The Etching Process

By: Melanie Fain

The Etching Process

Rembrandt, Picasso, Goya, and other masters, used etching to express their artistic vision. This historical art form is used by printmakers today. The etcher uses not only her artistic talent, but also must balance the delicate chemistry involved in developing the image on the plate.

The traditional etching method is unique in that it allows the artist to produce a limited number of almost identical images. Sculptors have a similar process, using one mold and casting it multiple times. Etchings are not simply reproductions, however, as the artist is involved in every step of the printmaking process: drawing, etching the plate, pulling each print, hand-coloring the etching, and finally numbering the edition. Thus, each etching is an original work of art.

The etching process begins in the artist's imagination, expressed as a drawing. The artist then uses a copper or zinc plate, coated with an acid resistant wax. Her drawing is scratched on the surface of the plate, cutting through the wax, and exposing the metal beneath.

This plate is then immersed into an acid bath. The wax protects most of the plate from the effects of the acid. However, the acid bites away at the bare metal, 'etching' or producing grooves in, the surface of the plate. Variations in shading are determined by the length of time that portion of the plate remains in the acid bath. For a single line, the deeper the line the more ink it will hold, and, the darker it will print.

When the acid process is complete, the wax is removed and the plate coated, by hand, with an etching ink. The ink is carefully wiped off the plate surface, leaving the bitten lines full of ink. This wiping determines the appearance of the background of the finished etching. The inking process is repeated for each print in the edition.

Next, a dampened piece of acid-free paper is placed over the etched and inked plate. The plate and paper are then run, by hand, through a flatbed press under very heavy pressure. This process forces the paper into the recesses of the plate, picking up the ink, resulting in a reversed, but exact reproduction of the plate. This reproduction is called an intaglio etching.

Some etchings are composed of only this inked print. Some artists use multiple plates to produce colored etchings. Other etchings are finished with a variety of media. Once the etching is dry, the artist can embellish the etching using watercolors, pastels, etc.

One of the factors that make etchings more valuable is the fact that the plate will wear down with use. Therefore, hand-pulled etchings are limited to a certain number of impressions for each edition. This maintains the highest intaglio print quality, as well as giving the artwork enduring value.

Each etching is then signed and numbered by the artist. This numbering tells the art owner both, the total number of etchings in the edition, and, the number of this particular etching in that edition. For example, an etching might read 24/70, meaning that this is the 24th impression in the edition of 70. Many artists designate a small portion of the edition to Artist Proofs, or AP's. Artist Proofs are the impressions used to ensure the quality of the numbered pieces.

Today's fine art printmaker can choose from several methods to produce an etching plate. Many artists are now using an alternative method to create an etching plate without the use of acids and toxic chemicals. The process of solar etching has evolved using an aluminum plate covered with a layer of photo emulsion. The plate is created by placing a transparency made from the original drawing over the UV sensitive surface, exposing it to the sun, and then developing it in water. Once the plate is created, the steps of inking, wiping, hand-pulling and hand-coloring the etching is the same as in the traditional method described above.

Etching is a unique art form providing the collector with a beautiful, original work of art.

About the Author:
Melanie Fain is an artist and naturalist, famous for her beautiful watercolors and hand-pulled etchings. Melanie loves to bring the natural world to her collectors and specializes in birds, insects, and botanicals. Melanie's art has been exhibited throughout the United States in select exhibitions and art shows.

Visit Melanie Fain's website to view and purchase her etchings and watrcolors: http://melaniefain.com/


Etching at Edinburgh Printmakers



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