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Rose
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Learn to Draw > Etching

In all these techniques it is advisable to pull a print from time to time to see how the effect is working out. Relief printing differs from the usual graphic techniques in leaving untouched what will be seen in the drawing, whereas in ordinary drawing the artist makes the strokes that are to be visible. If the cutting tools were used like a pencil, it would produce an effect like drawing with white on black.

For intaglio printing, however, the normal drawing procedure is followed; in other words, the engraved lines come out positive in the print. The classic material for intaglio printing is a perfectly smooth and polished copper plate, which can be worked either with a graving tool or an etching needle. This is hardly a technique which can be self-taught, it needs to be learned systematically and with much practice. The following is intended as a description of the process, not as a course of instruction.

Etching comes closer to ordinary drawing than any other of the cutting or engraving processes. It is not so technically elaborate as copper or steel plate engraving. Even an etching, however, does not reproduce a drawing as directly as a lithograph.



The etcher covers the blank plate of copper with the thinnest skin of wax or a ready-prepared etching ground, generally a mixture of wax and asphalt. He then draws on this without special pressure with the etching needle, baring the copper with fine strokes. The drawing stands out against the ground in light copper color.

Then the plate is placed in a dish and diluted nitric acid is poured over it. If the plate is very large, a border of wax can be built up round the edge, forming a tray on the plate itself to hold the acid. The acid bites into the copper where it has been uncovered by the needle for as long as it is kept in contact with the plate, working both downwards and sideways into the metal. Thus, all the lines made by the needle become thicker as time goes on.

Rembrandt, studies of Saskia for an etching (actual size)

When the right time has elapsed, the acid is poured off and the plate washed. Then the ground is removed with paraffin or spirits. Next the etched plate is warmed, and printing ink is rubbed hard into it with a leather or cloth pad. The surface untouched by the acid is wiped clean of ink, first. with a wad of fine muslin and finally with the hand, so that the ink remains only in the grooves.

The plate is then put into an etching press, which is rather similar to a wringer, but has strong iron instead of rubber rollers, between which the plate is squeezed, together with the moistened etching paper and a piece of felt, which are laid over it. The paper sucks the ink out of the grooves and emerges with a mirror image of the etched drawing - and a slight skin of the ink, which can never be completely removed from the top surface of the plate.

This first pull shows the etcher whether the drawing is to remain with all its lines of the same thickness or whether some parts need etching more deeply. If so, all the rest must again be covered with ground. New lines can also be added, and the whole etching process is repeated.

It is characteristic of an etching that the line is never as sharp as a pen stroke on hard paper. The acid cuts into the metal with branches and veins like ink into blotting paper, although this can be seen only under a magnifying glass. The etched line thus has a certain softness. Another characteristic feature is the thin skin of ink over the whole plate, and the quite sensible and visible impression left by the plate on the paper when it was damp and soft. If a large plate has been given a border of wax, as described above, the picture will fade out towards the edges where the wax covered it over and prevented the acid from getting in.

Next: Copper engraving

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