History, Type of Printmaking, Aquatint, Famous Etchers.

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Three Worthy Christians, etching
by Daniel Hopfer.

Etching: Type of Printmaking

Invented by the German artist Daniel Hopfer (c.1470-1536), etching - along with engraving, mezzotint and aquatint - is one of the intaglio methods of fine art printing. Because of its relative simplicity, etching rapidly rivalled engraving as a printmaking medium. Its principal advantage over engraving was that little knowledge of metalworking was required, and could be practiced by anyone trained in drawing. The first dated etching is from 1513 by the Swiss artist Urs Graf (1485-1529), but Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was also making etchings about the same time.

The Etching Process

In traditional etching, a metal plate, usually made from copper, zinc or steel, is coated with a waxy acid-resistant substance called 'ground' upon which the artist draws his design with a metal needle, exposing the bare metal as he does so. The plate is then immersed in acid. The acid eats into the metal, where it is exposed by the design, resulting in lines in the plate. The plate is then wiped clean of all the ground, and the plate is inked using the same method as for engraving. Etching may be combined with other intaglio techniques, famous exponents being Rembrandt - who combined it with engraving - and Francisco de Goya who also used aquatint.

Characters and Caricatures (1743)
etching by William Hogarth.

For an explanation of basic
terms involved in engraving,
etching, lithography, woodcuts
and other forms of fine art
printing, please see:
Printmaking Glossary.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

Developments in Etching

The basic etching technique was initiated by Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470-1536) in Augsburg, Germany, who first employed it to decorate armour before later applying it to the production of fine prints.

Another noted innovator was the French printer Jacques Callot (1592-1635), who made significant improvements in etching technique. To begin with, he invented the echoppe, a type of needle with a slanted oval tip, which enabled etchers to produce a gradually rising line. Next, he designed an improved formula for the waxy ground used on the copper plate. This improvement resulted in deeper lines being made by the acid (thus extending the life-span of the plate) and also minimized the risk of the ground being eaten into in the wrong areas. Callot also experimented heavily with the 'stopping out' technique. This involved allowing the acid to eat slightly into the whole plate, before covering it in ground and re-soaking it in acid - a process which facilitated the creation of shaded areas. Callot's advances were publicised in his manual of etching, and disseminated throughout Italy, Holland, Germany and England.


Famous Etchers

In Spain, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) - one of the world's most influential printmakers - was the undisputed leader of the Romanticism art movement. In 1799, he produced a series of 80 etchings entitled Los Caprichos commenting on a range of human behaviour. In 1812-15, following the Napoleonic War, he made a set of aquatint prints called The Disasters of War depicting scenes from the battlefield. The prints remained unpublished until 1863.

Other master etchers include: Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), the pioneer of copper etching, Parmigianino (1503-40) the great Mannerist artist from Parma, Claude Lorrain, Rembrandt, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and the Dutch etchers Esaias and Jan van de Velde, Hercules Seghers noted for his intaglio colour etchings, of the 17th century; and Canaletto, Giambattista Piranesi noted for his Carceri d'invenzione (imaginary prison scenes), the rococo master Giovanni Tiepolo, Daniel Chodowiecki and William Hogarth, from the 18th century. These artists were followed in the 19th century by master etchers such as Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (noted for L'Odalisque, 1825), Eugene Delacroix, the tragic French artist Charles Meryon and, in England, Sir Francis Seymour Haden and James McNeill Whistler. In Germany, the technique was championed by Max Klinger (1857-1920) whose nightmarish prints influenced a number of Surrealists.

This technique of graphic art is still practiced today, but has never been quite as popular as it was in the 17th century. In America, artists who were important printmakers and etchers included Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Stephen Parrish (1846-1938), Henry Farrer (1844–1903) and the landscape painter Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905).

Variations of the Etching Process

Aquatint: Similar to mezzotint, aquatint is more a tone process than a line etching method. It was an adapted technique of etching to create more transparent effects like those such as watercolour. Where the traditional etching technique relies on the drawing needle to make lines that print in black (or whatever colour ink is employed), aquatint relies on powdered acid-resistant resin in the ground. After heating, particles of the resin become fused with the metal plate which is then inked. The result (which can be controlled or varied by repetitions) is a more subtle combination of tonal effects. Variations of technique can be attained by pressing a bit of sand-paper on the grounded plate, or by mixing sugar with the ground, or attacking the plate with sulphur (to achieve a 'sulphur-tint'). The English Rococo painter Paul Sandby (1730-1809) was the first most ‘creative’ artist to use the process and the Spanish painter Goya (1746-1828) used the aquatint method for nearly all his etching. Artist and printmaker John Piper (1903-92) revived the technique in the 1930s and Picasso (1881-1973) used the sugar process for his illustrations to Buffon (1936-42), see below. Nowadays, the aquatint ground can also be applied in a fine mist, using spraypaint.

Soft ground etching (vernis-mou): this involves executing a pencil drawing on a sheet of paper placed on a copper plate coated with a soft sticky ground. The latter sticks to the paper wherever the pencil passes, leaving the copper metal exposed in broad soft lines. It is thought that Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-64) may have invented the process. This method was adopted in particular by English landscape artists Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), and the watercolourist Thomas Girtin (1775-1802).

Photographic etching or cliche-verre is made by drawing on a grounded glass plate with a stylus. The plate is then treated like a photo negative and printed on photographic paper. Printmaker and landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) made more than 60 photographic etchings after 1853, but the technique never became particularly popular - even though it allows for limitless prints.

Another lesser form of etching was invented by the English Romantic painter William Blake (1757-1827). Called relief etching, this method exposed the background areas to the acid, while the raised areas were covered with ground.

Picasso and Aquatint

Picasso created 31 animal prints between 1936 and 1942, illustrations which were to be used in the Natural History book of Buffon. Ambroise Vollard, Picasso's agent, organised the commission, but died in 1939 before the book was published. Picasso may have been introduced to the process of adding sugar to the ground in aquatint by the publisher Roger Lacouriere, one of the leading printmakers of the 20th century. It was this process that Picasso used for Buffon. He also added steel facing to the process, a more modern technique where the soft copper plate is coated in a thin layer of steel via electroplating, which hardens its surface. This way, the quality of the print does not suffer by mass production - an issue that (eg) Rembrandt would have had to face in his day.

In creating his Buffon illustration series, Picasso began by drawing directly onto the copper plate with a black watery ink, thickened by the addition of dissolved gum arabic and sugar. The dried drawing was then covered with ground and/or varnish and immersed in warm water. The plate is then lightly rubbed so that the drawing area is exposed. Picasso then applied an aquatint ground to the exposed area to create various tones and textures. The results are not accurate, but certainly provide variety. Acid-resistant particles are then applied to the plate, and heated. The final result is a highly varied tonal range of print.

Note: For other forms of fine art print processes, see: Woodcuts (oldest printmaking technique), Lithography (planographic technique), Silkscreen Printing (popularized by Andy Warhol), and Giclee Prints (Inkjet printer).

• For more about etching, engraving, lithography, silkscreen or giclee prints, see: Homepage.

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