The Line Etching
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE line etching is the most adaptable and widely used form of advertising illustration, it is worth while for any one who is charged with the duty of preparing or supervising advertising to know something in detail of this process. Its special advantages have been briefly alluded to in the preceding chapter. Of these the primary ones are that it is substantially without limitation in its printing qualities, does not hamper the advertiser in the selection of the most appropriate paper, and can show detail in any degree required.
These are fundamental considerations, because on the beauty and "character" of a direct advertisement depend its impressiveness and its business-creating power, and in many instances it is not possible to do a product pictorial justice without showing the whole or parts of it in accurate detail. The camera has its deficiencies as well as its merits. It cannot bring all parts of an object into equal focus. It cannot catch the parts obscured by shadows so clearly as those that are in full light, and these very obscured parts may contain essential selling features of the device. The retoucher can help to bring them out, but he has no such freedom and authority in his work as has the artist who builds up his picture in a line drawing unhampered. The artist can emphasize where it is desirable and appropriate to do so without the risk of a blurry, patchy and unnatural effect.
In the hands of the skilled artist and en graver line etchings may take on almost every advantage of the more costly wood engraving and very fine imitations of woodcuts are now quite commonly made in line engravings from pen drawings. At the same time the line etching is comparatively free from those restrictions as to reproduction and change of size that are inherent in the woodcut.
Moreover, line engravings of subjects made for this method of reproduction lend themselves perfectly to color work, a field from which the woodcut is almost entirely eliminated by its very nature.
The copy is the phase of engraving production in which the advertiser is most directly concerned, because it may be much more convenient and inexpensive to provide copy of a particular kind. The actual manufacture from satisfactory copy may, of course, be left entirely in the hands of a competent engraver. It is a common practice for the printer who is to do the work to handle these details.
We have told briefly something of the kinds of copy adapted to the making of successful line engravings. At the risk of some repetition, we shall review the subject in a little more detail.
The very best copy is a drawing in black and white, with all the lines sharply defined. Good commercial artists fully under-stand the requirements of this sort of engraving and will not make the mistake of putting weak, indistinct lines and dots in their drawings. The reproductions from gray and defective lines are quite imperfect. The color transitions are abrupt. There is no blending of tones as in the halftone. Shading is suggestive rather than actual, and is accomplished by isolated groups of lines or dots. By the use of the Ben Day process, or shading machine, which will be discussed a little further on in this book, this limitation of the line engraving is largely overcome.
Situations will arise when it is highly convenient to reproduce copy that is made on colored paper. The development of commercial photography has successfully met this difficulty. The color of the background can sometimes be overcome by the use of a color filter when making the negative, but there will always be some additional expense when colored copy is used.
It is well to remember in the making of any kind of engravings that better results will always be obtained if the copy is larger than the final engraving, and is reduced by the camera. It is the custom to make copy from one-tenth oversize to double the final size, according to circumstances. In the reduction many of the deficiencies and defects in the copy will be overcome and rendered negligible. On the other hand, while it is quite possible to photo-graph copy up in size, this method is full of danger, because every blemish will be magnified.
With every step of enlargement a certain amount of detail is lost, while in reduction detail is emphasized and improved. In making a large drawing the artist, too, has a far better opportunity to work out detail accurately than when he is working to very small dimensions.
A second point to be borne constantly in mind is that a line drawing reproduces an engraving exactly as it is. If the negative be made the exact size of the drawing the engraving will be a perfect duplicate of the original. But if you reduce, you must of necessity reduce all dimensions in exact proportion both as to the width and height of the subject and the weight of the individual lines, dots and solids that make up the drawing. One may change the size of reproductions at will, but the proportions cannot be altered one iota.
