Invented in 1513 by the Swiss artist Urs Graf, etchings are prints that use acid to bite an incised image into a metal plate. Over the centuries, numerous artists have adopted the technique to gain greater artistic nuance.
Preparing the plate
To begin, a metal plate (usually copper, iron or zinc), is polished until completely smooth. At which point, a layer of acid-resistant wax or varnish is spread across it.
Incising the image
Using a needle, an image is drawn into the wax/varnish, revealing the plate underneath. This was often undertaken by the artist themselves.
The plate is either dipped into an acid bath or acid is poured over it. The acid bites into the exposed areas of the plate (e.g. where the artist has removed the wax/varnish) and voila - the required image is bitten into the plate in the form of recessed lines.
As you can imagine, with careful preparation, an artist can achieve interesting tonal effects by applying the acid several times in certain areas.
Removing the ground
Once the plate has been bitten as required, it's then cleaned with a solvent.
Inking the plate
Ink is then applied, usually with a cloth ball, and covers the entire plate before being wiped away - leaving only the ink which has gathered in the recesses.
A rolling printing press forces a sheet of paper onto the plate, which facilitates the transfer of ink. This also creates a 'plate mark' - essentially a dent in the paper created by the outline of the plate itself.
The result is a mirror image of the original design.
Over the centuries, artists have adopted etching as a reliable, and creative, method of printmaking.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Knight, Death and the Devil
JMW Turner (1775-1851), Inverary Castle and Town, Scotland
Anders Zorn (1860-1920), Zorn and His Wife
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), The Frugal Repast (Le repas frugal)
What is aquatint?
Invented in 1786, aquatint is a printmaking technique designed to achieve greater tonal effects. It follows the same principles as etching but rather than applying an acid-resistant wax/varnish, a printmaker uses a powdered substance, such as 'rosin', which is attached to the plate by heating.
When the plate is dipped into acid (mixed with water), the powered particles provide an irregular level of resistance, resulting in a finish somewhat similar to watercolour. It's often used in conjunction with etching to achieve a combination of fine lines and tone.
Aquatints became popular for short period, particularly when various colours were applied before pressing. Oftentimes, a printmaker would produce several plates, each bearing the same design but with different areas affected by the acid. These were then inked with a specific colour for each press on the same sheet of paper - thus colours were added individually. Alternatively, a single plate could be used for every colour - a technique known as à la poupée.
Artists, such as Manuel Robbe (1872-1936), adopted aquatints to gain greater artistic control.
As did Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).
And Mary Cassatt (1844-1926).
What is drypoint?
Drypoint is essentially etching but without the acid. It's a simpler technique whereby the artist uses a diamond or carbide-tipped needle to scratch directly into a plate made of soft metal, such as copper. It’s also similar to engraving but uses a needle rather than a burin. In addition, the raised edges created through incision are not removed, which can lead to a softer line.
Rembrandt (1606-1669) was a master of drypoint.