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Just as Rembrandt is one of the undisputed masters of etching, so Goya is one of the great masters of aquatint. His two epoch series, "The Caprichos" and "The Horrors of War," should be studied by all artists interested in aquatint. In the graphic arts, aquatint has been used relatively little, or when used it has been employed in the most limited way. Few artists have worked with it creatively although it is potentially one of the most exciting and plastically rewarding mediums in the whole graphic field. It is extremely flexible in tonal and textural range and has many unexplored possibilities.


One-quarter pound lump rosin. One-foot square piece of silk. Cotton handkerchief. No. 4 lithograph crciyon pencils. Can of paint remover. Metal file.


A few lumps of rosin are placed between a folded sheet of cardboard and then pounded with a hammer until they are reduced to fine powder and very small lumps. (Machine-ground rosin is available but will not do because it consists of particles so small that they do not have body enough to stand up against the corrosive action of the bath.) Two squares of cloth are needed for making the dust bags-one of silk for fine grounds and one with an open mesh for coarse grounds. Pile a small heap (about three tablespoons) of powdered rosin on each of the two pieces of cloth. Pull the ends of the cloths up and tie into bags with string. One bag will serve as a fine and the other as a coarse dust bag. The silk bag, being very close meshed, will only strain out very fine particles of rosin. The cotton bag will permit larger particles to pass through its mesh.


To ground the plate, shake (agitate or top) the bags. A dust cloud of rosin will sift out. The traditional procedure of grounding calls for the construction of an elaborate dust box. However, this is for the most part unnecessary, giving an aesthetically cold and mechanically even ground. The use of a dust bag results in a greater aesthetic freedom and flexibility in the types of ground achieved. When dusting an aquatint ground on a plate, all windows and doors should be shut to prevent drafts. The rosin dust is easily blown off. Avoid sneezing or blowing on the plate until the ground is heated and fixed. After that the plate can be handled freely with no injury to the ground.

Dusting on the Ground

Clean the plate thoroughly with turpentine. Cover the table or other surface where the dusting is to be done with newspapers to protect it from the dust. Place a piece of paper a little larger than the plate on the newspaper. lay the plate face up in the center of this paper. Hold the dust bog by the tied ends about 6 inches over the plate and begin shaking it. A cloud of rosin dust will settle on the plate. As the bag is agitated, move it back and forth across the plate to achieve an even dusting.
Continue dusting until the plate has a solid white appearance. Experience will teach you how much rosin to use for the type of ground desired. An overheavy dusting will give a coarse ground, even when using the fine-meshed silk bag. Full ability to manipulate fine and coarse grounds for textures and plasticity will come with experience. You can achieve variations in the ground by sprinkling tiny lumps of rosin onto the plate.

Heating and Fixing the Aquatint Ground

After the dusting is completed handle the plate with care. When lifting it be careful not to touch its face. Raise the plate without touching it by lifting the sheet of paper underneath. Gently slide the paper with the plate on it onto the hot stove. The rosin will quickly begin to melt. As it melts, it will lose its whiteness and become shiny and wet looking. All the rosin particles must be melted down, but care must be exercised not to overheat the ground. Most stoves have one point which is extra hot. When the plate is placed on the stove, the rosin will begin to melt first at this point. As it melts, keep sliding the plate around so that unrneited areas of rosin come over the hot area. When all the white powder particles are reduced to a shiny wetness, the plate should be removed from the stove. If the plate is correctly heated each bit of rosin melts down to a drop of acidproof varnish. The acid bites the unprotected metal around these dots when the plate is immersed in the both. If the plate is overheated the rosin particles melt and spread so that they merge. This makes a solid acidproof film of varnish, and the plate does not bite at all when immersed in acid. As soon as the ground is heated enough, remove it from the stove. Because of the paper under the plate, you can do this without scorching your fingers. let the plate cool. When it is cold, rub your fingers firmly across the ground. If any rosin brushes off, the ground has not been sufficiently melted. The plate should then be put back on the stove and reheated.


If a plate with a rosin ground on it should be immersed in acid, the entire plate would begin to bite. It is necessary. therefore, first to stop out those areas which are to remain white. Use stop-out varnish and a water-color brush and carefully cover all those areas on the plate which you wish to keep white. Cover the back of the plate with stop-out. When the stop-out varnish is dry, the plate is ready for the first biting. Aquatint bites much faster than line etching, so the biting periods are proportionately shorter. As soon as the plate is immersed in the acid bath, bubbles will begin to form. The etcher must keep brushing these bubbles away. Frequent removal of the plate from the bath, stopping-out of lighter areas, and further biting of the darker ones will give a sensi- tive and wide range of tonal change. This shows the tirnings for the various bites. It is recommended that a test plate be made instead of depending on the reproduced charts. When the biting is complete, clean off the ground with varnish or paint remover, using a soft rag. The edges of the plate must be beveled with a file before the plate can be printed.


