Etching is the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio in the metal (the original process—in modern manufacturing other chemicals may be used on other types of material). As an intaglio method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today.
In pure etching, a metal (usually copper, zinc or steel) plate is covered with a waxy ground which is resistant to acid. The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where he or she wants a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal. The échoppe, a tool with a slanted oval section, is also used for “swelling” lines. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid, technically called the mordant (French for “biting”) or etchant, or has acid washed over it. The acid “bites” into the metal (it dissolves part of the metal) where it is exposed, leaving behind lines sunk into the plate. The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate. The plate is inked all over, and then the ink wiped off the surface, leaving only the ink in the etched lines.
The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of paper (often moistened to soften it). The paper picks up the ink from the etched lines, making a print. The process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions (copies) could be printed before the plate shows much sign of wear. The work on the plate can also be added to by repeating the whole process; this creates an etching which exists in more than one state.
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.
Selection of early-etched printing plates from the British Museum
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 National museum 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.
Aquatint uses acid-resistant resin to achieve tonal effects.
Soft-ground etching uses a special softer ground. The artist places a piece of paper (or cloth etc. in modern uses) over the ground and draws on it. The print resembles a drawing.
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 also adds a small amount of wax. Afterwards the artist uses a sharp tool to scratch into the ground, exposing the metal.
Landscape under Trees, etching byPaula Modersohn-Becker, ca. 1902
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 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 colour.
The design is then drawn (in reverse) with an etching-needle or échoppe. 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.
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.
Example of etching
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 colour, 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.
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 tarlatan and then 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. If steel plate is used, then the plate’s natural tooth gives the print a grey background similar to the effects of aquatinting. As a result steel plates do not need aquatinting, as gradual exposure of the plate via successive dips into acid will produce the same result.
A damp piece of paper is placed over the plate and it is run through the press.
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.