The Art of Etching in Printmaking

in Overview
Published on: 18 September 2018


Introduction to printmaking


The existence of art can be traced as far as human history goes. Prehistoric man used art as a medium to express himself, the reasons for which could be numerous. The cave paintings we often associate with prehistoric man could have been his way of adding decor to his living space or may have been a means to let his future generations know about the flora and fauna of his surroundings. The invention of art also may have been conscious or through sheer accident and observation. Prehistoric man may have stumbled upon the results of soiled hands on various surfaces, which later became a method of creating art in his cave dwellings.


Printmaking as a medium of art operates through the use of acute technical skills on various forms of surfaces and eventually by creating multiple editions of the work. The definition of a print or printmaking art form has been constantly evolving based on several factors such as social aspects and aesthetic needs or individual expressions of a particular artist.


The woodcut technique of printmaking originated in China during the rule of the Han Dynasty. The invention of paper in around 105 AD added impetus to the technique of woodcut. The printing method was implemented on paper to produce multiple copies of texts related to Buddhism. Buddhist texts that are called ‘Sutras’ are written words orated by Buddha to his disciples. Buddha promoted and propagated dissemination of the truth, a task which was aided and stimulated by the use of printmaking as a medium of dissemination by printing on paper. In 1907, Aurel Stein discovered the oldest Chinese woodcuts in a cave, which was a 17-foot-long Diamond Sutra dating back to 868 AD.


‘Bois Protat’ (c. 1380), a woodcut print depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, is the oldest known European print. Before paper arrived in Europe, printmaking techniques were mostly used for printing on cloth. Paper arrived in Europe around the 1400s after which the techniques of printing on cloth were adapted for printing on paper. Germany became the centre for printmaking during the 15th century. The oldest surviving print from this era is the ‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (c. 1410), which is a hand-coloured woodcut print.


Over subsequent years, progress in printmaking was evidently noticed all over the globe, which was led by European artists.


Techniques of printmaking


Printmaking involves various techniques, skills, methods and mediums. The printmaking family is classified into broader groups based on drawing and engraving methods. Generally, printmaking techniques are divided into four main categories:




In the relief method of printmaking, the surface intended to be printed is raised, which in simple terms means the area of the medium intended to take the ink is raised above the non-printing area. The forms of relief printmaking are woodcut and linocut (linoleum block printing). In this method, an image is formed by cutting away non-image areas utilizing specific printmaking and common carving tools such as chisels, knives and gouges. Ink is applied on the raised imagery to obtain specific impressions by use of hand-held rollers (commonly made of rubber). The medium on which print is intended to be taken (usually acid-free paper) is placed on top of the engraved surface after which by means of spooning or rubbing method, the impression is absorbed on the printing surface. In contemporary times, machines are also used to take relief prints.




The intaglio technique involves drawing on metal plates by creating incisions using drawing needles. The technique involves use of acids either mild or strong such as zinc, copper, brass, iron, steel, etc., to etch the incisive drawing done on the surface of the metal plate. The technique also involves the process of engraving where print or the process does not involve the use of acids. The artists use tools such as gouges, chisels, needles, engraver tools, etc. based on the type of depth and imagery they wish to create. The depth of the drawn lines would depend on the tonal variation required by the artist. The common techniques of intaglio are etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint.


Planographic technique


The drawn surface in the planographic technique is plain, having neither any incisions nor depressions. The method of creating a print is dependent on the process of contrariety chemical reactions between water and grease. The imagery is drawn using special grease-based crayons on a special lithographic stone, while treatment is undertaken on the undrawn areas to repel it. Lithography is a common technique used in the planographic method, and the print is obtained through a lithographic press. Mono-typing and digital printing techniques are other variants of planographic printmaking.




Serigraphy technique involves the adaptation of the stencil-making technique wherein images are drawn upon a fabric usually either silk or nylon. The undrawn areas or areas where images are not present are made non-porous. The process of acquiring a print involves the use of a squeegee tool, which is pulled across the screen, forcing the ink through the drawn surface and on to the printing surface, which is placed directly underneath. Serigraphy technique is also known as silkscreen method, screen-printing method or stencil-printing method.




Collagraphy technique is similar to creating collages, wherein on any hard surface any variation of materials can be applied to create a wide variety of textures. Collagraphy can be creative and experimental since materials such as leaves, strands of thread, cloth, sand, etc. can be used to create prints.




Viscosity technique utilizes a combination of relief printmaking and intaglio printmaking methods to create a multicoloured print. Stanley William Hayter pioneered the viscosity technique during the 1960s.


