Notebook, 1993-

MATERIALS & METHODS - Drawing - Printing - Gallery Notes

Impression - State - Edition - Bon à Tirer

From: Works on Paper Series. Print, Drawing, and Photography Galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Works on Paper - Engraving, Etching,
and Related Techniques

I N D E X - Intaglio Processes - Preparing the Plate - Engraving - Burin - Etching - Ground - Stopping out - Etching needle - Drypoint - Steel or Diamond Point - Aquatint - Graduated tones - Resin - Stopping Out - Lift ground - Sugar aquatint - Stipple engraving - Crayon Manner - Soft-ground Etching - Mezzotint - Rocker - Inking and Printing - Plate-tone - Two-cylinder, Rolling Bed Press - Platemark - State Changes and Editions - Impression - State - Edition - Bon à Tirer [approved for printing]

BRIEF HISTORY - The Fifteenth Century - Armorers and other Metal-workers - Antonio Pollaiuolo - Andrea Mantegna - The Sixteenth Century - Albrecht Dürer - Albrecht Altdorfer - Lucas van Leyden - Marcantonio Raimondi - Danube School - Altdorfer - Parmigianino - Federigo Barocci - [NOTE: Tones made up of short dashes and dots] - Mannerist Jacques Bellange - The Seventeenth Century - Rembrandt van Rijn - The Eighteenth Century - Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Domenico - Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough - Francisco Goya - The Nineteenth Century - Charles Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-François Millet - Edouard Manet - Felix Bracquemond - Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Mary Cassatt - James McNeill Whistler - James Ensor - Edvard Munch - [NOTE: Publishing original etchings in art reviews] - The Twentieth Century - Childe Hassam - Edward Hopper - German Expressionists - Jacques Villon, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse - Pablo Picasso - Jasper Johns and Jim Dine - [Suggested Reading]

The collections in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs are shown in exhibitions that change regularly. For reasons of preservation, works of art on paper cannot be exposed to light for long periods of time. In addition, the size of the collections makes it possible to exhibit only a small portion at any one time. These selected exhibitions may focus on a particular period or artist, examine a certain technique, or follow a chosen theme.

Due to the nature of the changing exhibitions, this series of Gallery Notes does not discuss specific works of art on view. Instead, each one explains a certain technique and gives a brief history of its development, illustrated with major works form the Museum of Fine Arts collections. The Introductory Notes give an overview of basic printmaking techniques. We hope this information will help you understand and enjoy the current exhibition.

I n t a g l i o   P r o c e s s e s
Engraving, etching, drypoint, and related techniques are all intaglio processes, in which the image to be printed is incised with a pointed tool or bitten with acid into a metal plate. When the plate is inked, the ink is held in these incised groves and then forced out onto the paper as the plate passes under the rollers of a press. The Intaglio processes produce images primarily made up of lines, but from their earliest use artists have also sought ways to create broad areas of tone--through cross-hatching, thorough manipulation of ink on the surface of the plate, and through the development of such techniques as aquatint, softground etching, and mezzotint.

Printmaking relates to the other visual arts in a variety of ways. The reproduction of paintings, drawings, and works in other media has been a primary function in printmaking from the beginning. Before photography, prints were the major means by which works of art became widely known. Indeed, many innovations in graphic techniques have resulted from the desire to reproduce particular effects of chalk, wash, or oil paint.

In the early period of printmaking, many of the outstanding engravers, such as Dürer and Mantegna, were painters. Later, engraving became primarily a technique practiced by the professional printmaker, and its use was chiefly confined to reproduction. Etching and its related techniques, requiring less specialized technical skills and therefore more easily mastered by the painter and draftsman, have offered artists in every century wide opportunities for experimentation and creative variations. Rembrandt, Goya, and Whistler are among the painters who have produced major bodies of etched work.

This guide explains the major techniques for preparing the plate and the manner in which the plate is inked and printed. In addition, it surveys briefly the ways in which engraving, etching, and other intaglio processes have been used by notable printmakers over the past 500 years.

P r e p a r i n g   t h e   P l a t e
In engraving, the grooves which will hold the ink are cut into the copper or steel plate with a burin, a sharp-pointed steel rod set into a handle. The burin cuts a triangular furrow in the plate, cleanly removing a thin strip of metal. The engraver holds the steel rod between thumb and forefinger, pushing the burin with the heel of the hand and altering the direction of the lines by manipulating the plate with the other hand

Considerable effort is required to drive the burin through the metal, and this physical force is reflected in the lines of the engraving, which can be made to swell or taper by varying the pressure on the burin. In addition to the varying strength of the lines, intricate systems of cross-hatching are used for modeling and shading. The engraver may also use the burin to achieve a variety of textures through combinations of dots, tapering cuts, and the like, but the effect is characteristically one of precision and organization rather than spontaneity. The crisp elegance and clarity of the orderly lines are among the particular beauties of engraving.

