See A. M. Hind, A History of Engraving and Etching (rev. ed. 1963); J. Pennell, Etchers and Etching (1919); A. Gross, Etching, Engraving, and Intaglio Printing (1970); W. Chamberlain, The Thames and Hudson Manual of Etching and Engraving (1978).
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.
He also seems to have been responsible for an improved, harder, recipe for the etching ground, using lute-makers' varnish rather than a wax-based formula. This enabled lines to be more deeply bitten, prolonging the life of the plate in printing, and also greatly reducing the risk of "foul-biting", where acid gets through the ground to the plate where it is not intended to, producing spots or blotches on the image. Previously the risk of foul-biting had always been at the back of an etcher's mind, preventing him from investing too much time on a single plate that risked being ruined in the biting process. Now etchers could do the highly detailed work that was previously the monopoly of engravers, and Callot made full use of the new possibilities.
He also made more extensive and sophisticated use of multiple "stoppings-out" than previous etchers had done. This is the technique of letting the acid bite lightly over the whole plate, then stopping-out those parts of the work which the artist wishes to keep light in tone by covering them with ground before bathing the plate in acid again. He achieved unprecedented subtlety in effects of distance and light and shade by careful control of this process. Most of his prints were relatively small—up to about six inches or 15 cm on their longest dimension, but packed with detail.
One of his followers, the Parisian Abraham Bosse, spread Callot's innovations all over Europe with the first published manual of etching, which was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English.
The 17th century was the great age of etching, with Rembrandt, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and many other masters. In the 18th Piranesi, Tiepolo and Daniel Chodowiecki were the best of a smaller number of fine etchers. In the 19th and early-20th century the Etching revival produced a host of lesser artists, but no really major figures. Etching is still widely practiced today.
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 adds a small amount of wax. Afterwards the artist uses a sharp tool to scratch into the ground, exposing the metal.
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 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 color.
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 biro'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.
|Examples of etching techniques|
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 color, 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 either 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 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.
The traditional aquatint, which uses either powdered rosin or enamel spray paint, is replaced with an airbrush application of the acrylic polymer hard ground. Again, no solvents are needed beyond the soda ash solution, though a ventilation hood is needed due to acrylic particulates from the air brush spray.
The traditional soft ground, requiring solvents for removal from the plate, is replaced with water-based relief printing ink. The ink receives impressions like traditional soft ground, resists the ferric chloride etchant, yet can be cleaned up with warm water and either soda ash solution or ammonia. Etching is a form of art which is taught in many ways.
Light sensitive polymer plates allow for photorealistic etchings. A photo-sensitive coating is applied to the plate by either the plate supplier or the artist. Light is projected onto the plate as a negative image to expose it. Photopolymer plates are either washed in hot water or under other chemicals according to the plate manufacturers' instructions. Areas of the photo-etch image may be stopped-out before etching to exclude them from the final image on the plate, or removed or lightened by scraping and burnishing once the plate has been etched. Once the photo-etching process is complete, the plate can be worked further as a normal intaglio plate, using drypoint, further etching, engraving, etc. The final result is an intaglio plate which is printed like any other.
Aquatint is a variation in which particulate resin is evenly distributed on the plate, then heated to form a screen ground of uniform but less than perfect density. After etching any exposed surface will result in a roughened (i.e. darkened) surface. Areas that are to be light in the final print are protected by varnishing between acid baths. Successive turns of varnishing and placing the plate in acid create areas of tone difficult or impossible to achieve by drawing though a wax ground.
Printing the plate is done by covering the surface with ink, then rubbing the ink off the surface with tarlatan cloth or newsprint, leaving ink in the roughened areas and lines. Damp paper is placed on the plate, and both are run through a printing press; the pressure forces the paper into contact with the ink, transferring the image (c.f., chine-collé). Unfortunately, the pressure also subtly degrades the image in the plate, smoothing the roughened areas and closing the lines; a copper plate is good for, at most, a few hundred printings of a strongly etched imaged before the degradation is considered too great by the artist. At that point, the artist can manually restore the plate by re-etching it, essentially putting ground back on and retracing their lines; alternately, plates can be electro-plated before printing with a harder metal to preserve the surface. Zinc is also used, because as a softer metal, etching times are shorter; however, that softness also leads to faster degradation of the image in the press.
For the history of the method, see old master prints
Faux-bite or "over-biting" is common in etching, and is the effect of minuscule amounts of acid leaking through the ground to create minor pitting and burning on the surface. This incidental roughening may be removed by smoothing and polishing the surface, but artists often leave faux-bite, or deliberately court it by handling the plate roughly, because it is viewed as a desirable mark of the process.