The Art of Etching

With so many art media in use, many people do not know much about etching. Yet, understanding the process is key to appreciating and critiquing an artist’s work. To help those who may be unfamiliar with etching, I’ve written a brief overview. For those who want to learn more, there are many classes offered in etching, as well as books on etching and the works of the great etchers, from Rembrandt to Picasso. A wonderful website with indepth descriptions of printmaking and examples of work from fine contemporary printmakers is www.crownpointpress.com.

A gifted etcher combines artistry, craftsmanship, and chemistry in a unique way. The process begins with a metal plate (I use steel), which is covered with an acid resistant, waxy substance, called hard or soft ground. Then, using etching needles or a pencil an image is scratched through the ground exposing the metal. The plate then enters an acid bath and the acid bites or makes a groove into the plate wherever the metal has been exposed. Next, ink is forced into the incisions or grooves and the plate surface is wiped clean. Printing paper is selected, dampened to soften its fibers, and placed over the plate. The printing process is about to begin. The plate and paper are run through an etching press under high pressure. The result is a unique, reverse image of the plate, with a distinct plate mark, and a rich texture. The texture of an etching is the result of the etching paper being forced into all of the inked recesses on the plate.

Etching is one form of intaglio printmaking (from the Italian intagliare, “to carve or cut into.”) Other types of intaglio methods are aquatint, mezzotint, collagraph, and engraving.