Monday, December 7, 2009

Etchings and engravings

Rembrandt, the Hundred Guilder Print all prints this page courtesy Americas largest online museum

When a week ago I wrote about prints original and otherwise, I was intending that post to be a segue into writing about etching. I got sidelined for a while on the subject of pricing, and I will happily return to that, but I like to change things up a bit here. I rotate through various subjects and I felt like things were slowing down a little. Hence a new subject. Something about which I think artists should know, etching.

Painters have often done etching as a sideline and it is a grand art tradition that isn't getting its due anymore. When we see (or say) "print' today we think lithography or mass market silkscreens. There was a time when that meant a handmade product, either an etching, an engraving or a woodblock print. I am going to, for now, concentrate on etchings.

An etching is an intaglio, that is it is printed from a plate that holds the ink in lines incised INTO its surface. Often times etchings are confused with engravings, here is an engraving below, by William Hogarth.

An engraving also is printed from a plate bearing the ink in lines incised into its surface however the lines in an engraving are cut into the plate with a sharp tool called a burin. It takes a steady hand, and is often the job of a craftsman rather than an artist. In the 19th century engravers made plates to illustrate newspapers and famous art was known more from the engravings made of it, than the original art itself. A dollar bill is an example of an engraving

The lines holding the ink on an etching plate are "bitten" into its surface by the action of an acid. Because of this they can be very delicate and very expressive. Traditionally etchings are done on copper, but zinc is also commonly used. Because the copper is soft, as impressions are "pulled" from the plate, it wears. That means that an etching really is part of a limited edition, only so many can be made before the plate no longer yields a fine impression. Engravings, typically done on steel, allow nearly limitless prints to be made, but they don't give the fine artistic look of an etching.

Etchings yield a soft velvety black and allow the use of fine incredibly delicate individual lines. Because they are black and white and have those qualities, historically etchers have concerned themselves with design and effective SPOTTING, that is, the arrangement of areas of darks within their images. The history of etching is the history of fine designers. I draw your attention to etching because it is a place to go to see great design. I will continue with this series of posts tomorrow by walking you through the method by which an etching is made.


Philip Koch said...

Ah, Rembrandt etchings!

I cut my art teeth on those many years ago when I was an undergrad art major at Oberlin College. I was desperate to find some good realist work to study once I was done with my initial year of abstract painting, and Rembrandt just fell into my lap. The school's art library had some great books on his etchings and I just about memorized them. And as the school has lots of $, it also had the Allen Art Museum with an impressive collection of original Rembrandt etchings.

As Stape points out, you can learn a lot about design studying such works. You can learn a lot about drawing too. I know I did.

It's funny how when you find work from the past you feel connected with these long departed artists can be such wonderful teachers. Sometimes I'm asked how I learned to paint and I'm always tempted to say "Well, I studied with Rembrandt."

billspaintingmn said...

Rock on Stape!

willek said...

I became interested in etching after seeing Benson's DUCK and waterfowl etchings and the etching of A. Lasell Ripley, managed to buy a small press from an elderly local artist. The process of biting the place, pulling the proof, rebiting and reproofing was like eating peanuts, fo me. I was often up till 2 or 3 a.m.

This technique has been keep alive in the tradition of "Sporting Art" eg: Hunting and fishing. Gordon Allen is a contemporary etcher who appears to have a solid following in the genre:

I later took two sessions in printmaking at the Museum school but got side tracked with the painting thing.

Unknown said...

Cool post. I recently saw some Degas and Cassat etchings in a gallery in San Diego, CA. I was blown away both by the quality of lines, and by the $100,00+ price tags.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You and I both discovered Rembrandt at the same point in our development. I knew their had to be something better than what I was seeing around me. I had always HEARD about Rembrandt, when I discovered him it amazed me. They bring out this wonder in me , awe.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will. Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Their were so many fine etchers doing that sort of thing in the first part of the 20th century.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hi there. Most etchers don't bring big money and can be collected on a working mans salary.

jeff said...

Zorn and Whistler are both print makers who rival Rembrandt.

Zorn did reproduce a fair amount of his paintings as etchings.

The first time I saw a Rembrandt etching I was about 20 and it was at a friend of my mothers who happened to deal in art. He had just bought a large print of one of the Christ story. I just remember sitting in his office looking at it for the better part of an hour, or until he put it back in his safe.