What is etching? The word etch itself is a Germanic word for eat, where the acid would literally eat the metal. Etching is an intaglio method of printmaking, intaglio methods include hard and soft ground etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint. All these methods share a common ink transferring process. The design is etched into the plate and the ink is added over the whole plate and a scrim or starched cheesecloth is used to force the ink into the etched areas and remove excess from the plate surface. The plate along with dampened paper is run through a print press at very high pressure forcing the paper into etched areas containing the ink.
The other common method of printmaking is relief printing i.e. woodblock and lino cut prints. Here, areas of the block are carved away and a roller is used to transfer the ink to the areas that haven’t been removed. As the process doesn’t require the pressure used in intaglio prints to transfer ink from areas, hand printing or relief presses can be used.
The most historic of intaglio methods is engraving, evolving originally from goldsmithing, although being a truly ancient technique finding the source would be impossible. Examples of engraving can be seen in museums across the world in the form of intricate designs of jewellery, armour, guns and other precious and non precious metals. It is said that as early as 1446 sheet music was printed using engraving techniques along with playing cards.
Engraving requires the use of a burin, a sharply pointed tool of a hardened metal. The engraving process is a long labour intensive one, the design is drawn onto the metal and then slowly cut away using a burin. The engraver must have patience and skill to not make mistakes as there are no shortcuts to correcting one.
The armour below is probably the work of Italian armourers brought to England by Henry VIII in 1511. Some of the earliest examples of etchings are in the form of armour, particularly that of Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). This is an example of an etched piece of armour, thought to be attributed to Hopfer dated around 1515-1525 . Yoou can see the differences etween the engraved and etched armour, the engraved armour have much sharper lines with deeper reliefs than the shallower etched metal.
Hopfer was a craftsman from Augsburg,Germany who would have used an acid resist probably made from asphaltum, rosin, and beeswax to cover the particular peice of armour. When the resist was dry the etcher would draw the deisgn on the resist and, using a needle, reveal areas of the metal to be etched by the acid. Etched armour and other forms of etching became a much quicker and more economic process than the slower method of engraving.
The earliest known signed and dated etching is created by Urs Graf in 1513. This was etched onto a steel plate with one line weight. Here is a similar example titled “devil captures solider” dated 1516.
Hopfer though was to popularise the medium and become the first well known craftsman to apply the etching process to flat iron plates. Here is an example of a etching plate with five soliders, etched into steel and dated around 1520-1536. Here, Hofper has considered the fact that the prints are a mirror image of the plate and so his initials in the central figures drum are reversed and the soliders have their swords strapped to their right hip so it will print on their left.
Here is an example of a zinc plate with hard ground, being drawn through with a needle. Note the fact that this plate is unsmoked. Traditional ground has a translucent appearance and so etchers may “smoke” their plate with beeswax tapers to darken it. This will allow them to clearly see the lines being created.
Of the most famous printmaker during the 16th century, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) only made 5 etchings that are known and mostly he tried to imitate the far more formal qualities of the engravings that he was used to producing before. Here are two examples, ‘Man of Sorrows’ and ‘Agony in the Garden’.
There were artists during the same era as Durer, most notably Italian artist Mazzola (1503-1540), who made great use of the free movement given by etchings and created a series of brilliantly expressive prints. 100 years before Rembrandt, he is showing the same understanding of cross hatching and developing rich tonal areas just as Rembrandt will come to achieve and surpass. All these are dated in the early 1520s.
It was really the French printmaker Jacque Callot from Lorraine who lived between 1592-1635 that began to use step biting or multiple bites within his etchings. Developing a sense of distance by stopping out areas further away first, many earlier etchings had a single bite time for all the lines exposed to the acid.
Callot was one of the most prolific printmakers of his time, rivalling that of Rembrandt for output, during his life working exclusively as a printmaker he made over 1400 plates.
There are reports of Callot incising the metal after the original etch with an engravers burin to help reinforce the lines created. Examples of this can be seen in his series the “Miseries of War” produced around 1633.
Callot is credited for inventing the echoppe etching needle, this needle has a slanting oval area at the end and in a similar way to a fountain pen will allow etchers to swell and fill lines in a similar manner to engravers.
Callot has also been attributed to the development of an improved hard ground for etching, instead of using a wax based formula he used lute makers varnish. This allowed for lines to be bitten for longer without the risk of fouling biting, foul biting occurs when acid gets through the ground where the etcher had not intended, normally resulting in spots on the image. Because of this etchers could create highly detailed and clean prints rivalling that of engravers.