Intaglio printmaking


The word ‘intaglio’ comes from the Italian language and means ‘to engrave’ or ‘cut into’. Methods of intaglio printmaking are as follows:




The etching process involves use of acids (mild or strong) to etch the drawing on the surface of a metal plate. In simple words, only the area which is to be drawn and printed is etched. The common medium used in etching are metal plates made of zinc, copper, steel, iron, etc. The plate is applied with either soft or hard ground, after which drawing is done using a drawing needle. The drawn images are made through incisions in grooves and are slightly below the rest of the surface or the un-drawn (background) area. The plate is then soaked in acid, which completes the process of etching. The next step is the application of ink. Excess ink is neatly wiped, thereby leaving only the ink set in the grooves of the drawing. The ink used is oil-based and so the paper has to be soaked in water so that it can absorb the ink properly. An etching print is processed through a printing press.




In this method, drawing is done using various but specific tools such as gouges, chisels, burins, etc. The drawing is in the form of grooves or gouges normally on a flat but hard surface, which is usually of metal. Copper is a common metal surface used by engravers.




In drypoint technique engraving is done using needles to create drawings on the metal plate directly. The drawing process created using the needle replaces the metal on the surface to create the composition which the artist wants. This is known as Burr, wherein incisions are made inside grooves or and burr to create the intended imagery. The process creates a lot of friction between the repeated process of inking, wiping and printing, which makes the metal plate fragile.




Mezzotint technique involves using a tool known as mezzotint rocker, which is utilized to make the surface of the plate rough. After this process, by application of burnishing and scraping methods tonal variations are added to create highlights, black, mid-value tones, etc. The mezzotint technique, which is also known as black method, is one of the most unique image-making processes among intaglio techniques. In contemporary times, mezzotint prints are often found being proud possession of collectors.


History of etching


Among the techniques of printmaking, especially in intaglio, etching and engraving are considered most important. The most basic difference between the two techniques is that chemicals are an important part of an etching process. Etching as a technique has existed in Europe since the Middle Ages. During an age when the knights of Europe lived in their days of glory, their paraphernalia were designed by expert craftsmen with specific emphasis on making them unique. Goldsmiths, blacksmiths and other metal workers regularly crafted items such as guns, armours, shields, animal armours, cutlery, tableware, etc. with intricate designs created using the engraving technique. These craftsmen would often take prints or impressions of their designs in order to document their works, for quality checking and monitoring the development of their designs. Etching as a form of fine art has its roots in this tradition. The coming of paper to Europe gave etching further impetus to develop as a skillful form of art.


The credit for the invention and application of the process of etching goes to Daniel Hopfer (c. 1470‒536) of Augsburg, Germany. The iron plates used by Daniel Hopfer and some of his other works are part of collections of various museums across Europe.


Jacques Callot (1592‒635) from Nancy, France, made an important invention that furthered the technical progress of etching as a technique of fine art. He invented the ‘échoppe’, a type of etching needle with a slanting oval section at the end, enabling the etchers to create swelling lines just like the engravers were able to do. Callot made several contributions to the advancement of etching as a method of printmaking. Abraham Bosse, a follower of Callot from Paris, is credited with having spread his contributions all across Europe with the first published manual on etching in 1645, which was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English.


The earliest published prints using this technique contained religious imagery disseminated across the largely uneducated European population. Another early utilization of etching printmaking was to create playing cards, which were a common leisure activity among people of all classes. The coming of paper in around the 1400s to Europe from Asia generated further interest among artists in the possibilities of etching as a medium of fine art.


One of the earliest exponents of intaglio printmaking technique specifically as a medium of art was Martin Schongauer, who accomplished the copper-engraving technique. The other masters of intaglio are Albert Durer, Francisco Goya, Rembrandt, William Blake, among several others.


Process of etching


In the etching technique, the drawing is made on the surface of a metal plate, which is usually of zinc, copper, iron, steel, etc. The metal plate is first cleaned using a metal polisher to avoid any residue or abrasions while the etching process is to be done. The next step is the application of an acid-resistant ground, which will protect the un-drawn areas on the metal plate surface from the biting of acid. The drawing is done after the ground is applied properly using drawing needles. The etching process involves soaking the drawn metal plate in acid, commonly nitric acid for zinc plates and sulphuric acid for copper plates, in required ratios. The reverse side of the metal plate is covered with gold foil to prevent the acid from percolating during the etching process. The acid bites into the drawn areas and deepens the lines wherein the ink would eventually set for printing. The ground is cleaned and ink is then applied on the areas intended to be printed. The excess ink is wiped, after which the only ink set on the metal plate is in the drawn recesses. The print is procured through the printing press machine.


Aquatint: A variant of the etching technique


The term ‘aquatint’ is derived from the Latin term ‘aquafortis’, which means nitric acid (strong water) and the Italian term ‘tinto’, meaning tone. Aquatint as a method of etching requires the creation of grooves of tonal variations into the metal plate. In the aquatint technique, powder-based acid-resistant resin, commonly particles of rosin or asphalt powder, is dusted on the metal plate and put through the process of heating. The heating process helps the resin powder to melt and adhere to the surface of the plate, creating a coarse texture that holds the ink. The next step is to put the metal plate through the process of acid bath, which in simple terms means soaking the metal plate in mordant or strong acids. The duration of acid bath defines the tonal variation on the plate. The longer the plate remains in an acid bath, the darker the tone it will produce.


