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Etchings- A Discovery

Updated on August 19, 2014
Albrecht Dürer, "St. Christopher Facing Left, 1521", Etching
Albrecht Dürer, "St. Christopher Facing Left, 1521", Etching


Every artist experiments with etchings and they comprise a main segment of a majority of famous artist’s oeuvres, yet the process has always seemed so abstract to me. They are beautifully detailed works that highlight form, light, and shadow with the power to draw a wide range of emotions, so why does the process itself seem complicated? From Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Dürer who excelled in the emotionally provocative etching to the more Modern Masters of Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir who excelled in form etchings are timeless, so I sought out to teach myself and share what I found.

Renoir, "La danse à la campagne (The Dance in the Country)", Etching
Renoir, "La danse à la campagne (The Dance in the Country)", Etching

Etching Process

The process is a detailed and time consuming one as to create an etching, thin copper plates are heated and covered with a thin acid-resistant ground. This allows for incised lines to be etched onto the plate through nitric acid that has been diluted with water which bites down into the plate allowing for the exposed lines to take hold. After the lines are created, the plate is washed and scratches and mistakes are checked for. If any are found the process is started over and if the plate is as desired, then it is cleaned, warmed, and dabbed with brown or black printer's ink. The surface ink is then wiped off, leaving ink only in the exposed etched lines. The plate, placed on damped paper, is then pulled under pressure through the printing press and the final image is printed out in reverse, ready to be enjoyed.

There is a subcategory that exists of etching called drypoint in which the drawing is done directly on the plate with a needle, which throws up a metal ridge or 'burr'. Any additions or changes that were made in the etching or drypoint process from the original one produced a new 'state' of the etching, which is what Old Master etchings are commonly referenced as.

In each etching there will be an indent (the plate mark), which shows where the plate was pressed into the paper. The first prints from a plate are often called proofs and all prints are known as impressions. A set of etchings, limited in number, could be published as an edition, by the artist or dealer. When enough impressions have been pulled from a plate, it is cancelled by drypoint lines or acid, and some impressions are printed to prove that it has been cancelled.

Pablo Picasso," Mère et enfant (Mother and Child)", Etching and Aquatint
Pablo Picasso," Mère et enfant (Mother and Child)", Etching and Aquatint | Source

Etching and Picasso

An intricate process as one can see, but a process that allows for the artist to maintain control over their work which is why I discovered the process appealed to Picasso in specific. The method involves skill, craftsmanship, and dedication, and Picasso embraced it wholeheartedly. Experimenting not only with drypoint but with aquatint as well, which is a technique used to produce several tones by varying the etching time of different areas of a metal plate so that the resulting print resembles the tint of an ink wash or drawing. A true master of the graphic arts of the 20st century, if Picasso can fall I love with it, then why can’t we all?

Rembrandt , "The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Healing the Sick), c. 1649", Drypoint and Etching
Rembrandt , "The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Healing the Sick), c. 1649", Drypoint and Etching | Source

10 Great Masters of Etching YouTube Video

A great video from You Tuber Laurens Lammers that I have to agree with

Interested in Making Your Own Drypoint?

This video shows the steps involved in drypoint. Susan Rostow creates her image on an Akua Printmaking Plate, which is then printed using Akua Intaglio Inks and Wiping Fabric. With this technique, she can make a small edition of 20 prints.


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