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Rembrandt Self Portrait The Origins of Copperplate Etching

Etching by goldsmiths and other metal-workers in order to decorate metal items such as guns, armour, cups and plates has been known in Europe since the Middle Ages at least, and may go back to antiquity. The elaborate decoration of armour, in Germany anyway, was an art probably imported from Italy around the end of the 15th century—little earlier than the birth of etching as a printmaking technique.

The process as applied to printmaking is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470–1536) of Augsburg, Germany. Hopfer was a craftsman who decorated armour in this way, and applied the method to printmaking, using iron plates (many of which still exist). Apart from his prints, there are two proven examples of his work on armour: a shield from 1536 now in the Real Armeria of Madrid and a sword in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum of Nuremberg. An Augsburg horse armour in the German Historical Museum, Berlin, dating to between 1512 and 1515, is decorated with motifs from Hopfer's etchings and woodcuts, but this is no evidence that Hopfer himself worked on it, as his decorative prints were largely produced as patterns for other craftsmen in various media.

The switch to copper plates was probably made in Italy, and thereafter etching soon came to challenge engraving as the most popular medium for artists in printmaking. Its great advantage was that, unlike engraving which requires special skill in metalworking, etching is relatively easy to learn for an artist trained in drawing.

Rembrandt produced etchings for most of his career, from 1626 to 1660, when he was forced to sell his printing-press and virtually abandoned etching. Only the troubled year of 1649 produced no dated work.[58] He took easily to etching and, though he also learned to use a burin and partly engraved many plates, the freedom of etching technique was fundamental to his work. He was very closely involved in the whole process of printmaking, and must have printed at least early examples of his etchings himself. At first he used a style based on drawing, but soon moved to one based on painting, using a mass of lines and numerous bitings with the acid to achieve different strengths of line. Towards the end of the 1630s, he reacted against this manner and moved to a simpler style, with fewer bitings. He worked on the so-called Hundred Guilder Print in stages throughout the 1640s, and it was the "critical work in the middle of his career", from which his final etching style began to emerge. Although the print only survives in two states, the first very rare, evidence of much reworking can be seen underneath the final print and many drawings survive for elements of it.

In the mature works of the 1650s, Rembrandt was more ready to improvise on the plate and large prints typically survive in several states, up to eleven, often radically changed. He now uses hatching to create his dark areas, which often take up much of the plate. He also experimented with the effects of printing on different kinds of paper, including Japanese paper, which he used frequently, and on vellum. He began to use "surface tone," leaving a thin film of ink on parts of the plate instead of wiping it completely clean to print each impression. He made more use of drypoint, exploiting, especially in landscapes, the rich fuzzy burr that this technique gives to the first few impressions.

Rembrandt's etchings have similar subjects to his paintings, although the twenty-seven self-portraits are relatively more common, and portraits of other people less so. There are forty-six landscapes, mostly small, which largely set the course for the graphic treatment of landscape until the end of the 19th century. One third of his etchings are of religious subjects, many treated with a homely simplicity, whilst others are his most monumental prints.

"Want to come up and see my etchings?"

The phrase "Want to come up and see my etchings?" is a romantic euphemism by which a person entices someone to come back to their place with an offer to look at something artistic, but with ulterior motives. The phrase is a corruption of some phrases in a novel by Horatio Alger, Jr. called The Erie Train Boy, which was first published in 1891. Alger was an immensely popular author in the 19th century—especially with young people—and his books were widely quoted. In CHAPTER XXII of the book, a woman writes to her boyfriend "I have a new collection of etchings that I want to show you. Won't you name an evening when you will call, as I want to be certain to be at home when you really do come." The boyfriend then writes back "I shall no doubt find pleasure in examining the etchings which you hold out as an inducement to call."

This was referenced in a 1929 James Thurber cartoon in which a man tells a woman in a building lobby: "You wait here and I'll bring the etchings down". It was also referenced in Dashiell Hammett's 1934 novel The Thin Man, in which the narrator answers his wife asking him about a lady he had wandered off with by saying: "She just wanted to show me some French etchings."

The phrase was given new popularity in 1937: in a well publicized case, violinist David Rubinoff was accused of inviting a young woman to his hotel room to view some French etchings, but instead seducing her.

However, as early as 1895, Hjalmar Söderberg used the reference in his "decadent" début novel Delusions (swe: Förvillelser), when he lets the dandy Johannes Hall lure the main character's younger sister Greta into his room under the pretence that they browse through his etchings and engravings (e.g. Die Sünde by Franz Stuck).

Modern Technique In Detail

Hilltop Majesty

A waxy acid-resist, known as a ground, is applied to a metal plate, most often copper or zinc but steel plate is another medium with different qualities. There are two common types of ground: hard ground and soft ground.