Editions of prints


An edition in printmaking is the number of prints made from any one particular metal plate by the artist at a given time. The number of prints in any one set of editions may vary depending on the artist. The types of editions are limited edition, open edition, unique print, etc. In contemporary times, the artists usually create limited edition of prints. The editions are usually signed and numbered by the artists with pencil. The basic difference between an edition and a reproduction is that the edition of the original print is processed using same materials, same mediums at the same time by the same artist. The culture of creating and printing editions was financial in nature, that is, it intended to earn more money with authentic and original works of art along with reduction in production costs as compared to paintings or sculpture mediums (either singular or unique).


History of Indian printmaking


The technique of printing and printing press arrived in India in 1556 for the purpose of religious propaganda and dissemination. Christian missionaries from Europe set up two presses in Goa where wood engraving and relief printing techniques were applied to print the Bible. In 1561, the first printing was undertaken in India. The book titled Compendio Spiritual da Vide Christaa (Spiritual Compendium of Christian Life) was printed in Goa in 1561 by Gaspar De Leo. The first illustration appeared in the book titled Constituciones do Arcebispado d’Goa (Constitution of Archdiocese Goa), which was printed in Goa in 1568. The intaglio printing process was introduced in India by the Danish missionary Bartholomew Zeigenbalg in Tamil Nadu. Zeigenbalg printed and published a book titled The Evangelists and the Acts of the Apostles.


Raja Ravi Verma was the first Indian artist to have ever explored the technique of printmaking, though not from the perspective of art. He used the printmaking technique as a means to take his art to the masses. Verma set up a lithographic press in Ghatkopar, Bombay, where he created copies of several of his religious and secular paintings in form of oleographs.


The establishment of Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan in 1919 by the Tagore family paved the way for printmaking to be recognized as an academic discipline and a form of art. In 1921, Nandalal Bose took over at Kala Bhavan and his endeavours led to the introduction of printmaking as an academic programme in the institution. In 1924, Bose visited China and Japan and brought back with him original prints that exposed the students of Kala Bhavan to such works. In 1926, Gaganendranath Tagore donated his lithographic press to Kala Bhavan. Nandalal Bose experimented with several creative printmaking processes such as woodcut, engraving, linocut, etching, drypoint, lithography and relief process. From 1923‒24, the efforts of Bose and his students Ramendranath Chakravarty, Manindra Gupta, Bisvarup Bose aided in developing printmaking in Kala Bhavan.


The credit for the initiation of the department of printmaking in 1950 at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the M.S. University of Baroda goes to N.B. Joglekar. Between the 1960s and 1970s several artists such as Jyoti Bhatt, Vinod Patel, V.S. Patel, P.D. Dhumal, Rini Dhumal, Jayanti Rabadia, Naina Dalal, and Jayant Parikh were actively practising printmaking in Baroda. In 1964, Prof. Jyoti Bhatt received the Fulbright and John D. Rockfeller II grant for specializing in graphics in Pratt Institute and Graphic Centre, New York, USA, where he learnt and mastered the intaglio technique and introduced it in the Baroda School of Art. Jyoti Bhatt created his own distinct style and stood apart from his contemporaries. In 1999, the efforts of Jyoti Bhatt, Kavita Shah, and Gulammohammed Sheikh, among others, led to the establishment of Chhaap printmaking studio. Walter D’Souza, a reputed artist, aided in the establishment of the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad in 1987 to promote printmaking.


In 1968, artists such as Jagmohan Chopra, Anupam Sud, Jagdish Dey, Prashant Vichitra, Paramjit Singh, Kishan Ahuja, and Lakshmi Dutta formed ‘Group 8’ in New Delhi and established a printmaking studio. Anupam Sud, who established herself as a prominent printmaker, studied the photo process in intaglio printing from the Slate School of Art, London, in 1969. Sud’s contribution to the development of the department of printmaking at the Delhi College of Art was immense.


Krishna Reddy, who studied at Santiniketan is credited to have taught the technique of printmaking to several artists between the 1960s and 1970s. His efforts led to the addition of printmaking in the curriculum at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay in 1952.


The credit for the development and progress of printmaking techniques in India goes to several masters. Prof. K.G. Subramanyam, Jyoti Bhatt, Somnath Hore, K. Laxma Goud, Kanwal Krishna, among several others. In 1990, several devoted printmakers and artists came together to establish the Indian Printmakers Guild. In contemporary times, the development of computer graphics and related technology has seen the development of alluring variations to the definition of modern-day printmaking as opposed to the hands-on approach of the traditional methodology, which can evidently be seen in the works of Jyoti Bhatt, Nataraj Sharma, and Gulammohammed Sheikh, among others.




Saff, D., & Sacilotto, D. 1978. History and Process Printmaking. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.


Online References


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