Etching – A Survey of the History and Techniques

Etching Printmaking Courses in London | London Fine Art Studios

What is etching? The word etch itself is a Germanic word for eat, where the acid would literally eat the metal. Etching is an intaglio method of printmaking, intaglio methods include hard and soft ground etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint. All these methods share a common ink transferring process. The design is etched into the plate and the ink is added over the whole plate and a scrim or starched cheesecloth is used to force the ink into the etched areas and remove excess from the plate surface. The plate along with dampened paper is run through a print press at very high pressure forcing the paper into etched areas containing the ink.

Etching Course, London Fine Art Studios Etching Method

The other common method of printmaking is relief printing i.e. woodblock and lino cut prints. Here, areas of the block are carved away and a roller is used to transfer the ink to the areas that haven’t been removed. As the process doesn’t require the pressure used in intaglio prints to transfer ink from areas, hand printing or relief presses can be used.

The most historic of intaglio methods is engraving, evolving originally from goldsmithing, although being a truly ancient technique finding the source would be impossible. Examples of engraving can be seen in museums across the world in the form of intricate designs of jewellery, armour, guns and other precious and non precious metals. It is said that as early as 1446 sheet music was printed using engraving techniques along with playing cards.

Engraving requires the use of a burin, a sharply pointed tool of a hardened metal. The engraving process is a long labour intensive one, the design is drawn onto the metal and then slowly cut away using a burin. The engraver must have patience and skill to not make mistakes as there are no shortcuts to correcting one.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Burin Etching Tool
A Burin (Etching Tool)

The armour below is probably the work of Italian armourers brought to England by Henry VIII in 1511. Some of the earliest examples of etchings are in the form of armour, particularly that of Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). This is an example of an etched piece of armour, thought to be attributed to Hopfer dated around 1515-1525 . Yoou can see the differences etween the engraved and etched armour, the engraved armour have much sharper lines with deeper reliefs than the shallower etched metal.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Italian Armourers
Engraved Suit of Armour
Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Daniel Hopfer Etched Armour 1515-1525
Etched Suit of Armour Edward Hopfer

Hopfer was a craftsman from Augsburg,Germany who would have used an acid resist probably made from  asphaltum, rosin, and beeswax to cover the particular peice of armour. When the resist was dry the etcher would draw the deisgn on the resist and, using a needle, reveal areas of the metal to be etched by the acid. Etched armour and other forms of etching became a much quicker and more economic process than the slower method of engraving.

The earliest known signed and dated etching is created by Urs Graf in 1513. This was etched onto a steel plate with one line weight. Here is a similar example titled “devil captures solider” dated 1516.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Urs Graf Devil Captures Soldier 1516
Urs Graf ‘Devil Captures Soldier’ 1516

Hopfer though was to popularise the medium and become the first well known craftsman to apply the etching process to flat iron plates. Here is an example of a etching plate with five soliders, etched into steel and dated around 1520-1536. Here, Hofper has considered the fact that the prints are a mirror image of the plate and so his initials in the central figures drum are reversed and the soliders have their swords strapped to their right hip so it will print on their left.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Hopfer Etching Plate with Five Soldiers 1520-1536
Hopfer ‘Etching Plate with Five Soldiers’ 1520-1536

Here is an example of a zinc plate with hard ground, being drawn through with a needle. Note the fact that this plate is unsmoked. Traditional ground has a translucent appearance and so etchers may “smoke” their plate with beeswax tapers to darken it. This will allow them to clearly see the lines being created.

