|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published 1917 )
"If you cannot sketch you cannot etch ."-HAMERTON.
ETCHING (from the Dutch "etsen," to eat) is a form of engraving where the lines are bitten into the metal plate with acid. An etching is a print made from a plate in which the design has been bitten with acid. Usage includes dry point with etching, although no acid is employed, the design being cut into the plate with sharp steel needles. In section the bitten line is U-shaped, while the dry point and engraved lines are V-shaped. It is not unusual for even cultured people to use the word etching when they refer to pen drawing.
The etched line is characterised by great freedom, the steel point gliding with ease in all directions over the metal plate. Etching is the only form of engraving in which an artist can sketch. The technique of etching is quite different from that of pen or pencil. The vigour and delicacy possible in the biting serve to differentiate this art. The artist who draws on copper just as he would draw with the pen or pencil does not understand the medium and will be disappointed in the result. The artist who draws on the copper and does not himself bite the plate with the acid is not an etcher. This should also be true to a less degree with regard to the printing. The true etcher draws, bites and prints the plate himself.
Briefly, the methods employed in making an etching are as follows: a polished copper plate is covered with a kind of varnish called an etching ground. The ground is smoked with wax tapers to assist the artist in seeing his work. On this he draws his design, employing a steel needle which cuts through the varnish and exposes the copper. The plate is then covered on the back and edges with some varnish impervious to acid and immersed in an acid bath. The acid will attack the copper only where the artist has drawn with the needle. When the acid has sufficiently eaten the lines of the distance or the lightest part, the plate is removed from the bath and washed in water. A brush charged with stopping-out varnish is used to cover over these lines. The plate is again put into the acid, which again attacks all the remaining lines. This stopping out, as it is called, is repeated until all parts are bitten to the required depth. The ground is then removed with turpentine and a trial proof taken on an etching press.
The artist has many ways of correcting his work, should this print, as is usually the case, prove unsatisfactory. Another ground can be put on, new work added, and the plate bitten as before. The lines already on the plate can be enlarged by putting on a rebiting ground, which covers the surface of the plate but leaves the lines exposed. Lines which are too deep can be reduced by using a tool called a burnisher or by a scraper. Or charcoal may be employed to bring down the surface of the plate by rubbing, thus making the lines shallow. In etching it is more possible to make sweeping changes and still retain the freshness of the work than it is in pen or pencil. A whole foreground is sometimes scraped out, the copper pounded up from the back, and new work added. As Sir Frank Short puts it, "While there is copper there is hope."
The press used in printing etchings is not unlike, an ordinary washing mangle. The rollers are usually of steel and between them is a movable metal plank on which the plate is placed. The warmed plate is first covered with ink, which is then carefully wiped off the surface, leaving the lines full. Sometimes a thin film of ink is left on the surface of the plate as well. To get a richer print the plate is again warmed and a soft rag flicked across the lines, pulling some of the ink over their edges. This is called retroussage, or stumping. A dampened piece of etching paper is then placed over the inked plate, and it is passed between the steel rollers under a heavy pressure. Several thicknesses of blanketing are placed between the rollers to equalise this pressure, which is so great that the edges of the plate make a distinct mark on the paper, and the ink from the darkest lines is moulded in relief. This relief in the dark lines can be felt by passing the fingers lightly over an etching. The plate mark and the relief help to distinguish intaglio printing. The absence of the plate mark in old prints is not a proof that they are not etchings because the paper may have been cut in the margin between the plate mark and the edge of the etched work. Almost all old etchings had these margins, and they were sometimes quite wide.
Printing of etchings is unlike the printing of other forms of black and white work in that it is an important part of the process of attaining the desired result. Pen-and-ink reproductions by the process block, or halftone method, go through the press with very little more care than type, but in etching the printing is almost, if not quite, as important as the drawing and the biting. A good etching is a combination of a successful drawing, a successful biting and a successful printing. If the etcher delegates the printing to another, he should be sure that he is placing his plate in experienced hands, and in addition should give his personal supervision to the prints; at least until one comes to his satisfaction which can serve as a guide for future impressions. The result may be varied in many ways. The kind of ink, the way it is put on, the different papers, and the printing in the press all have their influence. From the beginning one should have in mind the kind of printing to be employed.