One of the followers of Jacque callot, one Abraham Bosse, spread his innovations all over Europe with the publication of the Manual of Etching in 1645. This was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English. While no direct link can be made between the publication of Bosse’s manual and the explosion of printmaking during the 17th century, the information in the manual gave the readers everything they needed to start printing, including making a press, hard and soft etching ground recipes and tools used.
Of course Rembrandt, alive between 1606-1669 the most famous etcher of all time was active and prolific during this age, capturing subtle tones and atmosphere in line alone. Rembrandt’s early etchings like many before him were fairly timid compared to his bold use of the medium later on in life. In “The rest on the flight into Egypt” completed in 1626.
‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ shows an artist just beginning to get to grips with a medium that would come to define him and this golden age of etching. You can see how much of the plate is bitten for a single etch and the tones created by the density of line, although when looking through his early work you begin to see the familiar style coming through, like that of The artist’s mother produced in 1628 and Old man with snub nose in 1629. This etching was etched for some time asyou can see the lines are very bold and there is foul biting around the etch.
Some of his most famous work is of course his self portraits, ‘Self Portrait in a Cap’ 1630 (image 21) shows his development using freer more expressive lines, also one of his most famous etching self portrait. Note difference in style and confidence to his first known etching – ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’.
In his mature works Rembrandt begun to really push the mark making potential and improvise directly onto the plate. Below is an example in ‘Self Portrait Drawing at a Window’ from 1648. We can see the use of both hard ground and drypoint where Rembrandt has wanted to push areas darker. Probably a first print would have been taken using just hard ground and then using a needle Rembrandt would of scratched directly into the plate creating burs along the edge of the line where ink will get trapped and create the rich dark velvety lines that stand out from the uniform lines of a hard ground.
In the second state you can see where he has begun to push the darks in the background and within the portrait. The amount of states (the name given to each development in the etching) would completely vary depending on the plate. There are records of up to 11 changes, and some plates like the smaller ones would be more of a sketch on copper and little else. Here, in the third and final state you can see that the darks have been pushed to their full potential and an indication of a landscape out side of the window has been placed.
Another extreme example of this is ‘The Flight into Egypt ‘, from 1651. Here the first state shows the figures in clear light, but in the second they are almost completely darkened with only the lamp standing out.
Aswell as adjustments, Rembrandt would make significant changes to his plates. Here we see that in ‘Christ Presented to the People’ completed in 1655
(image 27)and the second state shows where Rembrandt has completely removed the figures in the centre foreground (image 28). You can still see the ghost lines for the figures.
Two tools would have been used in removing the figures, a scraper and burnisher. A scraper is a three sided sharp edge that is pressed flat against the plate where you want a line to be erased, and is then scraped over that area, making sure it does not dig into the plate as this would create more areas for the ink to hold. A burnisher is then used to flatten the area completely so no ink can be held there. The time this takes is greatly affected by the time the line was etched for, and in some instances ghosts lines might always persist.
Hard ground has been one of the most direct and popular form of etching, and still is. Throughout the ages different printmakers have utilised it brilliantly. A few of my favourite etchers to use hard ground include James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Anders Zorn (1860-1920), Ernest Lumsden (1883-1948), Frank Short (1857-1945) and James Mcbey (1883-1959). As you can see, in over 500 years of etching history people are still reinventing and finding new ways to use the most traditional of etching techniques.
Although hard ground line etching takes most of the limelight, there are two common types of ground: hard ground and soft ground. During the late 18th and early 19th century, soft ground became very vogue This technique involves carefully placing a peice of tracing paper over the grounded plate and using it as a bridge to rest your hand on. The etcher then can “draw“ into the tracing paper and remove the ground below. Because of this, the lines of soft ground etching are usually more unclear and have a more pencil-like quality, allowing for them to look very similar to drawings. Unlike hard ground, soft ground will remain somewhat tacky, allowing the etcher to press objects like leaves in to the ground and take a print. Here is an example of leaves and fabric being pressed into the ground to create an impression.
Soft ground by its nature creates a lot of foul biting, and so I believe for that reason it tends to be put to one side when considered work is required. Nelson Dawson was an etcher at the turn of the 20th century who made great use of soft ground as a preferred method of etching, creating wonderful lively etchings with a soft draughtsman’s like touch.