In etching, the grooves which will hold the ink are bitten with acid, rather than cut with a tool. The etcher warms a clean, highly polished metal plate [usually copper or zinc] and covers it thinly with an acid-resistant "ground" [composed of asphalt, resins, and wax] using a roller or dabber. The artist draws in the waxy ground with a smooth point or needle that scratches it away, exposing bare metal. When the plate is submerged in a pan of dilute acid, the acid bites into the exposed areas, forming U-shaped grooves.

Several methods exist to create lines of varying strengths. The breadth of the point of the etching needle affects the width of the line, as does the biting time. Perhaps the most common method of controlling the strength of the lines is by "stopping out." The whole composition is drawn at once. The plate is bitten for a certain period of time, then varnish is painted over the lines which are to be light, to stop further biting, and the plate is returned to the acid. Successive biting and stopping out continue until the lines which are to be darkest are bitten to the desired depth.

Unlike the engraving burin, the etching needle can be used as freely as the pen or brush, since the needle does not actually incise the metal. The artist need only draw lightly into the ground. This has made the technique particularly attractive to painters, who also value the many ways etching can be modified and combined with other techniques.

Drypoint can be used alone to incise a plate, but it is most often used in conjunction with etching. A sharp steel or diamond point, held like a pencil, scratches lines directly into the plate. This raises a ragged ridge of copper called burr on the incised groove. In the inking of the plate, the burr holds some ink and prints as a soft, dark accent. The full effect of the delicate burr usually lasts only through ten to twenty printings of the plate before the burr is worn down by the pressure of the press. Drypoint lines with the burr scraped away can be used for a very delicate effect.

Aguatint was first widely used in the eighteenth century to imitate drawings done with brush and wash. The technique enables the artist to achieve areas of graduated tones, broader and more even than is possible with etched or engraved cross-hatching.

Traditionally, a powdered resin is dusted onto a clean plate and made to adhere by heating the plate, so that the tiny droplets of melted resin form a permeable coating. In another method, the plate is coated with resin dissolved in alcohol, which evaporates, leaving the resin grains evenly distributed on the plate. [Contemporary printmakers sometimes use a light coat of spray paint to create this permeable ground.] The metal that remains exposed around the tiny drops of resin is what will be bitten in the acid bath, creating a pitted, grainy surface which holds a thin layer of ink and prints as an area of tone.

If the plate were to be bitten at this point in the process, an allover tone would result. Stopping-out varnish is used to mask areas that are to remain white in the print; the biting process may also be interrupted at various points to stop out areas when they have been bitten to the desired tonality [see "stopping out," above].

In stopping out an aquatint plate, the varnish covers areas that are to remain white [ or lighter than the surrounding area]. If the artist wishes such areas to appear as positive dark aquatint tones against a lighter or white background, a method called lift ground or sugar aquatint is employed.

Additional Techniques
In addition to aquatint, a variety of other techniques have been developed to achieve a tonal rather than a linear effect in printmaking. Stipple engraving and crayon manner achieve a softer effect by forming an image from many small dots rather than from lines. Soft-ground etching produces areas of texture or broad, soft lines, giving the effect of chalk, crayon, or pencil. In this technique, the artist lays a sheet of paper on a plate covered with a soft, sticky ground and redraws on it with a pencil or other instrument. When the paper is pulled away, part of the ground sticks to it wherever the instrument has pressed. These lines then bite irregularly when the plate is placed in acid. Textured surfaces, such as fabric or net, may be pressed into the soft-ground before biting, and their textures are reproduced when the plate is printed.

Mezzotint is a technique ideally suited to the reproduction of oil paintings, as it creates an image in soft, delicately gradated tonal areas rather than in lines. The printmaker first roughens the entire surface of the plate with a rocker, a serrated steel blade. [If the plate were inked at this point, it would print entirely black.] The artist then forms his image by scraping and burnishing various parts of the surface, making selected areas smooth again so that they will hold less ink and print as lighter tones and highlights.