"Is this an original or a copy?" is a common question. Every impression made from a copper plate is an original print. In etching, a design can be duplicated and still be an original. There are no copies in the usual sense of the word. The copper plate is merely a means to an end, and is of no value in itself. It is destroyed as soon as it shows signs of wear. A trial proof is a print made before an etching is finished to prove or try the condition of the plate. There may be a number of these, but none are signed by the artist until the plate is finished to his satisfaction. An artist's proof is a print signed by the artist, and therefore satisfactory to him. The prints not signed by the artist may not be made under his supervision, and are likely to be poor. They are always of less value than artist's proofs. The "Remarque," which is a characteristic of some of the old work, is not possible in most modern work because the margin on which these little sketches were drawn does not exist, the artist working up to the edge of the plate. Proofs before and after lettering are also terms which seldom have a significance now. No two proofs are or should be exactly alike. The great musician does not interpret the work of the master exactly the same each time. He has an ideal toward which he strives. In the same way the artist printer manipulates his materials to bring about that most elusive result-a perfect print.
The number of prints made from a plate depends on many things. A deeply bitten plate will yield more good impressions than a delicate one. Much dry point will cut down the number of good proofs obtainable. Dry points with the burr on print only a few satisfactory proofs because the projecting burr soon breaks down under the pressure of the press. The number, therefore, varies from eight to ten prints in delicate dry points to fifty, one hundred or more in strong work. By employing steel facing the number of prints is materially increased. This is a process for depositing a thin film of steel by electrolysis over the surface of the copper.
Copper thus protected will give many more proofs without wear. Should the steel facing wear away in some parts it can all be removed by a moment's immersion in a weak solution of nitric acid and another put on. The plate prints the same when steeled as before. Steel plates should be protected from rusting by a coating of beeswax. Sir Seymour Haden's qualifications for a printer of etchings are: "A finely organised man with the palm of a duchess." The two greatest printers were Delatre in France and Goulding in England.
Should the artist decide, after making a number of prints, to change the work in any way-for example, by taking out or adding another figure-the prints made after this change become another "state of the plate." With some artists there are innumerable states, with others very few. Naturally the fewer prints there are for a given state the more valuable they are to the collector. However, an early state is not necessarily the best, because the changes made are intended to and usually do improve the work. Provided there have not been too many impressions made, and the plate is therefore in a good condition, the later "states" may be better than the earlier.
To tell much in as few lines as possible is the ideal of etching. Rembrandt and Whistler should be studied for their masterly suggestion, and for their omission of nonessentials, leaving much to the imagination. The pleasure of etching lies in this suggestion which appeals to the intelligence of the beholder. Ruskin, who did not understand etching, called it the "art of scratch." On the contrary, each line should be considered and nothing left to chance. There are two kinds of etching, reproductive and original. In reproductive etching the work of the painter is translated into etching. In original etching the artist translates nature directly, and he is then known as a painteretcher.
The following are some of the difficulties which etchers have to contend with: A negative process is always more difficult than a positive, the drawing showing light golden lines on a black ground. All line work must be done with a view to the future action of the acid and of the printing. The requirement of even pressure in all passages is another difficulty. The biting is very uncertain. One never knows surely what the acid has done until a proof is made. "Etching is always a chemical experiment." While it may be true that you can learn all there is to be learned about the technique in a half day, as I have been informed by a distin• guished artist, it is possibly wise for ordinary mortals to take a bit more time in learning the "teasing" art. The possibilities of the medium are not fully realised until you know your copper, and that is a matter of years. To quote Hamerton : "You will have many a hard battle, many an hour of mortification, but let me tell you that all good etchers have passed through these ordeals and been dirty with charcoal and oil and printing ink, and burnt their skin with acid, and spent hours and days in rubbing and scraping and correcting, often with no immediate result except utter disappointment."