Etching and Aquatint

Etching is a general word meaning that acid was used to incise the plate. When an artist makes an etching, he or she coats the plate first with an acid-resistant material called a ground. There are two kinds of grounds that are commonly used: hard and soft.

Ground In a hard ground etching, the artist draws through a hard wax that coats the plate. Hard ground lines are usually thin, wiry, and blunt at the ends. In soft ground etching, the artist draws instead on a piece of paper that covers a soft wax coating on the plate. When the paper is lifted, it removes the wax where the pencil pressed. Lines in a soft ground etching are often more fuzzy at the edges, like crayon lines. An artist can also use the waxy soft ground to make imprints of other things besides a pencil, like leaves or lace.

Aquatint is a ground, like hard or soft ground, but it is not a solid coating on the plate. It is used for making tones, and is composed of fine particles of rosin. The acid bites around the particles, creating tooth, or a collection of little marks in the plate that hold ink. If the artist wants an even tone, he or she can create a rosin dust storm in an aquatint box so that the particles will sift onto the plate evenly. After the rosin particles are on the plate, they must be heated to adhere them. After that, the artist paints varnish or asphaltum (tar) onto the parts of the plate where he or she does not want any image. Finally the plate is bitten in acid, usually by submerging it in a diluted acidic solution. On the parts of the plate where there is no varnish or asphaltum, the acid ‘bites,’ or corrodes the artist’s marks.

Grinding rosin to make aquatint powder

Aquatinted copper plate

There are different ways to make an aquatint. If the artist bites the plate unevenly by painting the acid over the prepared aquatint surface, the plate is called a spit bite aquatint. Spit biting gives an effect similar to a watercolor wash. If the artist paints a liquid soap mixture on the plate instead of varnish to protect parts of the plate from the acid, the print is called a soap ground or white ground aquatint. The soap breaks down in the acid, creating irregular tones.

Spit bite technique

Soap ground technique

Sugar lift technique Sugar lift aquatint involves an extra step. A sugar lift is made by painting on the surface of the plate with a brush dipped in a solution made of sugar and water. Unlike soap ground, which resists acid, the sugar solution must be removed, or lifted, before the plate goes in the acid. After the sugar lifts, the printer applies an aquatint, and the acid bites into the portions that were drawn by the artist with the sugar solution. Click here to watch a video of Master Printer Emily York explaining aquatint and sugar lift techniques.

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