artist at easel, vintage magazines, vintage ads, antique art prints, vintage art prints, vintage books, and vintage craft books






Zinc etching plate. Bag of whiting. Bottle of stop-out varnish. Tracing paper. Powdered pigment (yellow ochre). Korn's lithographic rubbing ink. Hard pencil and pencil eraser. Water-color brush.


Etching plates are for the most part made of zinc or copper. The shiny, polished side of the plate is the face. The dull, mat side is the back. Zinc is a softer metal than copper. Its molecular structure is such that lines bitten into it are coarse and rough edged when viewed through a rnagnifying glass. The cost of zinc plates is about one third that of copper. A larger number of prints can be pulled from copper. For general use and certainly for the first experiments zinc plates are satisfactory. Only where very fine, delicate, and very closely cross hatched needle work is required and where large editions are to be printed is copper preferable. It is possible to buy engraver's plates in both metals. These are plates whose backs have been electroplated with an acidproof coating. This is usually indicated in print on the back of the plate. The advantage of an engraver's plate is that it is not necessary to coat the back of the plate with an acid resist each time the plate is immersed in acid for biting. The disadvantage is that the back of the plate cannot be used. Both sides of the regular etching plate can be used for making etchings. All plates come from the manufacturer covered by a coat of oil. This protects them against corrosion as a result of handling. There is sufficient acid in perspiration so that a fingerprint will, in time, etch itself into a plate. The oil film must be removed before working on the plate. When an etching plate is not in use it should be covered with a coat of oil or white vaseline and wrapped in wax paper.


The beginner should at least make an outline sketch, to the measurements of the plate, of the drawing he is going to trace on the plate. How far to develop and finish the study for the etching will vary with each individual. Many artists find that making a complete pen drawing and then copying it on the plate tends to dull the freshness of the etching. Transferring a drawing line by line to a plate destroys the direct quality of the first sketch. It is advisable for the beginner to choose a simple subject and a limited textural and tonal range for his first etching.


To lay a ground, or prepare a plate for an acid etching, it is necessary to cover the plate with an acidproof ground, or coating. This ground must be flexible enough so that a needle or other sharp implement can cut a clean line through it to expose the metal face of the plate. The ground must not he brittle, or it will chip and break away as lines are drawn through it. Flexibility is needed, so that it will adhere to the plate as the plate expands or contracts with temperature changes. The traditional rolled-wax ground is difficult to master and requires meticulous care in handling .A new ground has been developed which is simple to apply and elir-ninates many of the old difficulties.


The face of the plate is protected with an oil finish, which must be removed before putting a ground on the plate. To test the oiliness of the surface, pour some cold water on the plate. The water will run on the oily film and collect in small, irregularly shaped patches. The same test made again after the oil has been removed will indicate whether or not the plate has been properly cleaned. On a well cleaned plate the water will form an even film over the entire surface of the plate.

Whiting to Remove Oil

Clean the surface of the plate, using turpentine and a clean rag. Then place a small pile of whiting on the plate. Add a few drops of water to the whiting and mix with fingers on the plate until a paste results. Rub this paste firmly over the face of the plate, still using your fingers. This will remove the oil film by its mild abrasive action. To clean off the whiting, hold the plate under a cold-water faueet. Keep washing until all the whiting is removed. Dry the plate by placing it on a warm stove. As an alternate to whiting you can use nickel or silver polish and a chamois.


Place the cleaned plate on a stove and warm it slightly; then remove it from the stove. Rub a stick of lithographic rubbing ink across the plate, first in one direction, then in the other. Continue until the face of the plate is covered with a coat of rubbing ink. This coating, or ground, should be thin, only enough to cover the plate. In fact, the plate will be imperfectly covered; there will be pinholes, roughness, and irregularities in the ground through which the plate will show. These can be covered over and smoothed out by using an ordinary pencil eraser. Once again warm the plate slightly on the stove. Rub with the eraser lightly across the ground, first in one direction, then in the other. Continue until the ground is smoothed into an even, thin coat over the face of the plate. The plate is now ready for work.


Make an outline drawing the same size as the plate on thin tracing paper. On the back of this tracing pour a little powdered color. Rub it firmly into the back of the tracing, covering the entire sheet. Shake off the excess powder. This makes a carbon sheet out of the drawing. Place the drawing in position over the grounded plate. Using a pencil sharpened to a fine point, transfer the drawing to the ground by tracing over the outlines on the tracing paper. The lightest pressure that will effectively trace the drawing should be used. Too much pressure will lift the ground off the plate. Check the pressure needed by tracing a few lines and then lifting a corner of the paper and examining the plate. When the tracing is complete, remove the paper and lightly dust off excess powder from the plate with a soft cloth. The traced impression on the ground will be white on black.


The traditional implement used for working on the plate is the etching needle. For the lithographic-ink ground, however, a sharpened lead pencil is recommended instead. In working on the plate, lines are cut through the ground exposing the face of the plate. It is important that each line be drown through the ground with sufficient firmness so that no residue of ground remains in the bottom. The plate face must be cleanly exposed so that the acid can get to the metal. Keep in mind that the lightness or blackness of the printed lines is the result of biting with the acid, not of varying pressure as in drawing. Try using two pencils, one with a very sharp point, the other with a blunt point. The sharp point will create thin lines; the blunt point, heavy lines. Work freely on the plate. Mistakes can be easily corrected with an eraser. If there are large areas to correct, simply rub the stick of rubbing ink across them. This ease in making corrections stimulates freedom and fluidity of line.


The rubbing-ink ground opens a wide range for the development of textural surfaces on the plate. The traditional hard ground is relatively limited to those textures obtainable with the needle point. The rubbing-ink ground, because of its softness and flexibility, is receptive to a number of possibilities. Any material with a broken textured surface that can cut into the ground may be used for textural manipulation on the plate. A rough stipple results from pressing coarse sandpaper into the ground. This will not be a mechanically spaced stipple but will have variations corresponding to the variations in the abrasive on the sandpaper. Mosquito netting or wire screening can be used for the same purpose. Crisscross the material each time it is applied, and varied but controllable textures will result. A wire brush or coarse sandpaper may be swirled over the ground for a whirling textural movement, as illustrated. The etcher should experiment with various materials until he finds those that are responsive to his aesthetic needs.


After all work is completed on the plate and it is ready for the acid, the back of the plate must be cocited for protection against the acid. Shoe polish, stop-out varnish, or lacquer may be painted over the back and the edges of the plate. Care should be exercised not to let the stop-out run over the face of the plate, or it will obliterate the work. When the stop-out is dry, the plate is ready for the acid-bath etch.

Referenced from Modern Methods and Materials of Etching By Harry Sternberg