What is a drypoint?

The drypoint technique, invented in the 15th Century, sees the artist scratching the artwork image directly into the plate with a sharp needle. It is a common form of etching (see What is an etching?), which is in turn a form of intaglio printing, as opposed to relief printing (see What is a relief print?). The drypoint can be distinguished from other intaglio techniques by its characteristic burrs—ridges thrown up as the needle incises the metal plate.

The plate is typically made of copper, zink or brass. The technique allows for a variety of lines, from very fine and delicate to thick furrowed brush-like marks. The variety comes from the formation of the burr: the deeper the needle etches into the plate, the larger the burr, which in turn holds more ink and produces a soft and dense line on the final artwork, unlike the clean and flat lines created in engraving. It is also possible in drypoint etching to scratch at a perpendicular angle, which prevents a burr from piling up – the greater the needle angle, the greater the burr. Once the drawing is complete, a cloth is used to fill the crevices with ink, and then the remaining flat surface is wiped down to ensure it sits only in the areas where the etching occurred.

Due to the pressure the metal plate goes under to print the artwork onto the paper, the burr quickly gets worn down. Drypoint printing is therefore only used for relatively small edition numbers. The process of electroplating, also known as steelfacing, was invented in the 19th Century, and involves covering the drypoint-etched plate with a thin coat of iron to reinforce and protect the plate and enable a larger print-run.

For examples of drypoints have a look at Jonathan Monk, My Left Hand Holding a Square Shaped Piece of Paper with the Top Left Hand Corner Removed, 2008; Tal. R., Xanadu (yellow), 2009, or A.R. Penck, Löwe 3, 1988.

Glossary of prints and editions