As with other etching mediums, it is advantageous to make a test plate for each different aquatint ground and each acid formula. To make a test plate, follow the instructions for grounding and biting aquatint already described. In the test plates illustrated, half of the plate has a fine aquatint ground, the other half has a coarse ground. This is done by covering half of the plate with a piece of cardboard and dusting on the fine ground. The cardboard is then held over the grounded half of the plate, and a coarse ground is dusted on the rest. The plate is heated until the ground is fixed. It is then ready for biting.


This is a versatile and useful aquatint technique. All the line and texture is obtained by drawing with lithograph crayon on a rosin ground. New and distinctive plasticity in tonal manipulation and textural variations are obtainable with crayon aquatint. It is possible to get a complete plate with one biting. Crayon aquatint can be used in combination with etching, straight aquatint, or alone for an entire plate. If preliminary outlines have been bitten into the plate, these can act as a guide for the aquatinting, and no traced guide is needed. When the plate is to be done completely with crayon aquatint, it is desirable to have some outline guides. Clean the plate. lightly trace the outlines of the drawing directly on the face of the plate, using a sheet of carbon tracing paper. The carbon paper will leave a dark line on the light surface of the plate. Over this tracing lay a very fine aquatint ground. As the ground is dusted on, it will cover and obliterate the outline drawing, but when the ground is heated on the stove and melted down the lines will become visible again. Sharpen several hard lithograph pencils (No. 4) for working on the plate. let the plate cool before working on it. When drawing with the crayon on the plate, remember that the crayon acts as a stop-out. You must reverse all your tones. The blacks will print as whites and vice versa. The drawing on the plate should have the same relationship to the finished print as a photographic negative has to a finished photographic print.
Drawing with the crayon on the rosin ground should be done slowly and carefully. Tones should be built up patiently through repeated layers of crayon work for smooth, even textures. To get coarser textures with greater speed, use a softer crayon (No. 1). When the drawing is completed, coat the back of the plate with stop-out. The plate is then ready for biting. Generally only one bite is necessary. Time the bite for the darkest value, and the lighter values will result from the crayon stop-out. The drawing on the plate will have all the tonal variations desired. Follow the instructions for acids and tirning. After biting, the crayon and rosin can be removed with turpentine, or, if the rosin is stubborn, use paint remover. Bevel the edges of the plate with a file. The plate is then ready for printing.


When aquatint is bitten in a bath, using stop-out after each bite, a sharply defined, hard edge separates each tonal change. For a smooth tonal blend spit biting can be used. (it is obvious from the name that, for those with a sense of delicacy, privacy is necessary for this technique. Demonstrations of spit biting from the lecture platform can be a severe test of one's poise.) In spit biting, the acid is painted directly on the plate with a watercolor brush. Use inexpensive brushes for this because the acid soon destroys the brush bristles. Before using a brush for spit biting, paint the metal parts of the brush with stop-out varnish or shellac to protect them from the acid. Wooden-handled Japanese brushes are good because they have no metal parts. Lay a fine aquatint ground on an experimental plate. Use a strong solution of acid for zinc, three parts acid to five parts water; for copper, three parts acid to one part water. Dip the brush in the acid and try to paint a portion of the plate with it. The acid will not remain on the areas where it was applied, but will run almost as water does when applied to an oily surface. Now expectorate into a small dish. Dip a brush into the saliva and paint an area on the plate with it. Then drop acid, using an eye dropper or brush, on the painted area. The acid will remain where it is dropped. Saliva has the necessary cohesive and adhering qualities for this action. (if greasy food has been eaten shortly before spit biting, it will make the saliva too oily and will destroy its effectiveness.) To get graduated tones or smooth tonal rnodeling it is necessary to begin the biting in the dark areas and gradually carry the acid wash over to the lightest areas. Paint a thin strip of saliva on the section which is to be bitten to a black. Drop some of the etch into this area. The strong etch will bring on instantaneous action with violent bubbling. Permit it to bite for a few seconds, brushing off the bubbles. Extend the area about 1/4 inch and let this bite for a few seconds more. Continue the process, gradually shortening the biting time, until, at the area of lightest gray, the bite is only 1 second. Remove all the acid with a blotter. Repeat the whole procedure several times. A graduated tonal wash will result. As there is only a thin layer of acid used, it will exhaust its corrosive quality quickly, and fresh acid must be added frequently. With the mastery of this technique the etcher will add to his aquatinting repertoire a rich range of textural plasticity. Some experimenting on test plates should be done before spit biting is undertaken on a serious plate.

Referenced from Modern Methods and Materials of Etching By Harry Sternberg