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Learn to Draw > Printing techniques concluded

Two more techniques come under the heading of intaglio printing: mezzotint and aquatint. Both work on the same principle: the copper plate is roughened, so that if it were printed from in this state it would give a uniform, satiny black surface. Scraper and burnisher are used to make smooth surfaces which print white, for the ink sticks only in the rough places. This makes possible the softest effects of transition and fading, like smearing chalk or charcoal in a drawing, or such photographic effects as bromoil.

Goya, detail from aquatint. Right: Piazetta, detail, copper engraving (both actual size)

The only difference between the two processes is in the method of roughening the copper: for mezzotint it is closely lined in both directions with a mezzotint tool (a sort of knife), and for acquaint resin powder is scattered evenly over the surface and fused onto it; the minute gaps between the grains of dust are bitten out by acid and so hold the ink and print dark.

Whereas linoleum and wood blocks need no special workshop, and lithographs can be handed over to the printer once the drawing is done, copper intaglio is an expert business, requiring a workshop and some training in the craft. The whole process with plates, ground and acids, inking and testing, and finally printing after the trial pulls needs a special room where the press figures as the first essential.

Once the equipment is set op it is possible to try more complicated processes, such as colored etching. This is done by taking prints from the block etching onto further plates, which are prepared as for aquatint. Each plate is then etched for the separate color areas. The black print, which is pulled last, makes sense of the colored areas by printing the drawing over them.

an etching of a face

It can be seen how carefully planned and precise the design must be for this process. There is no room for free drawing during the manual execution, and this is the reason why, although there are very tasteful and competent colored etchings, there have never been any of the artistic standard reached by the great etchers and engravers who worked only in block, like Durer or Rembrandt.

Even in the less complicated processes of colored woodcuts and lithographs the color is never as important as the drawing. Toulouse-Lautrec was a real master of the lithograph and knew its every possibility, but even in his work the color is never more than an enhancing addition to his brilliant drawing.

Prints are generally priced lower than unique drawings, and this is justifiable economically from the artist's point of view, since he can certainly sell 100 etchings for more than he may be lucky enough to get for a single drawing. The technical consideration, however, is irrelevant to the artistic value of prints. They are unquestionably on a level artistically with drawings, and they are essentially unique in the same way, if the artist pulls the print himself and produces each one individually.

We have only to think of Japanese color prints: no one else could print them in the same way as the artist himself intended, for as he cuts the block he is thinking how he will fade and merge the colors, so that the print has often almost the effect of a watercolor. Apart from such manipulations, the technique of printing allows many effects which cannot be obtained at all with pencil, pen, or brush. It is worth seeing what happens if one tries to imitate an etching with a pen. What has already been said many times must once again be repeated for printing: every artistic medium has its own particular justification because each one has its own power of expressing something which cannot be said in a different one.

The monotype has only a superficial technical connection with printing, for it is a print which can be pulled only once, and on the face of it may sound like a highly unnecessary gimmick. But it is not! A monotype is a relatively simple process: the picture is painted in reverse onto a glass, plastic sheet, or polished stone slab and pressed off onto a sheet of paper while the color is still wet. Printing ink, oil, or watercolor can be used. For a second copy the painting would need to be done again entirely, and it would, of course, never come out exactly the same. The monotype is not the method to be used if something is required in several copies; it is in essence "unrepeatable."

The color on the plate can be scraped off and renewed as often as required; thus, the method of building up the composition is very fluid - quite the reverse of an ink drawing, in which every stroke is indelibly marked on the paper. Corrections and alterations can be made up to the last minute without their showing on the print.

Many styles of work can be done in monotype, from a line drawing or a flat color mosaic to a composition in tonal variation or one using many colors. It is so variable that it belongs to graphic art hardly more than to painting, and the more elaborate uses of it require some skill and proficiency in painting.

A black and white pen or brush drawing, however, is within the scope of anyone who can make a worthwhile sketch on a piece of glass, and if the color is laid on thinly and uniformly enough the result will always have a dangerously seductive individuality. In the hands of a practiced specialist it can become an incomparable vehicle of artistic expression. Unfortunately, most of the monotypes seen in exhibitions are only too obviously not by experts, but by someone quite unpracticed in trying his hand at a new medium. Then, indeed, the monotype appears to be no more than a highly unnecessary gimmick.

Next: History of the technique of painting

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