Hard ground can be applied in two ways. Solid hard ground comes in a hard waxy block. To apply hard ground of this variety, the plate to be etched is placed upon a hot-plate (set at 70 degrees C), a kind of metal worktop that is heated up. The plate heats up and the ground is applied by hand, melting onto the plate as it is applied. The ground is spread over the plate as evenly as possible using a roller. Once applied the etching plate is removed from the hot-plate and allowed to cool which hardens the ground.

After the ground has hardened the artist "smokes" the plate, classically with 3 beeswax tapers, applying the flame to the plate to darken the ground and make it easier to see what parts of the plate are exposed. Smoking not only darkens the plate but adds a small amount of wax. Afterwards the artist uses a sharp tool to scratch into the ground, exposing the metal.

The second way to apply hard ground is by liquid hard ground. This comes in a can and is applied with a brush upon the plate to be etched. Exposed to air the hard ground will harden. Some printmakers use oil/tar based asphaltum[3] or bitumen as hard ground, although often bitumen is used to protect steel plates from rust and copper plates from aging.

Soft ground also comes in liquid form and is allowed to dry but it does not dry hard like hard ground and is impressionable. After the soft ground has dried the printmaker may apply materials such as leaves, objects, hand prints and so on which will penetrate the soft ground and expose the plate underneath.

The ground can also be applied in a fine mist, using powdered rosin or spraypaint. This process is called aquatint, and allows for the creation of tones, shadows, and solid areas of color.

 

The design is then drawn (in reverse) with an etching-needle or échoppe. In this illustration, Catherine utilizes a sewing needle to achieve an extremely fine line, culminating in a very detailed etching. An "echoppe" point can be made from an ordinary tempered steel etching needle, by grinding the point back on a carborundum stone, at a 45–60 degree angle. The "echoppe" works on the same principle that makes a fountain pen's line more attractive than a ballpoint's: The slight swelling variation caused by the natural movement of the hand "warms up" the line, and although hardly noticeable in any individual line, has a very attractive overall effect on the finished plate. It can be drawn with in the same way as an ordinary needle. A variety of instruments can be used depending on the desired result.

 

Feathering Plate in Acid

The plate is then completely submerged in an acid that eats away at the exposed metal. Ferric chloride may be used for etching copper or zinc plates, whereas nitric acid may be used for etching zinc or steel plates. Typical solutions are 2 parts FeCl3 to 2 parts water and 1 part nitric to 3 parts water. The strength of the acid determines the speed of the etching process. The etching process is known as biting (see also spit-biting below). The waxy resist prevents the acid from biting the parts of the plate which have been covered. The longer the plate remains in the acid the deeper the "bites" become.

During the etching process the printmaker uses a bird feather or similar item to wave away bubbles and detritus produced by the dissolving process, from the surface of the plate, or the plate may be periodically lifted from the acid bath. If a bubble is allowed to remain on the plate then it will stop the acid biting into the plate where the bubble touches it. Zinc produces more bubbles much more rapidly than copper and steel and some artists use this to produce interesting round bubble-like circles within their prints for a Milky Way effect.

The detritus is powdery dissolved metal that fills the etched grooves and can also block the acid from biting evenly into the exposed plate surfaces. Another way to remove detritus from a plate is to place the plate to be etched face down within the acid upon plasticine balls or marbles, although the drawback of this technique is the exposure to bubbles and the inability to remove them readily.

For aquatinting a printmaker will often use a test strip of metal about a centimetre to three centimetres wide. The strip will be dipped into the acid for a specific number of minutes or seconds. The metal strip will then be removed and the acid washed off with water. Part of the strip will be covered in ground and then the strip is redipped into the acid and the process repeated. The ground will then be removed from the strip and the strip inked up and printed. This will show the printmaker the different degrees or depths of the etch, and therefore the strength of the ink color, based upon how long the plate is left in the acid.

The plate is removed from the acid and washed over with water to remove the acid. The ground is removed with a solvent such as turpentine. Turpentine is often removed from the plate using methylated spirits since turpentine is greasy and can affect the application of ink and the printing of the plate.

Spit-biting is a process whereby the printmaker will apply acid to a plate with a brush in certain areas of the plate. The plate may be aquatinted for this purpose or exposed directly to the acid. The process is known as "spit"-biting due to the use of saliva once used as a medium to dilute the acid, although gum arabic or water are now commonly used.

Wiping the Plate

A piece of matte board, a plastic "card", or a wad of cloth is often used to push the ink into the incised lines. The surface is wiped clean with a piece of stiff fabric known as tarlatanor scrim and then may be wiped with newsprint paper; some printmakers prefer to use the blade part of their hand or palm at the base of their thumb. The wiping leaves ink in the incisions. You may also use a folded piece of organza silk to do the final wipe. If copper or zinc plates are used, then the plate surface is left very clean and therefore white in the print. A damp piece of paper is placed over the plate and it is run through the press revealing the etched image.

