Printmaking - Printing Limited Edition Etchings From Copper Plates

By: Colin Bailey

Printmaking - Printing Limited Edition Etchings From Copper Plates

Etching and engraving come under the printmaking category of intaglio; the print results from ink being forced out of the incised lines and not from the surface of the plate. Engraving was originally used to decorate metal. These decorations would often be filled with pigment which with the right pressure was found to transfer to paper or cloth producing a print.

Etching differs from engraving in that acid replaces the physical effort of incising the plate allowing for a much lighter and freer range of marks and textures. The depth of the line can also be more easily controlled and used to create richer and more varied tones. The most common metals used for etching plates are zinc and copper; Zinc is often used by students whereas copper is generally considered to produce finer line and more detailed tones.

1. In etching, the plate is covered by a ground, or "resist" which protects the plate from the acid and is then drawn into with a needle.. Ground usually comes in the form of a wax ball which is melted onto a heated plate and then spread evenly and thinly with a roller. The Ground can either be hard - for fine, precise lines or soft - the wax does not set; any textured object pressed into it will pull the wax off when removed; exposing the plate. Placing paper over soft ground and drawing on it will create marks similar to a hard pencil.

2. Hard ground is not much darker in colour than the metal. so it is quite common to darken the plate by carefully holding it upside down and allowing the carbon from burning wax tapers to be absorbed into the ground. This is called smoking the plate. The plate can now be drawn on with a needle - hard enough only to scrape off the ground without scratching into the metal. This way mistakes can be painted out with a liquid ground. Also remember anything drawn will print as a mirror image!

3. The plate is then put into acid and the exposed areas are bitten. I usually use Dutch Mordant, a slow biting, easy to control mixture of Hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride and water that turns a luminous blue/green with use.

4. The ground is removed and the drawn image will have been "etched" into the plate. This is covered with ink, surface ink is wiped away leaving only the lines filled.

5. A sheet of dampened paper is placed over the inked plate and both are rolled through a press under high pressure. The resulting print will have crisp, slightly raised lines and a characteristic "plate mark."

About the Author:
Colin Bailey taught etching at Working Men's College in Camden in the 1980's. He now is a professional painter and etcher living in Hastings, East Sussex. A more detailed explanation of the etching process including example of finished prints and suggested biting times can be found on his website: Ryepress


Etching demonstration by Glynn Thomas



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