What is an etching?

Etching is a form of intaglio printing, as opposed to relief printing (see What is a relief print?), in which incisions are made into a plate, and these areas are then filled with ink to print the final image. There are many ways to etch out the areas from the flat plate surface, with the most common being drypoint, soft-ground, spit-bite, and aquatint (see What is an aquatint?).

In drypoint etching, the artist draws directly onto the printing plate with a sharp steel needle. 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. 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 (see What is a drypoint?).

In soft-ground etching, an acid-resistant coating, normally of wax or lacquer, is painted onto the printing plate. With hard-ground etching, lines are scratched into the surface of the coated plate, breaking through the acid-resistant layer and exposing the plate beneath. The plate is then bathed in acid, and the exposed areas are etched away. The length of time the plate stays in the acid bath, as well as the strength of the acid, define how deeply the lines are etched, and therefore how prominent on the final print. Once the etching process is complete, the acid-resistant coating is removed and the plate can be printed, as described above. The Aquatint method was developed so allow for entire areas of a plate to be etched. Often, an artist uses multiple plates for the same final print work, to include multiple colors as well as a variety of etching techniques.

The first etching was made at the beginning of the 16th Century. A steel needle was used to etch the lines onto a copper plate. The most famous artist to practice this technique was arguably Albrecht Dürer, who worked with drypoint etching and experimented with soft-ground etching. Soft-ground became ever-more popular, thanks to the ease with which the lines could be etched, compared to the laborious drypoint etching. In the 18th Century, the first mezzotint was developed (see What is a mezzotint?) and in the 19th Century the aquatint process too. Etching is still used by artists today for its versatility in creating multiple editions of drawings. For examples of etchings, see the works below.

Glossary of prints and editions