Other artists of note that used soft ground were Degas, Pissarro and Cassatt. The contemporary etcher Joel Ostlind makes superb use of soft ground in order to capture atmosphere and gesture deftly and with ease.
The final of the early etching techniques is drypoint. Drypoint is the most simplisitic and direct form of printmaking: the printmaker would scratch into the plate using a fairly blunt needle, known today as a ‘whistler’ needle. The “bur” that is kicked up similar to when a field is ploughed will hold a lot of ink and create a unique velvety soft line. Almost all etchers who utilised line will at some point use dry point in their work. The duality of strict regimented hard ground lines and smokey black drypoint lines are a timeless combination. Here a few drypoint examples by Whistler.
However, unlike soft and hard ground etchings which are etched into the metal, Drypoint gets it characteristics from the burr it creates, and these burrs will slowly wear down over time through the force of the press resulting in the prints becoming gradually fainter and fainter. Rembrandt would often completely rework a plate once the burrs were worn down enough, developing it into a new etching of similar composition. ‘Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses’ of 1653 is an excellent example of this.
Apart from line and cross-hatching, one of the eariest ways of producing a tonal etching was through the use of a mezzotint. The mezzotint process was developed in the 17th century in Amsterdam. The earliest known example of mezzotint work, done in 1642, is a portrait of one Amelia Elizabeth, showing the tentative development towards fully tonal etchings.
A mezzotint is a print made using a copper plate which has been “grounded” but with a mezzotint rocker. The rocker is semi circular with very fine teeth, and is rocked across the whole plate and then again perpendicular to the first rocking, repeating the process in every direction. The idea is too create a surface or ground that is evenly roughened, because in this state the plate will print a solid black. The artist shown below is starting from black and then using a scraper and a burnisher to slowly develop the print. Initial guidelines can be drawn on with pencil or chalk.
By the 1680s mezzotint was well known and it became the preferred medium for reproducing portraits due to its painterly effects. Here we can see two examples of those painterly effects in full use:
As you can see mezzotint has a very recognisable soft characterist which is very hard to achieve in other forms of etching. Here are a few modern day mezzotint prints.
The last and in most cases the hardest of all intaglio methods to work with is the aquatint. An aquatint is a way of producing tonal values, and is named for the ink or watercolour wash effect that it creates. Credit is given to Jan van De Velde IV for inventing the technique in Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century, around the same time that the mezzotint technique was developed – but unlike mezzotints, the aquatint was largely forgotten until the 18th century. To create an aquatint the artist traditionally used powdered pine resin. The resin is placed in a box and a crank or bellows are used to blow the fine powder into the air. Before the resin settles, the artist places the plate in the box, which allows the resin powder to settle on the plate in a fine coat. Next, the underside of the plate is heated until the resin melts onto it. The resin will now cause a partial resist to the acid, causing a similar effect to a very high resolution half tone print as shown below.
As you can see, from far away the dots appear as an image but upclose you can see the individual dots. This works the same way in aquatints, but on a microscopic level on an etching plate. The tones are achieved by stopping out, going from white to black. This means that you would start by stopping out the whites and gradually working down to black. Test prints would be used to let the etcher to know how long to submerse the plate in the acid for.
The most famous etcher to use an aquatint is of course Francisco Goya. Goya used a line and tone approach to aquatint. First a line etching would be produced and then an aquatint applied over the top to help accent the tones.
Through the years various etchers have found their own approach to aquatints including Australian etcher Sydney Long, Ernest Lumsden and Frank Short.
One of the greatest masters of this technique would be Norman Akroyd, an etcher sitll alive today who almost exclusively uses aquatint as a method of printmaking. Recreating the brooding skies of the Scottish Highlands, Akroyd uses a technique called spit biting extensively which is a method of painting acid straight onto the plate to achieve the smokey soft edges. Traditionally the etcher would spit onto the plate before brushing the acid on, as this acts as an adhesive for the acid to stop it from beading on the plate.
As you can see, while etching has been developed throughout the half a millennia it has been around, the fundamentals have not changed, allowing us to have a medium that is as much the same as it ever has been or ever will be. The rich historical background of these methods means that there is a very deep connection between everything you use. Etching is a process that requires thousands of hours of dedication and developing a feel for not just the etching process itself but the inks, paper, wiping of the plate and the press itself. These other factors warrant many articles of their own and we would be here for quite some time to discus it all. However despite all of this hard work, every time I lift a print I get the same excitement from it that I did from the first print I ever produced, and I am reminded anew of the subtlety and uniqueness of this medium.