What is (an) etching?

Aktualisiert: Sept 9

I've met many people who didn't know about this traditional craft at all, so in today's post I'll cover the process of how to make an etching and what it means to buy one as opposed to the usual art print.

An etching is an intaglio print, meaning the ink sits inside etched lines in the plate which is then run through a roller press. The opposite would be relief printing, such as woodblock or linocut. The craft is about 500 years old.

What you need in order to make an etching

  • metal plate, zinc or copper, ~1 mm thick

  • etching needle

  • etching ground (acid resist)

  • etching acid (I'm using the 'Edinburgh etch')

  • etching ink

  • a high pressure press + felts

  • paper

  • other utensils: gloves, tarlatan, metal file, burnisher, scraper, paint knife, wide brush, rags, white spirits or other thinner, inert working surfaces (stone, glass, plastic), heat table, degreasing spray, linseed oil

When you buy an etching

... it means that you are buying an original and authentic, hand-printed, limited edition print which is nothing like digital art prints. The process of reapplying the ink each time makes every print unique. The paper is slightly embossed by the print and will look best in a glass frame with a passepartout. All prints are signed and numbered, and many artists will also give you a certificate of authenticity.

How it works

[This is how I work, other people may have a different process.]

Start by deciding on the size of the plate which will be your print size. They usually come with the polished side protected. Leave the film on and file off the plate's edges in a 45 degree angle. This is to not damage the felts while the plate is run through the press.

The filing leaves the edges with a rough texture which will collect ink and print pure black. If you don't want that, use a scraper to smoothen the edges and then burnish out any last dents. At least get rid of all the rough metal grains.

Flip the plate over and protect the backside of the plate from acid. For small plates you can use adhesive tape and stick them next to each other. Pop any bubbles with a scalpel because they can show in the print and make a dent in the plate.

Next, peel off the protective foil on the front side and degrease the plate's surface. Use normal degreasing spray and water and make sure to not let it dry without wiping it, because you'll have patterns showing up where the drops were. Depending on the ground you use, you may not have to do this as thoroughly. You'll notice that you do if the ground starts crumbling off the plate while you try to draw on it. I've had that happen especially with an asphalt based hard ground, while others worked fine even without degreasing.

Apply the ground evenly and take care not to use too much. I prefer liquid hard ground because I can control where it goes with a brush and sometimes I like to leave bits out. In the following picture you can also see the annoying pattern left by the degreasing.

Let it dry and start drawing, with an etching needle or whatever you want to try out! Keep in mind that the image will be printed mirrored onto the paper, but you can use transfer paper to copy your sketch mirrored onto the plate before you start, so you'll end up with the correct way.

Drawing mistakes can be corrected by burnishing the area.

Once you're happy with your drawing, it's time for the lines to be etched, I usually want to be safe and go for 25-35 minutes. Definitely do test how long yours takes. You can do that by drawing the same thing multiple times on the plate and cover one of them up after each 5 minutes in the acid.

Carefully take out the plate and rinse it with water, then wipe off the ground with a thinner (mineral spirits, turpentine etc.). Put the plate on a heated table to warm it up so the ink is easier to apply.

Prepare your printing paper by soaking it for at least 15 min. Once you take it out of the water, use blotting paper to get rid off the excess water on the surface.

Take out some ink and mix a pea size drop of linseed oil into it to make it flow better. Put some ink onto the plate with a squeegee (I use an eraser) or a piece of passepartout-board and use tarlatans to wipe it into the lines. Any ink outside the lines can be used to create tones or gradients. You can use Q-tips to create highlights.

Take a piece of thin paper at least twice as large as your printing paper and put it on the press table, close to the roller. Place your inked plate on it, then the printing paper. Try to have them centered and square so you don't end up with a skewed angle. Fold the thin paper over and, if needed, pull everything closer to the roller. If it's too far away, the paper may get stuck under the roller after you've run it all through the press. I've recently started to use thicker paper on top instead of folding the thin paper over, because it often happens that the thin paper builds up folds which will show on the print if you're unlucky.

Ta-dah! A print. Place it between heavy boards to dry, otherwise it will get corrugated.

Lastly, here is what part of my studio and my press looks like:

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