I n k i n g   a n d   P r i n t i n g
Many artist prefer to ink and print their own plates, although this may also be done by a professional printer. First the late is warmed slightly, then covered with a thick, oil-based ink, rubbed well into the lines with a dabber or roller. Using a stiff rag, the printer wipes the ink off the surface of the plate; ink remains in the fine, grooved lines. A slight film of ink remains on the surface naturally and produces the pale tone often seen in an etching. If desired, this plate-tone can be removed by wiping the surface absolutely clean. The printmaker may vary an impression considerably by the manner in which the plate is inked and wiped.

The pressure of a two-cylinder, rolling bed press is necessary for a good impression on paper. The inked plate is laid on the press bed, a sheet of dampened paper laid on top, and one or more felt blankets added to pad the back of the paper. The whole is then rolled between the cylinders under heavy, even pressure, forcing the softened fibers of the paper into the inked grooves of the plate. The image is thus transferred in reverse to the paper, and the print is made. Because of the great pressure used in printing, the edge of the plate leaves an embossed line around the image called the platemark.

S t a t e   C h a n g e s   a n d   E d i t i o n s
An impression is a single printing from a plate. One of the primary characteristics of printmaking is its multiple nature--many virtually identical impressions can be printed from the same plate. This production of multiples gives the printmaker the opportunity to create a series of variations on the image--by adding or removing lines from the plate after some impressions have been printed, by inking or wiping the plate in a different way for some impressions, by using a variety of papers. This opportunity for variation and experiment is one of the attractions of printmaking for many artists.

A state is any stage in the development of a print at which impressions are printed. A change of state occurs only with the addition or removal of lines on a plate. Variations that may occur in the inking or printing do not constitute a change in state. Impressions from the plate in its earliest known condition are said to be of the first state, in the second condition second state, and so forth.

An edition is the total number of impressions taken from a plate in a given state. Today prints are usually numbered by the artist to indicate the size of the edition, thus 4/50 would mean impression number four from an edition of fifty [although this does not necessarily represent the order of printing.] Artists working with a professional printer designate a satisfactory proof as bon à tirer [approved for printing] before the printing of an edition begins. This proof serves as the standard to which each print of the edition is closely compared, so that all impressions are of the same quality.

B r i e f   H i s t o r y
The Fifteenth Century
Both engraving and etching originated in the craft of armorers and other metal-workers, who used sharp tools or acid to make decorative patterns in iron or steel. To record these patterns, they developed the technique of filling the indented lines with ink and printing the design onto paper. The first prints on paper pulled from engraved plates appear around 1450, with etchings following in the first decade of the sixteenth century.

Engraving developed rapidly in northern Europe. Playing cards, patterns for ornament, and religious images by anonymous printmakers were quickly followed by the elegant, highly finished works of Martin Schongauer, characterized by a wiry, calligraphic line. In Italy, printmaking was less widespread, but Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Mantegna produced important works, using bold parallel shading to model powerful figures.

The Sixteenth Century
The early sixteenth century is dominated by the work of Albrecht Dürer, perhaps the greatest master of the engraving technique. Dürer combined the linear elegance and energetic spirit of northern print-making with an interest in scientific anatomy, the natural world, and logically constructed space derived from the Italian Renaissance. His "master engravings" - St. Jerome in His Study^; Knight, Death, and the Devil; Melencolia I - Are unsurpassed in their powerful rendering of light and texture and their superb sense of form and composition. Many of the next generation of engravers such as the German Albrecht Altdorfer or the Dutch Lucas van Leyden were strongly influenced by Dürer.

In Italy, Marcantonio Raimondi's prints based on compositions by Raphael initiated the use of engraving for the reproduction of paintings. As original engraving declined after the sixteenth century, such reproductions would become the primary function of the technique.

Dürer was also an early experimenter in etching. His six etchings [1515-1518] were made only a few years after the earliest known examples. All of these early etchings were bitten only once; no stopping out was used, so all lines were printed with equal strength. Some of the most beautiful etchings of the mid-sixteenth century are the landscapes produced by painters of the Danube School such as Altdorfer.

A few Italian artists, the first being Parmigianino, also began to explore the possibilities of etching. In the late sixteenth century, Federigo Barocci produced a small number of richly textured prints in which he employed stopping out and various tones made up of short dashes and dots, methods used more flamboyantly in the next century by the French Mannerist Jacques Bellange.