In advertising it is often quite as important to represent the texture of the object as to reproduce its form. Nobody would wish an article of wood to appear as though made of iron. Yet it is very possible for this to happen if the halftone process is used. Mr. MacFarlane, in The Beckett Paper Company's first book on direct advertising, made this interesting comment: "The halftone process reproduces tones fairly accurately, but it cannot differentiate between textures having the same tone. This is a limitation of photography rather than of the halftone process, but it is with the finished plate that the advertiser is concerned. In this he cannot get the effects that are sometimes necessary if the object to be reproduced is to appear exactly as seen by the eye. A piece of wood and a piece of iron, for example, if they reflect the same amount of actinic light, will look exactly alike if reproduced in halftone, though to the eye they may be entirely different. The same is true of any two substances or any portions of an object which may have the same color with different textures, or which have different colors that happen to photograph alike."
In the line engraving as well as in the woodcut the artist can deal with textures. Charcoals and crayons are sometimes referred to by artists as "texture drawings."
The creation of an appropriate or desirable association with a product is an important end of advertising. Usually this is de-scribed by the rather nebulous term of "atmosphere." In producing these effects the line engraving is almost indispensable, for the artist is free to put his subject in any background or surroundings that may be desired. A very good example is found in a series of advertisements of the Ford motor car. This is a popular-priced product, and is commonly supposed to have its special field among that vast majority of us human beings who must consider price rather than our own tastes. In a word, it is regarded as a poor man's car. This is only measurably true, and the Ford company knows that many people who can afford any kind of motor they wish make a practice of keeping a Ford car for daily use, together probably with other cars of far higher price. Now the fact that very rich people do use Ford cars is of very great advertising value, because many people who can afford no more expensive car are the victims of false pride. They are ashamed to drive a car that has been the subject of so many witticisms. Young men tell me that there is a class of shop girls in our large towns who decline all invitations to drive in Ford cars, having some obscure feeling that they do not match up with their silk hose and bargain-basement gowns. But if these misguided people see the wife of a well-known millionaire drive up to their shop in a Ford car it very greatly affects their viewpoint. The Ford company, therefore, printed a series of advertisements showing its cars at the doors of palatial houses and associating them with the more elaborate forms of social life. Here the commercial artist and engraver produced effects of atmosphere that could hardly be hoped for if they had relied on photographs and halftones. The series went into fine interiors and showed smart teas and bridge parties with the inevitable Ford car standing outside the door.
An acquaintance of the writer was called upon to photograph for advertising purposes, a large bank vault. The factory surroundings were wholly unsuitable, and an agreeable atmosphere suggestive of its final installation in a great bank had to be provided. Drawing was the logical way out of the difficulty. The world is the field of the creative artist in his search for atmosphere.
The photographer, on the other hand, must find his atmosphere within range of his camera, and very often he cannot get his subject to the place where the atmosphere exists.
The operations involved in the making of a line engraving are not very numerous. When the drawing has been completed and the size of the final engraving determined, the copy is attached to a copy board and photographed with the aid of powerful lights. The range is so adjusted that the image of the copy in the ground-glass is the exact size desired in the finished plate.
The plate thus secured is developed and fixed in the usual way. When the plate is dry the film side is thinly coated with a trans-parent solution of rubber cement to insulate the film from another coating, added afterward, to give the film body for stripping, and this in turn is allowed to dry. The solution called stripping collodion is then applied in even thickness and is dried. Separation from the glass plate is accomplished by means of a bath of acetic acid. The film is then laid reversed on a glass plate, the reversing being necessary to prevent the finished plate from reading backward or from right to left. A zinc plate, ordinarily about one-sixteenth of an inch thick, and polished and burnished on one side, is sensitized on the polished side with a bichromated glue solution and is dried. The zinc sheet is somewhat larger than the final plate, to provide for margins and handling.
The next step is to place the negative on the glass plate, film side up. The sensitive zinc plate is put on top of the negative in the frame over a plate of perfectly transparent glass, the sensitized side of the zinc and the film side of the negative being in contact. By means of strong light the image on the negative is imprinted on the zinc. The print on the metal is then developed and fixed, and all parts of the sensitized coating except those affected by the light when the print was made are washed away. The print on the zinc will then be exactly what will be produced by the finished plate, except that it will be reversed, as is the case with all engravings or type used in letterpress printing.
