What is an aquatint?

Aquatint, akin to etching (see What is an etching?), is designed to create a range of tones and shades. It allows for the most painterly visual effect of all the intaglio techniques. It involves treating a clean zinc or copper plate with fine acid-resistant particles of rosin and subsequently heating the plate to melt them together, at which point, they are acid-resistant. The acid reacts with the sections of metal not covered by the melted rosin, thus creating a speckled effect of tiny dots when printed. The plate is placed in an acid bath, and the longer the acid is allowed to etch away at the surface, the more profound the indentions and darker the hues of the final print. In order to obtain a variety of tones, the plate is bathed repeatedly, starting with the palest areas. These pale areas are then covered with a laquer, and the darker areas are then bathed again, to become deeper and therefore darker. This process can then be repeated to obtain an array of tones and shades. At this point, the plate is ready, the recesses are filled with ink, and when the plate is pressed onto a dampened sheet of paper, the ink transfers onto it to create the finished artwork.  

Sugar lift aquatint is a technically complex process in which the artist paints in sugar onto a clean plate, and the final print captures the same exact image. To begin with, the artist draws on the plate with a brush soaked in sugar, water and gum arabic. Once dry, the plate is coated in an acid-resistant lacquer. Once this thin covering has dried too, the plate is soaked in warm water or citric acid, which causes the sugar to swell up and break through the lacquer. The aquatint acid is then applied to the plate, and bites into these newly exposed areas, where the artist originally drew in sugar, and the plate is then ready for printing.

A spit bite aquatint involves the artist painting acid directly onto a rosin-coated plate, thus creating an uneven pattern on the plate and ultimately giving the print a distinctive watercolor wash finish. To stop the process in time for the desired tone, the plate should be bathed immediately in water. 

The aquatint process was invented in around 1772 in Paris by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince. It is still actively used by artists today, and continues to be developed in new directions. See examples of aquatint in artworks such as Martin Kippenberger’s Vorne, 1996, Pia Fries’ Rake, 2007, Matthew Ritchie’s Sea State Two, 2009.

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