portrait of President Obama. 


“Fortunately he was happy with the likeness,” Madden said.


Banknote engraving a painstaking art form, hardly changed in 200 years. All the work is done by hand at the printed size; there are no photographic or computer shortcuts. The lines and dots on a dollar bill are engraved with a burin on a steel plate. Each microscopic line often must be re-entered by the cutting tool several times. 


Artists learn the vocabulary of line: the “mainline,” “crossline,” and “interdot,” which add up to a tonal rendering that can suggest a curve in a cheek, a curl in a lock of hair, or a cluster of leaves in a tree. 


“It’s the most time-consuming and difficult graphic process in the world,” Madden says.

It’s often a tug of war between security and artistry. Currency has to be safe from counterfeiting, of course. Between 60% and 75% of currency that's printed ends up overseas, and a sizeable percentage of U.S. currency overseas is not genuine. 

But the money also has to look good, too. 

Most collectors agree that U.S. banknote engraving reached its highest artistry with the “Educational Series” in 1896. In those days, notable academically trained artists, such as Asher B. Durand, Walter Shirlaw and Kenyon Cox contributed their talents to make the money beautiful. 

"The admiration for artists like Mucha and Durand runs deep among my colleagues," Madden said.  

What traits make a good banknote engraver? Madden replied that they must draw well, they must work in a disciplined fashion, and they must recognize that they don’t have any ownership over their work.

To satisfy his own artistic itch, Madden is a dedicated plein-air painter in his spare time.
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Photo of Madden from CCAD website

12 comments:

dness said...

I think Obamas mouth looks a bit strange. But It's a interesting art field.

Anonymous said...

the “mainline,” “crossline,” and “interdot,”

I'dd love to learn more about the technique, but this part interested me the most. I try not to get too carried away with academics, but I sometimes can't resist.

Jake Murray said...

This is something I've been curious about for a long time. Incredible skill these guys have! Thanks for sharing, James!

Keith Parker said...

I'm guessing an artist wishing to do this kind of work would need very good eyesight. Did Mr. Madden comment on that?

etc, etc said...

There are some real drawing and modeling problems with the Obama engraving; frankly the comparison with the Washington engraving isn't doing Madden any favors.

Russell Dickerson said...

We missed our chance to take the Bureau tour a few years ago (by ten minutes), but I'd definitely like to go there again. I've always been fascinated by engraving, such beautiful, technical work.

Alhaitham Jassar said...

How long does it typically take to complete an image like that? Say, the Obama one..

James Gurney said...

Alhaitham, Glad you asked. I forgot to mention that. Each face takes about five months to design and engrave.

Russell, we didn't do the overall tour which shows the printing process either, our visit to Mr. Madden's studio was in another building.

Etc and Dness, it's hard to evaluate an engraving based on the way it looks on the web, because the moire patterns change the values. You really have to see the actual printed version.

Keith, Most engravers hold a magnifying loupe in their non-burin hand.

Jake, Me too. I had no idea they did the engraving by hand and at size. I somehow assumed they did it bigger and had it reduced somehow.

Anonymous, There's a whole style and logic to how they use those lines, and I was fascinated, too. It's a little different from scratchboard drawing, which I'm more familiar with, or even wood engraving, like the kind they used to do in the popular magazine.

Stevie Moore said...

James, I actually took a week long workshop from him entitled, "the art of Money" focusing on engraving and sponsored by the American Numismatic Association. It was quite an awesome class and he is an excellent instructor, it's really cool you got to meet him.

Joseph Adams said...

I am an engraver myself (though I work in copper rather than steel, as my editions are always quite small), so I get very excited when I see attention given to our field. I think we are kind of a dying breed, so my profound thanks for this blog entry: Perhaps someone will be inspired to pick up a burin for the first time.

Sir Brian The Manly said...

What a MADDENingly tedious art form.

Thedoris Jackson said...

There are some actual drawing and modeling problems with the Obama engraving......
Gray Laser Engraving