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Engraved, Etched, And Tone Prints
When the Italian metalsmith, Maso Finiguerra, cut out some lines on a silver dish, filled them with lamp black and oil to see his design better, and laid it down on paper, the modern print from engraved metals is said to have begun. For when Finiguerra picked up his work, the lamp black had marked his design on the paper beneath. Actually patterns were so taken from engraved metals and gems back beyond art history.
When prehistoric man cut a weaving pattern in the dust with his toe or scratched records on stone and bone with flint, he was engraving. Some engravers cut a zigzag pattern on a gold cup found in the royal tombs of biblical Ur. The seals of Babylon had cut or engraved lines which, pressed on soft clay records, left symbol signatures. Sargon's seal with its humans and human headed bulls incised in red jasper 2750 B.C. printed "his engraved mark." Similarly, American Aztecs left jade tools engraved with their symbols.
Engraving on metal generally means on copper, steel or zinc plates. It includes cutting out or incising lines with sharp tools to make a pattern or picture; etching or biting out the lines by acid; and making tone or tint pictures, called mezzotints or aquatints, by roughing up 'the surface of the plate to create lights, grays and darks. When inked these plates make printed pictures or "prints."
Medieval Europe Engraved and Etched for Prints
In the fourteen hundreds Italy's Finiguerra engraved fine lines and cross hatchings (learned from his goldsmith's trade) on metal and inked and printed pictures. Later Marcar.tonio made beautiful prints from Raphael's drawings.
England, Spain and France were slow to take up metal engravings for pictorial prints. But Germany's Martin Schongauer, familiar with engraving arms and armor, cut Bible stories on metal plates and made prints for the people.
Albert Durer's bold burin engraved story lines in metal and helped bring about the Reformation. He used the armorer's trick of eating (etching) away the metal with acids and dripped nitric acid in the burincut lines of his iron plates to etch the lines deeper so they would hold more ink. This was one of the first etchings for printing pictures. Durer's The Canon is sometimes called the first modern landscape.
Rembrandt etched and printed his lights and shades. He etched and drypointed his powerful Three Crosses, and his Gold Weigher's Field. His Mother, Beggars at the Door of a House, and Christ Presented to the People are famous etchings. His work inspired the 19th century Frenchman, Charles Meryon, whose dramatic The Morgue, and College Henri Quatre are famous.
Dry point (engraving) is cutting the design in the metal plate with a sharp tool.
This Art of Etching
Etching is the biting or eating away with acid of the metal plate. Etcher's varnish is first melted on to the edges of the plate then rolled well over it as a "ground." This is smoked dark over candles so the artist can see his lines on the bright metal as his etching needle (or stronger dry point tool) cuts through the ground.
If the plate is to be immersed in the acid, the sides and back must be covered with varnish. Some artists etch in the foreground or darkest portions first, and finally immerse the sky or lightest portions. The light parts take least etching, must soon be rinsed of acid and "stopped off" with varnish. The dark portions must be etched longest.
For soft ground prints, etcher's varnish is mixed with tallow to keep it soft. Over it a paper is spread. Drawing on it makes the paper stick to the soft ground and this lifts with the paper, leaving the drawn lines on the plate exposed. Etching makes these lines soft and shadowy, comparable to soft pencil or chalk drawn lines.
Mezzotints and aquatints are tone etchings, not line prints. The mezzotint, called "the dark manner" by the French, is a beautiful type of print. The metal is roughened with a sharp pointed rocker or roulette, making burrs and pits to hold the ink. Scraping smoothes the plate for the light portions, the burrs and pits collect ink for the darks.
Trial Proof and Artist's Print
As the acid bites the lines, dots and pits deep enough, the plate is washed, those portions "stopped out," and the metal returned to the acid till the deepest blacks are etched. Then the plate is washed, the varnish ground removed, the plate inked and a proof printed. This is a "trial proof" and is collectable.
If the trial print doesn't suit, the artist works over his plate, widening some lines, reducing others by scraping down the surface, stopping out others with varnish, and finally etching again. When a proof finally suits, the artist signs it. This is the "artist's print," and is also a collector's item.
Length of pressure, dampness and kind of paper, ink and know-how of artist and printer "make" the print. Just handling the ink dabber is important. Prints have been enriched by simply pulling the ink from the lines out over the plate, so tinting the print or softening the line edges-called retrouasage.
Sometimes a feather pulls the ink over the edge of the lines, softening and toning them into the print, called feathering. Whistler and Pennell even applied the acid to their plates with a feather instead of using the acid bath. This too was called feathering.
The wearing of the plate, reducing the depth of lines or burr for holding the ink, limits the number of prints.
Some Well Known Prints in America
Auguste Lepere's L'Inventoire shows the Cathedral of Amiens with its dramatic figures in the foreground. Maxime LaLanne's fine landscapes have trees compared with Corot's. Louis Legrand's aquatint of Maternity has tenderness in every line and tone. Felix Buhot's Country Neighbors is a superbly etched rainy day. His Westminister is distinctive for its Remarque border (full of sketches).
F. Duveneck, American, sometimes called "the modern Rembrandt," etched his velvety lines, and lights and darks on zinc. His Rialto is a favorite. Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child in dry point and hand coloring is at Chicago's Art Institute.
Joseph Pennell's masterpieces include his search light pictures of London in the first World War with their amazing lights and darks, his aquatint and mezzotint of The Shot Tower, and his dry point of London From My Window.
James McNeill Whistler was supreme in line, texture and tone. His The Doorway with its textures of worn stone, rusting iron grating, light, graceful figure on the steps above the water-which he put in by wiping ink out over the plate with his ink ragis master etching. So is his Black Lion Wharf with its old frame buildings and brick, its rope and smoke, old boats and decaying castle on the hill. His Annie Haden in the Big Hat, etching and dry point, is famous.
And when Jo Heffernan, his model, wearied from posing, threw herself back in a chair, Whistler caught up a used plate - see the head in the left foreground-and with dry point engraved her lovely lines to make one of the world's most beautiful prints.