Portraits of a Master Engraver

You may not know Arlington artist Thomas Hipschen by name, but you've seen his work. It's on several denominations of U.S. currency.

NAME:  Thomas Hipschen

AGE:  64

LIVES IN:  Arlington’s Penrose neighborhood with his wife of 20 years, painter Pattee Hipschen. Their son is a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University.

RESUME:  Spent nearly 38 years at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where he co-created the U.S. $5, $20, $50 and $100 bills. He also engraved 130 stamp designs from 1972 to 1996.

CURRENT JOB:  Freelance Master Engraver; faculty member at the Intaglio Engraver Academy in Urbino, Italy; member, International Banknote Designers Association.

FIRST JOB: I grew up in Bellevue, Iowa, and worked in a pillow factory with my brother, but got fired for being underage (11). I later got jobs digging graves and ringing church bells.

ARTISTIC BREAK: When I was 17, a cousin told me about the engraving apprenticeship at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I took a 25-hour bus ride to D.C. to check it out. They hired me and sent me to local schools to study—George Washington University, American University and the Corcoran School of Art.

THE 10-YEAR APPRENTICESHIP: There’s a lot more to engraving than just drawing pictures. You have to know a little bit of everything—chemistry, printing, paper, electrolytic-plate manufacturing. So I was pretty much locked in by the time I got out of my apprenticeship. I got job offers from other countries to design their banknotes but didn’t want to move.

A PAINTSTAKING PROCESS: In traditional banknote engraving (intaglio engraving), I draw on the surface of the metal in reverse of the desired print. Then I use a precise little chisel called a burin that I make myself. Everyone holds a tool at a slightly different angle, and it has to be perfect for you. Using a burin, I cut into a metal plate to make the design using main-line cuts, cross-line cuts and inter dots. Ink is then applied to the surface of the plate so it gets into the cuts, and the surface is wiped clean. The paper is pressed to the plate with lots of pressure to make the prints.

TIME IS MONEY: No one can believe it takes an entire month to engrave something the size of a postage stamp, but that’s what makes the process so valuable to the banknote industry. It’s a security feature. Counterfeiters can’t afford to invest that kind of time. Intaglio printing can be used to deploy lots of effects, such as infrared inks and color-shift inks. It’s very, very hard to replicate the process, because it’s being printed from all these different depths of cuts on the plate. It catches the light in a way no other kind of printing does.

FAVORITE DESIGNS: I loved doing postage stamps because I could experiment and use up to nine colors. The Biltmore House stamp (1981) came out rather well. I also did intricate shells, landscapes and portraits of famous people, like [aviator] Bessie Coleman, Edward R. Murrow and T.S. Eliot. Usually I worked from actual photographs or photographs of portraits. While I was working on the Ben Franklin portrait (for the $100 bill), I visited the original in the National Portrait Gallery on the way home from work and read seven biographies of him in my free time. I just loved the character.

THE ART OF THE DO-OVER: I once had to redo Ronald Reagan’s jacket after spending more than 100 hours on his portrait. [The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing creates an official portrait of every U.S. president and sells the prints through its gift shop.] Rumor had it that Nancy thought the coat looked too informal, like seersucker. Fortunately, I was able to add a bunch of lines to quiet it down so the texture would appear more uniform. I thought it was a success because they didn’t comment on his face.

GOING DIGITAL: In the ’80s and ’90s, computers changed how money was produced. As the lead engraver at the Bureau, I was the first one to look at new banknote software and play with it. I would give them a list of things I didn’t like about it. Portraits were the last pieces of the puzzle to go digital. Around 2002, one of the Swiss manufacturers designed a machine that could translate line drawings into three-dimensional engravings. You could vary the depth and create texture. This was a real game changer and made digital-to-plate processing possible. My last three or four years at the Bureau, I didn’t do any engraving. I just trained people to use the computer modeling and laser engraving equipment. I retired as quickly as I could. I’m old school.

NOT A LOST ART: I now teach at the Intaglio Engraver Academy in Urbino, Italy. We take only seven students per year. You have to be backed by a country’s central bank to graduate. We’re teaching these students how to make banknotes using both old and new techniques.

SHARING A STUDIO: My wife, Pattee, is an artist, but what we do is very different. I make these meticulous little things in monochrome, whereas she jumps from one painting to another and works with brilliant colors. She’s very prolific.

PRIZED POSSESSIONS: I enjoy collecting engravings and have a Rembrandt and a 1524 Lucas van Leyden [one of the first old masters] on my walls.

CURRENT PROJECTS: Most of my work today is by contract and largely confidential. I’ve done everything from a White House invitation to wine bottle labels. Like most artists, it’s pretty much feast or famine.

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