Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How an etching is made

Potiphars wife. etching by Rembrandt. All images this page from artrenewal.org

For those of you who think might imagine that baroque art was stodgy and prudish, here is an image for you. There is a lot of very earthy material from the Dutch masters.

An etching is different from an engraving because the lines are cut into the plate by the action of an acid rather than by a sharp tool in the hands of the artist. Here's how that works. The plate made of copper or less commonly zinc is coated with a ground, there are several types but they all do about the same thing. They are an asphalt or waxy material that is put onto the plate that has been heated to accept and melt them. When the plate cools, the ground is like a layer of paint that shields the copper surface of the plate from the action of acid in which it will later be immersed. The artist uses a fine needle to draw on the surface of the pate. The needle doesn't mark or scribe the plate, it merely reveals the copper surface through the protective ground. Then the plate is placed in a bath of acid. The acid attacks or bites the plate where the needle has exposed the copper and not where the ground remains unopened.

Above, Adam and Eve.

When the plate is removed from the acid the ground is removed with a solvent. The lines are bitten into the surface of the plate by the action of the acid. Ink is applied to the surface of the plate and it is wiped back leaving the ink only in those incised lines. The plate with a sheet of dampened paper is run through the parallel rollers of the press at high pressure. The paper is pushed up into the lines of the plate and receives the ink. The paper is then pulled away from the plate and the process is repeated. Below, the Good Samaritan.


Printing etchings is slow business and nothing like the high speed printing of a commercial press today. A small plate can be printed perhaps half a dozen times and hour, perhaps a little quicker in the hands of a master printer.It is a laborious handcraft that yields only a limited number of prints as the soft copper plate degrades and eventually the plate no longer produces accurate prints. So it is truly a limited edition print.

More about etching tomorrow.

16 comments:

Deb said...

I love it when I learn new stuff, and I honestly did not have a clear idea of how these were produced. So, thanks for the education.
On another note, I always pictured Adam and Eve as being fine examples of humankind... those two look like somebody dredged them up from the back streets of a Dicken's novel. Potipher's wife isn't looking so great either. No wonder Joseph is trying to get away.

willek said...

It was during the early seventies when I was into the etching. I had heard about Rembrandt etchings and wondered if I could see some at the MFA. So I went in to Boston and asked for the print department/ I was directed to a door in the basement level with no identifying markings. I knocked and a lady let me in. She asked what I wanted and I told her I would like to see some Rembrandt etchings. She asked, "What Period?" I said How many periods are there. I think she said two or three. I asked for some from each, She brought back 4 or 5 archival storage boxes and opened them. The folios inside held large glassine papers in which were the etchings. She sowed me how the glassine had to be folded back a certain way. Then SHE LEFT ME ALONE WITH THEM!!!! I looked at them for an hour and a half and was never interrupted. There were many many of them THey were arranged in order of state. He kept rebiting the plates as they wore back and sometimes made a much different image than what he started with. Some were very very small and none were very big. I was in such wonderment that I had free rein with these precious prints. It was just a great way to spend an afternoon. I wonder if that is possible today.

Gregory Becker said...

Those were terrific examples. The process is fascinating.
My favorite is the good samaratin.

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Great description of the etching process! Thank you. Your choices of examples are, er, always thought provoking too.

mariandioguardi.com said...

Last year, I had the privileged of being in the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam and seeing the etching process done in Rembrandt's etching studio.The museum had reproduced his plates and had a resident artist demonstrate the full printing process. It was awesome.

You certainly wouldn't know by looking at my work but I have a dark side. As a teen, my first love was black and white photography. I do respond deeply to black and white works, whether it be photo's or etchings or..whatever. Lately, I've been
doing a lot of charcoal studies ramping up for a new painting series.I've really been enjoying the focus of a black and white study.

So I have been thinking about black and white vs. color. I'd say, FOR ME, as a maker, color expresses an emotional response to visual stimulus. While black and white is an intellectual response to a visual stimulus. BUT I think that viewers (including me looking at art)have a very deep emotional response and sensitivity to black and white images. I have given this much thought and my theory is that our black and white vision is especially acute to enable us to survive the predatory hours of the before sunrise and after sunset, when our ancestors would be hunting and hunted. In the twilight of colorlessness our ability to interpret and respond to only a value base vision probably saved our ancestors' lives. II think we bring this primal response to art. It may also be why we look at the areas of contrast in a painting first. Anyone else out there think of these things?

Jeremy Elder said...

Question: wouldn't this process yield a reverse image of the original etching?

Philip Koch said...

Stape's choices of prints amply demonstrates Rembrandt (along with quite a few other Dutch 17th cent. artists) took an unblinking look at life all around them, as with the dog relieving himself in the foreground of the last print.

I find Rembrandt's frankness is tempered with a warm heart. You can feel his solidarity with others, human and four-legged both. His prints show a remarkable emotional tie between himself and his subjects. We can honestly say he was a man who deeply loved being alive and in touch. That he was able to find visual means to express himself eloquently is something I'll always be grateful for.

In comparison, the contemporary artist Jeff Koons seems so often to be caught in a smirking response to life. Heck, life is serious- I'll take Rembrandt's humanity anyday.

Willek- that is an amazing story about you handling the etchings at the MFA in Boston!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deb:
I love Rembrandt so much. I like Dickens too, maybe there is a connection there, never thought about it.
I am doing factual for awhile, I think opinion journalism needs to be interlarded with real solid information.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek:
They used to do that at the Fogg too in the drawing cabinets. I don't know if they still do or not.There are places around where you can see lots of etchings though, there are dealers who show a lot of them for instance.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory:
They are all so amazing, I would have to claim that as a favorite also. I used to go out with Potiphars wife in art school.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jo-Ann"
I swear it really didn't cross my mind until I had the whole thing together that it was "novelty" night. I actually omitted one as being too racy. I hope we don't get raided.
.......Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian:
Many of Rembrandt's plates continued to be printed long after he had died.Your black and white thesis seems reasonable but I am not in the antropologie biz................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip:
I have to say I prefer Rembrandt to Jeff Koons. Can't help it, just do!
There is so much to love about Rembrandt, his humanity still shows through all the art even in our own time. like Shakespeare.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy:
Yes, in fact I intend to touch on that tonight.
.................Stape

Deborah Paris said...

Hope you'll show some of R's wonderful landscape etchings as well as other 17th century Dutch examples.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deb;
I intend to shovel an entire history of etching at you.With design critiques. This might take years!
...............Stape
..