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This is a basic discourse on the techniques of etching, emphasizing new developments. New materials and methods have helped to overcome many of the technical difficulties and complexities inherent in traditional etching technique. Expensive equipment has been replaced, where possible, with alternatives of cheaper materials which function as well or frequently better than the old. Through the use of some of these new materials and methods, a beginner can avoid the discouraging and trying period of mastering the technical manipulation of etching, and the professional can achieve the fluent ease and directness of expression which every creative artist seeks. New methods offer an opportunity for the modern artist to create a print in which the form, the content, and the technique have an integrated unity. Most of us agree that the artist of today should not attempt to imitate the art of the past, but in his subject matter, his methods of expression, and his materials should seek what is of today.


The possession of "original" works of art is unfortunately-and mistakenly-considered a luxury. True, paintings and drawings are generally expensive to buy, in part because of their oneness, each picture being an original, the direct product of the artist's hands. One of the special attributes of the graphic arts, however, is their ability to produce multi-originals. The artist works on metal, stone, or wood. With chemicals and sharp implements he manipulates the face of the material, cutting into or chemically treating the surface. When the surface is inked and sent through a press, an impression on paper results. This is an original print. The number of impressions which can be made is relatively unlimited. The etching plate, the lithograph stone, or the block of wood is only the potential for the end result-the print. From these materials many prints can be pulled, and each is an original. The artist's work on metal, stone, or wood only comes to life as a picture when the print is made. Each print carries with it all the artist's intentions-as though he had taken pen or crayon and drawn the picture directly on the paper. A print differs drastically from a reproduction, and the two should not be confused. To get a reproduction, the artist's original picture is photographed, and the photograph is chemically and mechanically transferred to a plate. From the plate, prints are made on a power press. Inevitably, this break in the artist's direct control causes a loss in quality. Frequently the loss of quality may detract seriously from the artist's original intention. Both original prints and reproductions, however, are making important contributions to the democratization of art by making pictures available at lower cost through quantity production. This is particularly true of the graphic arts, which can offer multi-originals at low prices. The advantage of owning and living with original works of art as against reproductions is obvious. Symbolically speaking, it is like getting to know an artist in person as against seeing his photograph. For the artist, the graphic arts offer the possibility of enlarging their earnings through the sale of prints. There are many more people who can afford to buy a print than there are people who can afford to buy a painting or drawing. Aesthetically, the medium is challenging, stimulating, and, once conquered, richly satisfying.



This is a process by which lines are engraved into a metal plate with acid, then filled with ink, and the plate is printed on an etching press.

The Plate

The plate is usually copper or zinc.

The Ground

A dark, wax, acid-resistant ground is laid (poured, rolled, or dubbed) over the surface of the plate in a thin, even coat.

The Needle

Lines are drawn through the ground Drawing with the etching needle with an etching needle. The needle does not cut the surface of the plate but only exposes it. Thus the entire surface of the plate is covered with acid-resistant ground, but wherever the needle is drawn across the plate the plate is exposed.

The Bath

The plate is immersed in an acid bath (a tray filled with acid, usually nitric or mordant, mixed with water in the proportions needed for the kind of biting desired). The acid eats the exposed lines. Variations are achieved by removing the plate at intervals and covering the lines which have been bitten deeply enough with a stopping- out varnish. The longer the plate re- mains in the acid, the deeper the line. The ground is then cleaned off the plate.

Etching Ink

Etching ink is then rolled over the face of the plate, which is usually warmed to make the ink flow easily. A ball of netting is used to wipe the ink off the face of the plate. Ink is left in the lines that have been etched.


The plate is placed face up on the bed of the press. Over it is placed a sheet of printing paper and over that two soft felt blankets. The plate is then rolled through the press, and the print is made.


Aquatint is the process by which areas of tone are engraved into a metal plate with acid. The plate is covered with ink and printed on an etching press.

The Aquatint Ground

Powdered rosin is tied up in a sack mode of silk. The sack is agitated or shaken over the plate, and the rosin dusts down on it. Various textures can be obtained with fine or coarse rosin.

Heating the Ground

The plate is then heated, and the dots of rosin become fixed into acid- resistant dots of varnish.

Acid Bath

Areas that are to be white are covered with stopping-out varnish. The acid eats the plate around the dots of rosin ground. The plate is removed at intervals from the bath, and areas that are bitten deeply enough are covered with stop-out. The longer the plate remains in the bath, the deeper the blacks achieved.


When biting is finished the ground is removed, and the plate is inked and printed like an etching. Aquatint is mostly used in cornbination with etched lines. Textures An aquatint resembles a water color or wash drawing; an etching is more like a pen-and-ink drawing, and a lithograph often looks like a drawing in crayon or pencil.


This is the process of scratching lines into a metal plate with a sharp needle, filling the lines with ink, cind printing the plate on an etching press. the lines. Many lines drawn close to- gether and crisscrossed will print as a tone. The metal that is pushed up on each side of the line is called the burr. One of the major differences between an etching and a dry point is that, be cause of the burr, a dry-pointed line holds the ink on both sides of-as well as within-itself. This results in a softer line. No acid is used.

Inking the Plate

Etching ink is rolled over the face of the plate, and the ink is cleaned off the plate with a wad of netting. Ink is allowed to remain in the lines and the burr.


The plate is then printed just like an etching. The number of good prints that can be pulled from a dry point is limited by the wearing down of the burr unless the plate is metal faced.


Engraving is the process of cutting lines into a metal plate with engraving tools, or burins, filling the lines with ink, and printing the plate.

The Burins

Various types of burins are used to get different kinds of lines. Various shaped points give wider or deeper lines. The point of the burin is pushed into the plate, completely removing a thread of metal from the plate.

Inking and Printing

The plate is inked and printed like an etching except that, in the case of an etching, some ink is often left on the plate to get a tone, while an engraved plate is wiped quite clean. The engraved line is colder and harder than either the etched or the dry-pointed line.


This is the process of roughening the surface of the plate until the entire surface, if inked, would print black, and then smoothing it down to achieve half tones and whites. It is the opposite of etching. In mezzotint the artist works from black to white instead of from white to block.

The Tools

The tools used in the mezzotint process are the rocker, the roulette wheel, the scraper, the Furnisher, and scotch stone.

The Rocker

The rocker has a curved, serrated edge with a thread small or large according to the quality of texture required. The rocker is held with its blade at right angles to the plate and the curved edge rocked regularly over the whole surface at many angles, causing a uniformly indented surface with a burr to each indentation. Many artists use an aquatint ground bitten lo a black as a base for mezzotinting.

The Roulette Wheel

This is a wheel with a number of sharp points which is used to get much the same results.

The Scraper

The scraper is a sharp, three-edged fool used for cutting clown the points on the roughened picite.

The Burnisher

This is a smooth, round-edged tool used to rub down the roughened plate.

Scotch Stone

This is an abrasive stick used to grind the tones down. The polished places on the plate print white or almost white.


When all the desired tones have been achieved, the plate is inked and then printed on an etching press.

Referenced from Modern Methods and Materials of Etching By Harry Sternberg