Of the most famous printmaker during the 16th century, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) only made 5 etchings that are known and mostly he tried to imitate the far more formal qualities of the engravings that he was used to producing before. Here are two examples, ‘Man of Sorrows’ and ‘Agony in the Garden’.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Albrecht Durer Man of Sorrows
Albrecht Durer ‘Man of Sorrows’
Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Albrecht Durer Agony in the Garden
Albrecht Durer ‘Agony in the Garden’

There were artists during the same era as Durer, most notably Italian artist Mazzola (1503-1540), who made great use of the free movement given by etchings and created a series of brilliantly expressive prints. 100 years before Rembrandt, he is showing the same understanding of cross hatching and developing rich tonal areas just as Rembrandt will come to achieve and surpass. All these are dated in the early 1520s.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Mazzola 1520

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Mazzola 1520
Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Mazzola 1520

It was really the French printmaker Jacque Callot from Lorraine who lived between 1592-1635 that began to use step biting or multiple bites within his etchings. Developing a sense of distance by stopping out areas further away first, many earlier etchings had a single bite time for all the lines exposed to the acid.

Callot was one of the most prolific printmakers of his time, rivalling that of Rembrandt for output, during his life working exclusively as a printmaker he made over 1400 plates.

There are reports of Callot incising the metal after the original etch with an engravers burin to help reinforce the lines created. Examples of this can be seen in his series the “Miseries of War” produced around 1633.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Jacque Callot Miseries of War 1633
Jacque Callot ‘Miseries of War’ 1633
Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Jacque Callot Miseries of War 1633
Jacque Callot ‘Miseries of War’ 1633

Callot is credited for inventing the echoppe etching needle, this needle has a slanting oval area at the end and in a similar way to a fountain pen will allow etchers to swell and fill lines in a similar manner to engravers.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Callot Echoppe Etching Needle
Echoppe Etching Needle

Callot has also been attributed to the development of an improved hard ground for etching, instead of using a wax based formula he used lute makers varnish. This allowed for lines to be bitten for longer without the risk of fouling biting, foul biting occurs when acid gets through the ground where the etcher had not intended, normally resulting in spots on the image. Because of this etchers could create highly detailed and clean prints rivalling that of engravers.

One of the followers of Jacque callot, one Abraham Bosse, spread his innovations all over Europe with the publication of the Manual of Etching in 1645. This was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English. While no direct link can be made between the publication of Bosse’s manual and the explosion of printmaking during the 17th century, the information in the manual gave the readers everything they needed to start printing, including making a press, hard and soft etching ground recipes and tools used.

Of course Rembrandt, alive between 1606-1669 the most famous etcher of all time was active and prolific during this age, capturing subtle tones and atmosphere in line alone. Rembrandt’s early etchings like many before him were fairly timid compared to his bold use of the medium later on in life. In “The rest on the flight into Egypt” completed in 1626.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Rembrandt The Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1626
Rembrandt ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ 1626

‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ shows an artist just beginning to get to grips with a medium that would come to define him and this golden age of etching. You can see how much of the plate is bitten for a single etch and the tones created by the density of line, although when looking through his early work you begin to see the familiar style coming through, like that of The artist’s mother produced in 1628 and Old man with snub nose in 1629. This etching was etched for some time asyou can see the lines are very bold and there is foul biting around the etch.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Rembrandt The Artist's Mother 1628
Rembrandt ‘The Artist’s Mother’ 1628
Rembrandt Old Man with Snub Nose 1629
Rembrandt ‘Old Man with Snub Nose’ 1629


Some of his most famous work is of course his self portraits, ‘Self Portrait in a Cap’ 1630 (image 21) shows his development using freer more expressive lines, also one of his most famous etching self portrait. Note difference in style and confidence to his first known etching – ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’.

Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Rembrandt Self Portrait
Rembrandt ‘Self Portrait in a Cap’ 1630
Etching Course London Fine Art Studios Rembrandt The Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1626
Rembrandt ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ 1626

In his mature works Rembrandt begun to really push the mark making potential and improvise directly onto the plate. Here is an example in ‘Self Portrait Drawing at a Window from 1648’.

we can see the use of both hard ground and drypoint where Rembrandt has wanted to push areas darker. Probably a first print would have been taken using just hard ground and then using a needle Rembrandt would of scratched directly into the plate creating burs along the edge of the line where ink will get trapped and create the rich dark velvety lines that stand out from the uniform lines of a hard ground.

