handmade books and artwork by Geoff MacEwan

The print process

A copper etching plate & tools
An etching plate and tools

We live in a world increasingly dominated by digitalised imagery so it's important to say a few words about etching to introduce you to this traditional medium and some of the technical processes that make it so particular and absorbing.

Firstly, we work with metal; it could be zinc or it could be copper. Both metals are relatively soft and can be easily marked by a sharp point or strong needle. Any mark on a polished metal surface will, when wiped with ink and printed, register its presence on the paper. The more the pressure given to the point the stronger the printed result will be; ink is not only caught in the delved line but also on the welt that it produces. This simple and very direct technique which does not involve acid is called Drypoint. The line is soft but by close graving areas of intense black can be built up. It is a direct and sensitive technique; the number of copies taken from any plate is limited to around twenty.

Etching proper, involves the controlled corrosion of a metal by an acid. Traditionally, artists have used Nitric acid but since this produces noxious by-products we now use Ferric Chloride. The metal plate is first cleaned and then covered with a liquid wax which hardens and is resistant to acid. When a line is drawn on this surface with a sharp point that penetrates the waxen surface and the plate is then placed in a bath of acid, the acid will only enter and bite into the plate where the line was drawn. The longer the time spent in the bath the deeper the line will be. A deep line will, when printed, create a tangible impression on the surface of the print which can be felt if you run your finger over the surface of the paper. The number of copies available from this process is considerable and will well outrun a normal published edition.

 Each print is individually made by handEach print is individually
made by hand

The production of tones in an etching is achieved by the controlled scattering of minute resin particles onto the surface of the metal. This 'dust' is fixed by heating the plate with a burner. The particles which are uniformly dispersed allow the acid to penetrate and according to how long the plate is exposed to the acid an exact degree of tone can be achieved. This technique, which is called Aquatint, combined with protective varnishes that control the areas of 'bite', adds another dimension to the resulting print.

There are other techniques which expand and fortify these basic ones; yet there is one aspect of etching that is most important and that is the relationship between time and creativity. There are inevitable pauses in the process; waiting for varnishes to dry, for acid to bite and then the inking and the wiping of the plate. The printing procedure is not as mechanical as it seems and so every print that you view is the product of both time and careful labour. The print is not an instantaneous image but one that has been closely chaperoned.

The artist has to decide at some point along the way on how many copies he is going to make. That is, what the size of the 'edition' is going to be, because once he has exhausted this decision which is declared at the bottom of each print he must destroy the plates. It is his responsibility not to print beyond the stated edition even if there is a demand that out-rides his expectations. When you see at the base of a print 10/10 you may be assured that you have the final print in the series.

There are artists who are interested in printmaking but who do not want to create an edition. They may use the plate in such a way that every copy introduces a variation either in colour or presentation so that each print is unique and therefore unrepeatable. These are termed Mono-prints and can be classified along with drawings as works on paper.

I hope that this short introduction has helped you, if you did not already know, to understand the basics of etching.