Printmaking, etching and engraving: focus on Aquatint and Soft-ground techniques

GNAS 2012 1The Great North Art Show showcases artworks from a variety of different artists and using a variety of different mediums.

The 2014 exhibition includes work by Northern etchers, engravers and printmakers.

This is part one of a two-part blog series on three of techniques: Aquatint etching, soft ground etching and linocut printing.

Read part two here: The history of linocut print: from paupers to Picasso

 

How did etching and engraving begin?

Printmaking is the process of making artworks by artworks by printing, normally on paper.

Etching and engraving are techniques for creating plates from which printmakers can create prints.

The processes of etching and engraving are believed to date back to the medieval period. Etching (using acid) and engraving were used to create decorative patterns on armour and metal. The etched lines were often then filled in to darken them. It is believed that knights falling on soft ground left impressions that inspired the first transfer of the images from metal to cloth or paper – as is seen in modern day etchings and engravings.

The Way Through the Woods by Hester Cox

The Way Through the Woods by Hester Cox

 

What is etching?

The most traditional form of etching involves a waxy (acid resistant) coating being applied to a sheet of metal (most commonly copper or zinc). A design is then scratched into the surface, exposing the metal underneath. Acid is then applied to the surface, which “bites’ into the metal where the wax has been exposed. This creates a relief pattern in the metal surface itself. Once complete, the wax can be removed, and a metal relief template (plate) is created.

This relief template can then be painted, and the paint is scraped off the surface of the metal so it sits only in the etched area.

The metal plate is then placed together with a sheet of paper and put through a high-pressure printing press. The paint is transferred onto the paper, creating the final printed design. As the metal template can be used many hundreds of times before showing any wear and tear, numerous prints can be created from the same metal template.

The depth and thickness of the etch can be controlled by a skilled artist by the amount of acid applied and the length of time it is left on the surface.

 

What is the difference between etching and engraving?

The difference between etching and engraving is simply that in etching the work is done by acid rather than by hand.

Two of the most popular etching techniques include Aquatint and softground. Here, we will explore them in more detail.

 

Aquatint etching

The Aquatint technique was pioneered by printmaker Jan van de Velde in the 1600s in Amsterdam. The technique remained largely unused until the eighteenth century, when it was revisited by Stapart in his book, Art de graver au pinceau (which described a recipe for its use) and Jean-Baptiste Le Prince’s more popular Découverte du procédé de graver au lavis.

In England, Paul Sandby refined Le Prince’s dry powder technique (dusting the etching plate with resin powder) by suspending the resin grains in “spirits of wine” which could be brushed on to the printing plate, and heated until the resin melts in tiny mounds that harden as they cool.

Sandby coined the term Aquatint to recognise the medium’s capacity to create the effects of ink and color washes.

Aquatint was named after the effects it creates, which resemble ink or watercolor washes. It offers a way to etch different tones.

The technique involves using acid to bite a fine network of lines around the grains of resin. The tiny little etched channels hold ink, that then prints as a veil of tone.

The differing tones may be added to a printing plate that has already been worked engraved, etched or drypoint lines.

Sparrow by Janis Goodman - to be exhibited at Great North Art Show 2014

Sparrow by Janis Goodman

Softground etching

Soft ground etching became popular in the 18th and early 19th Century, and was used to emulate crayon drawings.

Whereas Aquatint etching uses acid-resistant resin to achieve tonal effects, the grounded plate used in Soft-ground etching is made softer in consistency by adding some form of grease, like tallow. A pencil is then used to make a drawing in the ground, and a thin piece of paper (or cloth etc. in modern uses) is laid over the ground.

The paper is drawn on, and each stroke causes a line of the ground to attach itself to the paper. When the drawing is complete and the paper lifted, the portion of the ground that remains attached is peeled away and the copper plate is exposed correspondingly. However, it is uncovered in soft-edged, fluent lines for the acid to bite.

 

Other techniques

A glossary of terms and a full description of all the main printmaking, etching and engraving techniques can be found on the Marlborough Gallery website.

These include Intaglio printmaking techniques (including engraving, etching, soft ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, spitbite aquatint and mezzotint), Liftground Etching or Sugarlift Aquatint, Spitbite Aquatint, Photogravure, Relief Printing, Woodcut, Wood Engravings, Planographic Printing, Lithography, Screenprinting, Cliché-Verre, Monotype/Monoprint and Pochoir/Stencil.

Why not also read our blog about the history of Linocut.

 

Great North Art Show 2014: Etchers, Engravers and Printmakers from the North

The Great North Arts Show 2014 features etchers, engravers and printmakers, including:

  • Michael Atkin
  • Laney Birkhead
  • Piers Browne
  • Hester Cox
  • Janis Goodman
  • Susie Perring
  • Mike Smith
  • Anna Tosney

Find out more about the Great North Art Show 1014 artists here.

Read part two here: The history of linocut print: from paupers to Picasso

 

Etching general image

Do you use etching or engraving techniques in your work or do you collect prints made using these techniques?

What style of etching and engraving do you use?

Which are your favourite printmakers? What do you like most about their work?

Whose work are you most looking forward to seeing at the Great North Art Show this year?

Do share your thoughts in the comments box below – we’d love to hear what you think!

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