A Brief History of Etching

The technique of printing using hand-pulled copper plates has remained virtually unchanged for over 500 years. The earliest known signed and dated etching was produced in the 16th century. This was etched onto a steel plate with one weight of line. Three decades later an artist called Augustus Hirshvogel thought of a way to produce lines of different weights: drawing the whole image, etching the plate in acid for short periods, then stopping out the various depths of line of the image with an acid resistant varnish at intervals, thus etching progressively darker areas.

Copper plates were only one of the metals traditionally used for etching but due to increasing interest in non-toxic methods of printmaking, copper is becoming the preferred metal for modern printmakers. Modern intaglio etching methods such as Edinburgh Etch have made it possible to produce artworks without the toxicity of many of the acids and solvents that were traditionally used. Copper plates also produced a finer line and a better aquatint when etched then other metals.

The Edinburgh Etch Process

Copper Plate Etching

The intaglio printing process is highly technical and process driven. Artists must be very methodical and work in “reverse” method, both literally and figuratively, as the final print is a result of reworking what is left rather than adding onto something. All imagery and text must also be produced in a mirror image of the final result required as the final print will be the mirror reverse of the plate image.

Copper Plates are etched using two distinctly different methods, one which produces the fine linework of the print and one which creates the tonal details, a technique called Aquatint.

The copper plate first goes through several stages of preparation involving sanding, beveling and degreasing the plate. Next a protective layer of liquid hard ground called “resist” is applied on the surface of the copper plate. For the linework, the drawing is transferred onto the prepared plate. This is then hand-scribed into the resist, exposing the copper metal. Once all the linework has been scribed the plate is placed in the Edinburgh Etch solution to etch. The surface of the plate is etched onto the areas where the protective resist layer does not cover the plate, so that the drawing linework is transferred onto the copper plate. This results in a plate with linework only but any tonal areas would have been created only by multiple lines close together or stipple.

To create various shades of tonal detail an Aquatint method can be applied to the copper plate. A fine mist of enamel is applied to the whole plate, covering it evenly in microdots of enamel. Working in reverse order the areas of the plate to remain white are blocked out by hand and the plate is then etched for a short amount of time. The plate is then removed from the acid, dried and then the lightest tone required is then blocked out to maintain that tone before the plate is next etched in the acid. This process is repeated several times depending on how many tones are required in the final artwork. Once all tones have been etched the plate is cleaned and ready to print.

The Print Process

Every single print is pulled by hand in my studio. This is the only way to preserve the authenticity of the techniques of this traditional art of printing.

First the heavyweight paper is soaked with water so that it can bend and absorb the ink from the plate indentations. Fabriano Rosaspina is my preferred printing paper. Gamblin etching inks are carefully applied to the copper plate. It is then wiped off by hand using Tarlatan cloth so the ink remains only in the etched parts of the plate, while the unetched areas are wiped clean.

The plate is placed on the printing press, the damp paper is placed onto of the plate and the print is created by rolling the plate and paper through the etching press. This pressure allows the image to transfer from the plate to the paper. As each print is individually inked and pulled only once, the results always vary minutely and each print, whilst part of an edition run, is unique. Before the next print the plate has to be carefully re-inked by hand and the printing process starts over again. Once printed, the print is dried over several days under weighted pressure to allow the hand pulled prints to retain their final form.

Colouring by Hand

Edition variants ("E.V".) may be also be hand coloured or have a Chine Colle application. The print may be coloured by hand with watercolours, carefully applied with a brush, or a colour variant may have been applied during the printing process using the Chine Colle method.