(image 23)In the second state you can see where he has begun to push the darks in the background and within the portrait. The amount of states- the name given to each development in the etching would completely vary depending on the plate. There are records of up to 11 changes, some plates like the smaller ones would be more of a sketch on copper and little else.
(image 24)
Here the third and final state you can see the darks have been pushed to their full potential and an indication of a landscape out side of the window has been placed.

Another extreme example of this is The Flight into Egypt 1651


(image 25)

Here the first state shows the figures in clear light but in the second they are almost completely darkened with only the lamp standing out.
(image 26)

Aswell as adjustments, Rembrandt would make significant changes to his plates, here we see that in  Christ Presented to the People completed in 1655
(image 27)and the second state shows where Rembrandt has completely removed the figures in the centre foreground
(image 28). You can still see the ghost lines for the figures. Two tools would have been used in removing the figures, a scraper and burnisher, (image 29) a scraper is a three sided sharp edge that is pressed flat against the plate where you want a line to be erased, then it is scraped over that area making sure it does not dig into the plate which would create more areas for the ink to hold. A burnisher is then used to flatten the area completely so no ink can be held there (image 30). The time this takes is greatly affected by the time the line was etched for, and in some instances ghosts lines might always persist.


Hard ground has and still is one of the most direct and popular form of etching and throughout the ages different printmakers have utilised it brilliantly.


A few of my favourite etchers to use hard ground includes, James McNeil Whistler, 1834-1903 (image 31 32 33 34)
Anders Zorn, 1860-1920 (images 35 36 37 38), Ernest Lumsden 1883-1948 (images 39 40 41 42), Frank Short, 1857-1945 (images 43 44 45 46), and James Mcbey 1883-1959 (image 47 48 49 50 51)

Also other 20th century artists of note include martin lewis, 1881-1962 (images 52 53 54)and the man he influenced Edward hopper(images 55 56

As you can see in over 500 years of etching history people are still reinventing and finding new ways of using the most traditional of etching techniques.


Although hardground line etching takes most of the limelight are two common types of ground: hard ground and soft ground.
During the late 18th and early 19th century soft ground became very vogue, this technique involves carefully placing a peice of tracing paper over the grounded plate and using a bridge to rest your hand on, the etcher then can “draw“ into the tracing paper and remove ground below, because of the unclear line the lines that will etch will have a pencil like line allowing for etchings to look very similar to drawings.

(image 57)

Soft ground unlike hard ground will remain somewhat tacky allowing the etcher to press objects like leaves in to the ground and take a print.
Here an example of leaves and fabric being pressed into the ground, to create an impression

(image 58)

Soft ground by its nature creates alot of foul biting and so i believe for that reason tends to be put to one side when considered work is required. Nelson Dawson an etcher at the turn of the 20th century made great use of soft ground as a preferred method of etching, creating wonderful lively etchings with a soft draughtsman’s like touch.
(images 59 60 61 62)

Other artists of note that used soft ground were Degas, Pissarro and Cassatt.

The contemporary etcher Joel Ostlind makes superb use of soft ground in order to capture atmosphere and gesture deftly and with ease. (images 63 64 65 66)

The final of the early etching techniques is drypoint, drypoint is the most simplisitic and direct form of printmaking, the printmaker would scratch into the plate using a fairly blunt needle, often a whistler needle as its known today. The “bur” that is kicked up similar to when a field it ploughed will hold alot of ink and create a unique velvety soft line. Almost all etchers who utilised line will at some point use dry point in their work. The combination of strict regimented hardground lines and smokey black drypoint lines are a timeless combination. Here a few drypoint examples by Whistler (images 67 68 69 70)

Drypoint though unlike hard and soft ground etchings which are etched into the metal, gets it characteristics from the burr it creates, these burrs after a time will slowly wear down through the force of the press resulting over time of the prints becoming fainter and fainter, Rembrandt would often completely rework a plate once the burrs are worn down enough, developing it into a new etching of similar composition. Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses of 1653 is an excellent example of this.
(images 71 72 73)


Apart from line and cross hatching one of the eariest ways of producing a tonal etching was through the use of a mezzotint.

