The Etching Process

“The Tower” an etching by Mark Roland

Etchings are fine art prints, produced by a process first developed about 1500. While many items are referred to as prints— such as posters, offset lithographs and all ink jet products (including so-called giclees)—they are in fact reproductions. Fine art prints begin with a matrix created by the artist, that is used to produce images individually by hand.

The etching process begins with a metal plate, usually zinc or copper, that is covered with a ground composed of wax and asphaltum. The artist uses a tool to draw through the ground and expose the metal underneath. When satisfied with the drawing, the plate is submerged in a solution that dissolves the metal areas unprotected by the ground. When the lines etched into the plate are the desired depth, the plate is removed and cleaned.

Now that the plate can hold ink in the etched, or bitten areas, the printing process can begin. A sheet of high quality rag paper is soaked in a tray of water to make it flexible. A coating of ink is spread over the entire plate, forced into the etching lines and then wiped off the surface by hand with a specially textured fabric. At this point, the printing process can become part of the art’s final appearance. The ink is always left in the lines of the plate, and by leaving a thin film of ink on the surface of the plate as well, tonal effects can be created. This technique also gives each impression a unique individual quality, impossible to produce in a reproduction.

When the inking is complete, the sheet of paper is blotted. The inked plate is placed face up on the press bed and the damp paper is positioned on top. Using a wheel or crank, the bed is slowly moved between rollers and felt blankets and subjected to great pressure. The paper is flexible enough to be pushed into the recessed lines holding the ink, and lifts out that ink as well as any on the surface left by the artist. All of this work has produced a single print, and all the stages— soaking paper, inking the plate and running both through the press—must be repeated for every impression.

There are other techniques that can be used in etching, such as aquatint. This is a rosin that is melted onto the plate in tiny specks and then bitten in stages to produce areas of tonality. Using this technique an artist can obtain light , midrange and dark areas consistently, by wiping the plate cleanly and not leaving any ink on the surface. The tonal areas are bitten into the metal, like the lines are, but are delicate and produce fewer prints than the etched lines before they wear away. Generally, using aquatint limits the number of prints in the edition.

The size of the edition is determined by two factors. One is the wearing of the plate. After a certain number of times through the press the plate looses it’s precise lines or the aquatinted areas break down. At this point, the printing should stop, to maintain the quality of the prints produced. More often, however, the edition is limited by the choice of the artist, who decides only a certain number of a particular design will be made, and no more. Those prints are numbered, titled and signed. If there are ten prints in an edition, you will see the prints numbered one of ten, two of ten and so forth until ten of ten. Except for a very limited number of artist’s proofs, no more impressions are allowed and the plate destroyed after printing is complete
Because etching is such an old process, there have been a number of innovations since its origin, such as aquatint, multi-color printing, drypoint, mezzoprint and even photo etching. Engraving is a very old technique, and is often confused with etching. The difference is that engraving uses no solutions to eat away the metal. The engraver directly cuts into the metal with special tools to incise the lines holding the ink. Engravings are printed by the same process as etchings and are similar in appearance.

Many of the conventions originally established by the fine art printmaker, have been adopted by commercial reproductions, such as numbering prints. It should be noted that fine art prints are significantly more labor intensive to produce, use high-quality, time tested materials, have a direct connection to the artist’s hand, and are generally much more limed in number. Commercial reproductions are mass produced, identical to each other and are machine made. The newer technologies have not actually demonstrated their longevity despite promises from their manufacturers , whereas etchings have already lasted for centuries if properly cared for. These factors are things to consider when comparing the price of an etching, or another fine art print, to a photo print, ink-jet or offset reproduction.

Mark Roland has been producing etchings since 1981. The majority of his works are line etchings, printed using the plate tone technique described above. He has also used other techniques such as, soft ground, aquatint, multi-color and embossing. On some occasions he will hand color sections of his prints to enhance a particular effect. His principal series’ have been The Enchanted Forest suite, and his interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey, along with numerous related works.

—Mark Roland

Eugene, Oregon