Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A little more about the making of etchings

Rembrandt etchings courtesy artrenewal.org, Americas largest online museum. They are a big help to this blog and I rely on their images routinely. Go check em out. The link is on the right.
The incredibly fine line of these etchings translates as a blur in this post, but If you can find a good book on etchings, Rembrandt, or take a trip to the local museum, you will be able to see in person that which is not reproducible here. I want to talk a little more about the making of etchings because it is essential to know a little to understand what we are seeing when we look at them.

It s a little like those sports things. I have friends who enjoy those, for instance the one where the ball is inexplicably pointed on the ends. They have explained to me that if everybody runs one way, that's good!, but if everybody runs the other way that's bad! Knowing a bit about something makes it so much more enjoyable.

So without getting very technical I want to describe another nicety of etching, that is dry point. Last night I spent all that time telling you the difference between etching and engraving is that the incised lines are put into the plate by the action of an acid as opposed to the engraving process where they are carved by force. The ability to lightly fling expressive lines makes an etching a far freer and expressive medium than engraving which has a stiff laborious aspect to it.
It is hard to happily vary the direction of a line in an engraving.

Well, sometimes etchers don't actually put all of their lines in with acid. Etchers use a method called drypoint, where they push the needle not just hard enough to open the ground and expose the surface of the plate to the acid, but hard enough to mark its surface. Usually the needle is made of steel and the plate is copper, a soft material, as the needle is pushed along it not only digs a tiny trench in the surface, it, like a plow, throws up a ridge of displaced material on either side of the line formed. That material is called burr, and holds ink.

Because the burr holds ink those lines and areas where drypoint is used print as a rich velvety black. Look at the descent from the cross below and you will see the effect it gives. All the darks in the background out of which the figures appear are drypoint.Often an artist will do the etching the ordinary way,bitten with acid to get his drawing onto the plate, and then he will use drypoint to strengthen his darks.Unfortunately this burr wears away rapidly in printing and has to be strengthened again by the artist and ultimately reduces the number of prints that can be "pulled" from the plate.

It is those black areas contrasted with the white of the plate and the fine lines that dance together to form the design of an etching.The combination of these three makes a medium that lends itself to design. I am bringing the subject of etchings on to the blog because I want to show some over the next week or so that we might study their design. You may never make an etching, but a painter can learn a lot by looking at them.

There is one more thing about etchings that I should mention, they are a mirror image of what the artist sees when he makes the plate. The process naturally reverses the image.
Most of the time its not a problem, but it does effect how the design will read, and if their is any lettering in a picture it must of course be done backwards on the plate. There is a helpful method for dealing with this though. If the artist makes a drawing in pencil or charcoal etc. the same size as he intends the etching to be, and places it on the grounded plate, when run through the press the drawing will be nicely transferred to the plate, backwards. That provides a guide so the artist doesn't have to think backwards to lay out his plate.The artist can also check their work on the plate, by looking at it in a mirror.

The last thing for tonight I want address tonight is "states" The artist may etch the plate, print it and then dissatisfied, put a new ground on it and then bite it with the acid once more. The changed plate from this is when printed "a second state". Many etchings go through many states before the artist is happy with them. Scholars of Rembrandt and connoisseurs of etching will compare different states of an etching and debate the artists intentions . Also the state of an etching may make it more or less valuable.
I will be back tomorrow with more on the makings of etchings.


willek said...

WhimBrelStape, Have you done some etching? Are you thinking about doing some?

At the museum school they were emphasizing large intaglio work and they had the huge presses. but I think that is contrary to the etching spirit and to the medium. Using very lightly bitten but many small lines in the distance and dedeply bitten lines for the foreground, for arial perspective prompts the observer to get a magnifying glass out. That would be a little rediculous with a 3 foot etching. Those little Rembrandts were especially charming. Small etchings are often mounted in large mats which draw the viewer closer and into the work. Lots of goodly charm there.

Mary Byrom said...

Thank you Stapleton. NIce to see discussions on etching. One of the great things about etchings is that the design is perfectly clear. You can see what the artist is doing and why it works visually. The line, form and value are clearly presented.
When you move from etchings to color the impact of design is different. All the elements of design that make the etching work then become more complex as color is introduced. The brain responds to line and color differently - (actually I've read that a different part of the brain is used.) Could you discuss this?

mariandioguardi.com said...

I am enjoying looking at these so much. The technique is not for me but I can't wait to start the discussion on design.

I tried to discuss my ideas about color vs, line and black and white in yesterday's blog but Stapleton seem to evince that it was in the area of anthropology (not his field). No body picked up the thread.
I see it differently, I think we artists are all playing and working in the area of anthropology as we make, look and discuss painting within it's historic place, process and social milieu. We may not BE anthropologist but our work certainly contributes to the history of where we areas humans, where we came from and only hints to where we are going. And as Stapleton has suggested we owe it to our art and profession to be knowledgeable and well read. Hey,did I convince you Stapleton? I tried my best.

Jesse said...

Prints are great, and of course Rembrandt isn't bad.

I'd like to give a nod to monotypes. My favorite type of print to make, probably because they are the most painterly. Although you don't get quite the production run out of a monotype that you do out of an etching.

billspaintingmn said...

I find this interesting. It's way out of my experience in art.
I own 1 etching, "Don Quichotte"
by Richard Lack.
It is facinating!
Well we(Minnesota) just got a lot
of snow, so I'm eager to start in
on some winter painting! Woo-hoo!

tom martino said...

Thanks for the educational (to me) information about etching, a medium I still would like to learn and eventually tackle. I did read that Whistler would sit in a doorway in Italy and etch a sketch ( no pun intended )plein air! To me, that seems a wonderful way to work, perhaps particularly on days without harsh sunshine. Do you have any recommendations for books describing the process of etching?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes I have done etching. But In have no intention off doing them in the near future.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thats what I think is going on too. Etchings are sort of a pure design exercise

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have no expertise to give an opinion of any value on the subject.One of the thinns I have taught myself to do, is promptly admit when I don't know about a subject. It gives me more credibility when I do.

Stapleton Kearns said...


How far back do monotypes go? Are they a 20th century idea? I made a few in art school long ago and haven't thought about them since.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think printmaking is more obscure now than it was 30 years ago.... I think.
Snow is good.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will recommend a text this evening in the post.You can take a plate out and draw on it just like a sketchbook, and if i doesn't work out, you just reground the plate and start over.

rezkarcfitness said...

You can check etchingfitness.blogspot.com for etchings.