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The Technique of Etching

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Making an etching
Abraham Bosse 1640s

The Little Children Being Brought to Jesus "The 100 Guilder Print" 1647-49
Etching and drypoint
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Stanley Hayter - Etching

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 widely used today.

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.
In pure etching, a metal (usually copper, zinc or steel) plate is covered with a waxy ground which is resistant to acid.

[1] The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where he wants a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal.

[2] 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.

[3] The acid "bites" into 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).

[4] 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.

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