Types of metal plates

Copper is a traditional metal, and is still preferred, for etching, as it bites evenly, holds texture well, and does not distort the colour of the ink when wiped. Zinc is cheaper than copper, so preferable for beginners, but it does not bite as cleanly as copper, and it alters some colours of ink. Steel is growing in popularity as an etching substrate. Prices of copper and zinc have steered steel to an acceptable alternative. The line quality of steel is less fine than copper but finer than zinc. Steel has a natural and rich aquatint.

The type of metal used for the plate impacts the number of prints the plate will produce. The firm pressure of the printing press slowly rubs out the finer details of the image with every pass through. With relatively soft copper, for example, the etching details will begin to wear very quickly, some copper plates show extreme wear after only ten prints. Steel, on the other hand, is incredibly durable. This wearing out of the image over time is one of the reasons prints created early in a numbered series tend to be valued more highly. The total number of prints an artist would like to produce are taken into account when choosing the metal.

About Aquatint Etching

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching.

In intaglio printmaking, the artist makes marks on the matrix (in the case of aquatint, a copper or zinc plate) that are capable of holding ink. The inked plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the paper. This can be repeated a number of times, depending on the particular technique.

Eventide Aquatint EtchingLike etching, aquatint uses the application of acid to make the marks in the metal plate. Where the engraving technique uses a needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever color ink is used), aquatint uses powdered rosin to create a tonal effect. The rosin is acid resistant and typically adhered to the plate by controlled heating. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of acid exposure over large areas, and thus the image is shaped by large sections at a time.

Another tonal technique, mezzotint, begins with a plate surface that is evenly indented so that it will carry a fairly dark tone of ink. The mezzotint plate is then smoothed and polished to make areas carry less ink and thus print a lighter shade. Alternatively, beginning with a smooth plate, areas are roughened to make them darker. Occasionally these two techniques are combined.

The painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde invented the aquatint technique in Amsterdam, around 1650.[1] The cartographer Peter Perez Burdett later introduced his 'secret' aquatint technique to England in the 1770s.[2]

Technique

An aquatint requires a metal plate, an acid, and something to resist the acid. Traditionally copper or zinc plates were used. The artist applies a ground that will resist acid. Ground is applied by either dissolving powdered resin in spirits, applying the powder directly to the surface of the plate, or by using a liquid acrylic resist. In all forms of etching the acid resist is commonly referred to as "the ground."

An aquatint box is used to apply resin powder. The powder is at the bottom of the box, a crank or a bellows is used to blow the powder up into the air of the box. A window allows engraver to see density of flowing powder and to place his plate in the box using a drawer. When the powder covers the plate, it can be extracted from the box for the next operations.

The plate is then heated; if the plate is covered with powder, the resin melts forming a fine and even coat; if it is in spirits, the spirits evaporate and the result is essentially the same. Now the plate is dipped in acid, producing an even and fine level of corrosion (the "bite") sufficient to hold ink. At this point, the plate is said to carry about a 50% halftone. This means that, were the plate printed with no further biting, the paper would display a gray color more or less directly in between white (no ink) and black (full ink).

At some point the artist will then etch an outline of any aspects of the drawing s/he wishes to establish with line; this provides the basis and guide for the later tone work. S/he may also have applied (at the very start, before any biting occurs) an acid-resistant "stop out" (also called an asphaltum or hard ground) if s/he intends to keep any areas totally white and free of ink, such as highlights.

The artist then begins immersing the plate in the acid bath, progressively stopping out (protecting from acid) any areas that have achieved the designed tonality. These tones, combined with the limited line elements, give aquatints a distinctive, watery look. Also, aquatints, like mezzotints, provide ease in creating large areas of tone without laborious cross-hatching; but aquatint plates, it is noted, are generally more durable than mezzotint plates.

The first etch should be for a short period (30 seconds to 1 minute, with a wide variation depending on how light the lightest tones are meant to be). A test piece may be made with etching times noted, as the strength of the etchant will vary. More than thirty minutes should produce a very dark area. Etching for many hours (up to 24) will be as dark as etching for one hour, but the deep etch would produce raised ink on the paper.

Contemporary printmakers often use spraypaint instead of a powder, particularly when using the technique known as sugar-lift. To produce a printing surface using sugar-lift, the artist makes a solution of india ink and sugar by melting sugar into heated ink. This mixture is then applied to a prepared plate with a brush, allowing for a bold expression not possible with the most etching techniques. When the ink/sugar mixture is dry the plate is coated with asphaltum (liquid ground); the plate is then submerged in warm water which dissolves the sugar so that the image "lifts off" the plate. The exposed areas are then aquatinted to hold ink and the plate is ready to be printed from.

Famous Examples

Aquatint by Goya, from the Cycle "Los Caprichos": Can't Anyone Untie Us?

Source of information: content copied from Wikipedia on May 30, 2014

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