Etching is the next process. A resist to the acid is applied in a powder of resinous quality, known as dragon's blood. The powder is brushed over the plate and burned in, adhering only to the printed parts of the surface. The plate is then immersed in a nitric-acid bath, frequently equipped with a rocking device. The acid eats away the parts of the plate not protected, leaving the photographic image only in relief and as a printing surface. Several acid immersions may be required to gain the desired depth, and each is described in engravers' parlance as a "bite." It is necessary to repeat the powdering process with each bite, as otherwise the acid would eat under the printing lines and possibly obliterate the finer ones altogether if long applied. In the well-etched plate the erosions are tapering in the form of a letter "V".
When the etching is completed the plate is put under a routing ma-chine, where the surplus metal that has nothing to do with the picture is cut away. The parts that are to show blank are cut deeper to overcome the possibility of printing or smudging the sheet. The routing is accomplished by means of a very rapidly revolving drill, attaining speeds of from 10,000 to 20,000 revolutions per minute.
The final mounting to type height and the expert finishing are all that remain to be done. The duty of the finisher is to compare the plate with the drawing and to eliminate any inaccuracy in routing or imperfection in manufacture.
"Reverse" plates are occasionally used, and in these the printing will appear in white and the background in black. This result is obtained by simply changing the negative to a positive and printing this positive on the zinc plate. This results in a reversing of the printing surfaces on the finished plate.
When very fine line etchings are desired they are made on copper instead of zinc. A change in the etching acids is required and the plates are more costly, but finer results can be obtained, because copper is neither so soft nor so brittle as zinc. When line engravings and halftones are used in combination, as is a common practice, it is better to use copper, as it is more durable and admits of more detail.
The line etching may be printed on any kind of paper that will admit of printing, but the rougher the surface of the sheet the heavier the lines in the subject and the deeper the plates should be etched. It is most adaptable to cover and antique text papers. The Ben Day shading machine, named for its inventor, is an accessory of all engraving establishments and may be used to the utmost advantage in relieving the line etching of its limitation of printing only in single tones. Although it has been developed a good many years and is in general use, its possibilities are still unappreciated by many creators of advertising. By the careful use of Ben Day screens it is possible to gain a two- or three-tone effect from a single color, or an almost unlimited number of tones in line color work.
Ben Day shading is a pattern effect made through the use of a screen. An ink impression of the pattern on the film is transferred from the film to the drawing used for copy or to the print made on the actual metal plate before it is etched. There are nearly one hundred and fifty varieties of these patterns, and in a large engraving establishment or studio almost any pattern effect desired may be found. The Ben Day screen or film is a transparent sheet of a gelatin-like substance set in a frame. On the under side of the screen the pattern is engraved.
The actual manipulation of the machine is a technical problem with which all good engravers are familiar. The advertiser and printer are interested mainly in the results to be obtained. In Commercial Engraving and Printing the principal uses of the device are thus summarized:
"This machine may be used to make backgrounds; to make original effects in border designs; to strengthen parts of an illustration by subduing other parts; to soften the unpleasant effect of large lettering and solid backgrounds; to give individuality to advertising layouts; to relieve blank spaces in illustrations; to pro-duce the texture effect of cloth in fashion illustrations, and, in short, for almost any kind of special effect that may be desired."
It is also very much used in the making of color plates, as by its use several tones of each color may be obtained through only one printing of each color; and by the combination of different tones and the different colors an almost unlimited color variation may be produced.
It is also used for black and white as well as for color plates for newspaper illustrations and for making tint blocks that are to be used in connection with a halftone key plate.
Lithographers use it extensively in making their plates or vignettes, backgrounds and borders, and for color work. It is often used to produce different gradations of color for printing with only one color of ink. For example, if part of the engraving is solid, another part shaded with a heavy film, and still another with a fine film, these three parts will show in the finished print as three different tones of the same color.
For many subjects line illustrations in which shading has been used are better than coarse-screen halftones from wash drawings. The lines in the former are reproduced in their entirety, and the shading added by the machine gives color and body to the picture, while more or less detail is lost in the halftone because of the coarse screen.