The mezzotint process was developed in the 17th century in Amsterdam, it is written that two amateur artists the German Lieutenant colonel Ludwig von siegen and the bohemian prince Rupert of the rhine before arrived the technique at the same time but according to reports separately.

The earliest known example of mezzotint work, done in 1642, is a portrait of one Amelia Elizabeth, showing the tentative development towards fully tonal etchings.
(image 74)
A mezzotint, is a print made using a copper plate which has been “grounded” but with a mezzotint rocker (image 75). The rocker is semi circular with very fine teeth which is rocked across the whole plate and then again perpendicular to the first rocking repeating the process in every direction, the idea is too create a surface or ground that is even roughened, in this state the plate will print a solid black.

(image 76)The artist in this case is starting from black and using a scraper and burnisher slowly develop the print. Initial guidelines can be drawn on with pencil or chalk.
By the 1680s mezzotint was well known and it became the preferred medium for reproducing portraits due to its painterly effects.
(image 77)

Here we see those painterly effects in full use in this valentine Green reproduction of a Joesph Wright painting, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump’

Another example being George Stubbs. Sleeping Cheetah (“A Tyger”). Mezzotint. 1788.
(image 78)

As you can see mezzotint has a very recognisable soft characterist which is very hard to achieve in other forms of etching.
here are a few modern day mezzotint prints. (image 79 80 81)


The last and in most cases the hardest of all intaglio methods to work with is the aquatint. An aquatint is a way of producing tonal values, it was named for the ink or watercolour wash effect it creates. Credit is given to Jan van De Velde IV for inventing the technique in Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century. Although unlike mezzotints which was developed at the same time aquatints were largely forgotten until the 18th century.
To create an aquatint the artist traditionally used powdered pine resin.
This resin would sit within a box and a crank or bellows would blow the resin around the box as the fine powder is still in the air and not settled the artist would place the plate in the box. This allows the resin to settle in a fine coat, next the plate is heated underneath until the resin melts to the plate. The resin will now cause a partial resist to the acid, the effect is similar to a very high resolution half tone print,

(image 82)

As you can see from far away the dots appear as an image but upclose you can see the individual dots. This is the same in aquatints but on a microscopic level on an etching plate, the tones are achieved by stopping out,going from white to black. This means that you would start by stopping out the whites and gradually working down to black.
Test prints would be used to let the etcher to know how long to submerse the plate in te acid for.
(image 83)

The most famous etcher to use an aquatint is of course Francisco Goya
(images 84 85) . Goya used a line and toen approach to aquatint. First a line etching would be produced and then a aquatint applied over the top to produce and help accent the tones.
Through the years various etchers have found their own approach to aquatints including Australian etcher Sydney Long (images 86 87 88 89) Ernest Lumsden . (images 90 91) and Frank Short (images 92 93)

One of the greatest masters of this technique though would be that of Norman Akroyd, an etcher sitll alive today who almost exclusively used aquatint as a method of printmaking. Recreating the brooding skies of the Scottish Highlands. Akroyd uses a technique called spit biting extensively which is a method of painting acid straight onto the plate to achieve the smokey soft edges. Traditionally the etcher would spit onto the plate before brushing the acid on, this acts as an adhesive for the acid to stop it beading on the plate.
(images 94 95 96 97 98)

As you can see while etching has been developed throughout the half a millennia it has been around the fundamentals have not changed. Allowing us to have a medium that is much the same as it ever has or ever will be, while modern acrylic processes have been developed to avoid very toxic traditional methods there is a very deep connection between everything you use. Etching is a process that requires thousands of hours of dedication and developing a feel for not just the etching process itself but the inks, paper, wiping of the plate and the press itself. These other factors warrent many talks of their own and we would be here for quite some tiem to discus them all.
Although, above all of this hardwork every time i lift a print I get the same excitement I did from my first print I ever produced, it is a unique medium that Im sure will be with us for many many years to come. Thank you for listening and i hope you have enjoyed this quick jaunt through the history of etching and its techniques.

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