THE CENTURIES OLD TECHNIQUE OF ETCHING
First off, if you’re looking for a quick read about etching, this isn’t it. Quite honestly, I don’t think one exists anywhere because there is nothing quick about the etching process. I would imagine that’s why there aren’t many artists that gravitate to this medium, but I guess I’m the exception to the rule. So if you’re still reading, it must mean you are intrigued and want to learn more, or you’re about to select the “close” button and choose to just enjoy looking at my etchings. Which is perfectly fine. But if you choose to read on, I can guarantee that reading about the etching process is not nearly as long as creating one. So prepare to be entertained with my riveting story about “How An Etching Is Made”.
The technique of etching dates back to the fifteenth century and is a very labor intensive process. It is a very different medium than painting, but I love the process and the unmistakable look of the outcome. Because it requires time and perseverance to master this art form, it is not pursued by many artists, but to the fine art collector, etching is one medium which can be appreciated for its aesthetic appearance as well as the centuries-old process used to create it. The works of Rembrandt, Dürer and other Masters, demonstrate the ultimate beauty and mastery of this medium.
Thankfully, modern day etchers have it a whole lot easier than those of centuries past. If for no other reason than materials are more readily available than back in the day. I’m guessing Rembrandt didn’t have Jerry’s Artarama or Dick Blick at his beckoned call when he needed supplies. But the process itself remains every bit as tedious. I begin every etching with a rough pencil sketch of the image I will ultimately create as an etching. In an effort to keep the etching spontaneous, my initial pencil sketch will be used merely as a guide for placement of certain objects as I draw them onto the copper plate. Once I establish a concept and size for the etching, I prepare the plate for the lengthy, labor intensive process ahead.
If you are still with me, it may be obvious that this is not an “on-the-edge-of-your-seat” read, but just imagine how impressed your friends will be with your knowledge when the subject of etching comes up.
DRAWING THE IMAGE ON THE PLATE
The etching process begins with a highly polished sheet of copper. I bevel the edges of the plate with a file to prevent the plate from cutting through the paper when it will later be subjected to the high pressure of the etching press. A very thin coating of an acid resistant substance known as “ground” is applied to the surface of the plate and left to dry. The plate is then suspended upside down and the flame of a candle is run along the plate surface until the ground melts and the black candle smoke permeates it. This will give the plate a satin black finish which enables me to see the image as I draw on the copper. I choose to draw with a very sharp sewing needle which produces an extremely fine line and ultimately, a highly detailed work of art. Depending on the size of the plate, it may take me months to complete the drawing process.
BITING THE PLATE WITH ACID
After I complete the drawing, I immerse the plate in an acid mixture known as Dutch Mordant (French for “biting”) which is a combination of hydrochloric acid and potassium chlorate (this part of the etching process is not my favorite. FYI . . . It’s important to remember the golden rule; always add acid to water, never the opposite . . . in case you ever want to take up etching and don’t want to loose your sight). The acid bath further defines my drawn image by eating away or biting the exposed copper while preserving the fine detail. A feather is used to agitate the acid, removing any copper sediment resting in the bitten grooves of the plate. Varying the length of biting time creates tonal effects in the etching ranging from dark to light – the longer the plate remains in the acid the darker the printed work of art will be. However, as the copper bites it weakens the acid solution, and the biting activity slows down. Therefore, the artist’s eye and expertise must serve to determine how long the plate should remain in the acid.
PREPARATION & WIPING THE INKED PLATE
If you’re still with me, you’ll be happy to know we’re coming into the home stretch. But now the brute work begins.
Once I decide the plate is sufficiently bitten, the ground is removed from the plate and the etching can be pulled, meaning the image I’ve drawn is transferred from the plate to the paper. First, I spread ink over the entire plate and then begin the task of removing excess ink from the plate surface with ‘scrim’ ~ a starched cheesecloth formed into a pad that I drag over the plate surface in circular motions which will remove ink from the surface but not the bitten grooves. In the final wiping stage, I hand wipes the surface until it is thoroughly cleaned. The wiped plate is placed on the bed of the etching press and covered with a sheet of heavy 100% rag fine art etching paper that has been soaked in water for a couple of hours and blotted until damp.
The following final step will reveal success, failure, or something in between. Success is obviously preferred but experience has taught me not to get my hopes up just yet.
MOMENT OF TRUTH ~
THE PRINTING OF THE ETCHED PLATE
As the bed moves through the rollers of the press, extreme pressure forces the paper into the grooves of the plate transferring the etched image. Several felt blankets placed on top of the paper and plate will help absorb the extreme pressure of the steel rollers. Now, all of my efforts will be realized as I pull the blankets and paper away from the plate – the reward for the weeks or months spent creating the etching finally culminate in seeing the piece of art I originally envisioned in my mind. Success or failure? Well after all of this work, failure is not an option. At most the plate may require a bit of tweaking, sometimes resulting in several states (changes) from the plate. But hopefully the pulled etching will at least show some resemblance to the image you had set out to create. And that is rewarding.
But wait! . . . there’s more!
After the etching has been dried and flattened, I enhance the etching by hand tinting each one individually with watercolor, giving the added dimension and quality of an original piece of art. Finally, hand signing and numbering indicate my final approval of the finished artwork.
. . . and they lived happily ever after.
Thank you for hanging in there and taking time to learning how an etching is created. All of the images available on the Etchings Gallery page of this website have been painstakingly produced with this amazing process. Hopefully I’ve given you a new appreciation for this elusive art form.