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( Originally Published 1932 )
Two delightful stories lead us to the very birth of prints; one comes from Italy, the other from the far North. The latter tale is of an armorer, working on a fine piece of armor. The background of the design was filled in with lamp black, that he might the more easily see his pattern. Rising hastily from his bench, he laid the blackened armor by chance on a piece of paper. You can imagine his astonishment on his return, at finding a perfect picture on the paper. In Italy an artist was busy fashioning the top of an enamel box. While working on the design, before the gay colors were put in place, this dainty piece of metal was also filled with black. The little box top was accidentally laid, upside down, on a piece of paper and the first print of its kind was made in that part of the world. If one searches far enough one can still find some of these original prints,-they are surprisingly beautiful.
It is not necessary to know if these two examples represented any particular phase of the "black and white" media. Nevertheless, since the etching has far supplanted the interest for the drypoint, lithograph, mezzotint and the wood-block, it is more important to deal with this particular print first.
Our English word comes down from the Dutch, "etzen", meaning "to eat". Hence to produce an etching at all it is necessary to make use of an eating away or, as it is technically called, a "biting" process. Any solid material which reacts to a mordant can yield an etching. The earliest material known to us, as having been used to any extent, is iron. In the present day there are but two materials commonly used, copper and zinc, with the latter growing less and less in favor. Glass, were it possible to print from it without danger of breaking, might well be experimented with since it yields to a mordant. Brass, aluminum and pewter have each been tried at one time or another.
It is the impression which is printed from one of these plates on any suitable material such as paper, vellum, parchment, or silk, which is termed an etching and not the etched material itself. To illustrate how a finished impression comes about: A copper-plate, fine in quality, is very carefully polished and heated to the desired temperature. It is then covered over with an acid-resisting "ground" of prepared wax which when melted on the plate looks like a coat of varnish. This plate is then smoked over a candle to a jet black. The etcher now draws his design on the wax with a steel needle, with the utmost freedom and grace of movement, handling the needle as if he were drawing with a pencil. The needle cuts through the wax, laying bare the copper without scratching the plate. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath.
Though it is possible fairly to gauge the strength of the acid, and the length of time it will take for it to "bite" the copper, only long experience makes it possible for the etcher to secure the full gamut of color that an etched line is capable of yielding. Many times delicate lines are "stopped out" so that the plate may be re-submerged and other lines "bitten" more deeply. The deeper the biting the richer black the printed line. The plate is then thoroughly cleansed, heated, and inked and an impression made of it on paper.
The most exciting moment in the whole process, for the artist, is when he takes the trial proof from the plate. The artist is seldom satisfied with this proof, although trial proofs are frequently sought by collectors. Naturally, the number of good impressions made from a plate is limited. An artist destroys his plate when a designated number of prints have been drawn for it. In a later chapter, the problem regarding the number of impressions will be dealt with. In discussing this, however, it seems necessary to stress the most important factor in connection with this single item,-that the collector or amateur should be sure the plate has been destroyed after the designated number of impressions have been taken off. The print industry has suffered in the past through the pirating of certain well-known plates. This is especially indicated in the Rembrandts and Whistlers. Dealers of ill-repute managed to obtain some of the finer plates, whereupon, by high-pressure salesmanship and advertising, they drew off as many impressions as they could sell. This condition has extended itself into the present so that, I repeat, it is best to trade with a gallery which combines the three C's to a high degree.
In a delicately bitten etching the early impressions are usually the most valuable, but with a strongly bitten etching many prints of equal value can be made. The first "state" of an etching means the first drawing made by the etcher. If he is dissatisfied with his plate, after printing a few proofs, he may either by adding lines or burnishing them out, have a second "state".
The beauty of an etching depends almost as much upon the quality of the paper, and upon the proper inking of the plate, as upon the skill of the artist in drawing. If the lines do not penetrate the copper, or if the paper is too damp or not damp enough, poor quality will be the result. If the acid is too strong, and bites too deeply, the print is not satisfactory. Much experience and skill is required in order to leave a delicate bloom of ink on the plate, to give the quality known as "tone" to an etching. The printing of a plate is an art in itself. An etching is always printed in reverse from the artist's drawing. This particular point will bear consideration when we come to the discussion of lithographs, since the artist making that particular kind of print knows at all times exactly how his print will ultimately turn out.
I shall not attempt to dictate what one's taste should be; but at all times I shall endeavor to state my facts with the intention of helping to create a desire for a fine print, not merely that of obtaining a photographic effort. Probably no other hobby takes one so thoroughly through the past generations, showing the struggles for fortune and fame of countless artists and peoples, as does this media. We can definitely trace the present-day etching from a time dating in the fifteenth century. The wealth of material is enormous; old prints, rich in quality and detail, telling their accurate story of customs long abandoned; modern prints strong and forceful and with a sweeping virility characteristic of the new art.
It is thrilling to come suddenly upon a treasurel There is no short cut to a knowledge of prints. The more one knows the more humble one becomes, there is so much to learn. For forty years one of the world's master-printers has turned the wheel controlling the roller passing over the paper on which appears, occasionally, a masterpiece. More than often it is just a nice print. He is still learning and in a quiet way which leads the student and amateur to the fact that there is no multitudinous haranguing in this little industry. Everything is calm, sedate, almost pious.
Everyone should be honest enough to admire that which gives him pleasure, and it is only through constant personal observation and study that taste can be molded and the eye trained to a real perception of that which constitutes truth and the best in art.
The quietude expressed by etchings, drypoints, woodcuts, or aquatints, leaves a person in a frame of mind not conducive to humorous expressions. It reminds me of the time, previous to going to college, when I was told by one of the masters of the English language that I would probably have for one of my professors of English a man who was famous for leaving the trend of his subject to tell the humorous story about the Irishman and the donkey. Fortunately, I later studied under that man. His methods were popular, recognized as being thorough. He subjected life in its serious moments to critical discussions, without making use of pitifully out-of-place puns. So we must study the print; sincerely try to see it from the artist's viewpoint without slighting his intensively thought-out plan by superficial or humorous criticism.