The Seventeenth Century
A high point was reached in the seventeenth century both in the widespread use of etching and in the quality of the prints produced. Many painters in Italy, France and the Low Countries etched, and different styles emerged. Great numbers of Dutch painters and draftsmen etched the landscape and everyday scenes around them. The desire for rich, dark tones led to experimentation with mezzotint, drypoint, and varied inking of the plate. Rembrandt van Rijn was the most creative and experimental etcher of the time, producing expressive variations of a single image through changes in the inking or the paper, or through alterations in the plate itself. In Christ Presented to the People, the crowd in the center has been removed in later states, so that the figures of Christ and Pontius Pilate are isolated above cavernous archways and a bare wall. Rembrandt's personal style and complex mixture of techniques were to have a lasting influence.

The Eighteenth Century
Creative etching in the eighteenth century is exemplified by the works of the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Domenico. The elder Tiepolo's prints are delicately etched scenes full of charm and mystery. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a Venetian working in Rome, etched dramatic views of ancient buildings.

In France, though etching was considered an artistic pastime for amateurs, some fine prints were made by outstanding artists such as Fragonard. By this time, engraving was used primarily for reproduction, and professional printmakers began to make use of other processes to speed up production or to produce particular effects. Techniques for color intaglio printing were developed; these involved either painting a single plate with inks of various colors before each printing or printing the colors in sequence from separate plates. In England, the soft tones of mezzotint were widely used for the reproduction of paintings, especially portraits by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Aquatint etching and a crayon manner engraving became popular for the reproduction of wash and chalk drawings.

Aquatint was used as a powerful medium in its own right by the Spaniard Francisco Goya, whose deeply felt attitudes toward society, politics, and war are revealed in three series in etching and aquatint : the Caprichos, the Disparates, and the Disasters of War. Goya's control of aquatint was masterful; his use of it as an expressive medium is unsurpassed.

The Nineteenth Century
Among those who were part of the international revival of artistic etching in the mid-nineteenth century were the French painters of the Barbizon School, including Charles Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-François Millet, as well as Edouard Manet. In the 1860s and 1870s, etching in France was encouraged by easy access to instruction and publication. The proficient and prolific Felix Bracquemond frequently offered technical advice to many artists. Among these was Edgar Degas, who in turn encouraged Camille Pissarro and Mary Cassatt. During the 1880s, these three artists produced many innovative prints, experimenting with combinations of aquatint, soft-ground etching, drypoint, and other techniques.

James McNeill Whistler, an American expatriate living in England, was another major figure who strongly influenced English, French, and American etchers, from the publication of his first portfolio in 1858 through his later work in the 1880s. Variety in printing was important to Whistler, especially in his later prints. Like Rembrandt, he used different kinds of paper and frequently left a film of ink on the plate in selected areas to achieve dramatic illumination or atmospheric effects.

The Belgian James Ensor and the Norwegian Edvard Munch also produced powerful and expressive etchings in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

In America, etching reached a peak in the 1880s; societies and clubs proliferated. The first curator of prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Sylvester Rosa Koehler, encouraged etchers by publishing original etchings in art reviews, by exhibition, and by collecting.

The Twentieth Century
In the early twentieth century, increasing expressionism and abstraction in art are reflected in an even freer and more personal use of printmaking techniques. Etching was widely practiced by American artists such as Childe Hassam and Edward Hopper, by the German Expressionists, and by the French painters Jacques Villon, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. However, it was Pablo Picasso who became the master of many techniques--etching, drypoint, aquatint, and engraving among them--and used each to perfect the expression of his ideas. His printmaking activity continued throughout his entire artistic career.

For a time after World War II, the color and large scale possible with lithography and silkscreen often caused these processes of printmaking to overshadow the intaglio processes of printmaking. Today, however, etching and its related techniques are being taken up once again by leading painters such as Jasper Johns and Jim Dine, who have also produced outstanding work in lithography, silkscreen, and woodcut.

S u g g e s t e d   R e a d i n g
Ivins, William M., Jr. How Prints Look. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Peterdi, Gabor. Printmaking. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

Saff, Donald and Deli Sacilotto. Printmaking: History and Process. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978.

Hind, Arthur M. A History of Engraving and Etching from the Fifteenth Century to the Year 1914. New York: Dover, 1923.

Ivins, William M ., Jr. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

Mayor, A. Hyatt. Prints and People. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Exhibition catalogues of the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is one in a series of gallery notes on the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The entire series, including an introduction, four gallery notes for adults, and one for young people, is for sale in the Museum Shop. This gallery note was prepared by Sue W. Reed and Barbara T. Martin.

1984, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. Telephone 617-267-9300.

[From: Drawing Techniques, Gallery Notes P5 - Works on Paper Series. Print, Drawing, and Photography Galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.]



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