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The Technique

The preoccupation central to later 18th century French printmaking of reproducing artists’ drawings in facsimile also led to the invention of aquatint as a means of achieving areas of continuous tone in an etching similar to the washes in an ink or watercolour drawing. Until the 20th century aquatint was nearly always used in conjunction with the etched line.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828): Ruega por ella (She prays for her). Etching and aquatint, 1799. Plate 31 of the ‘Caprichos’. (205 x 151 mm)

Francisco Goya (1746–1828):
"Ruega por ella" (She prays for her).  Etching and aquatint, 1799.
Plate 31 of the ‘Caprichos’.  (205 x 151 mm)

The principle method involves dusting a layer of powdered resin onto the copper plate. This can be done by hand but the plate is more usually placed in a dust box. Bellows raise a cloud of resin dust in the box which is then allowed to settle as an even layer over the plate. The resin is fused in place by the application of gentle heat from below. The artist stops out by painting with acid-resist varnish those areas of the plate which do not require tone. When the plate is immersed in acid, the acid can only bite around and in between the exposed fused particles of resin, which results in a fine network of lines, like miniature crazy paving (see enlarged detail of Manet, below right). The size of the individual particles of resin dust, whether coarse or very fine, determines the grain of the aquatint. The length of immersion in the acid controls the depth of biting and hence the ‘depth’ (intensity) of the resulting printed tone.

Two other methods can be used to achieve an aquatint ground, the spirit ground and sugar-lift aquatint.

Spirit Ground

In spirit ground the powdered resin is dissolved in alcohol and poured over the plate. The alcohol evaporates and leaves the very finely granulated resin on the plate, to be treated as before. This method achieves the finest grain of aquatint.

Sugar Lift Aquatint

In sugar-lift aquatint the artist draws his design directly onto the untreated surface of the copper plate with a brush and a solution of india ink and sugar. The plate is then covered with acid-resisting stopping-out varnish. When set, the plate is placed in warm water. The pure varnish ground holds firm except where it covers the sugar-lift drawing. The sugar solution slowly dissolves in the water lifting the ground to expose the copper. The exposed areas are then dusted with resin and bitten in the usual method of aquatint. Sugar-lift makes possible a linear as well as a tonal treatment of the plate in pure aquatint without the usual adjunct of etched lines. As the bitten image is created directly from the artist’s brushstrokes on the plate it is a most painterly technique (see enlarged detail of Picasso).

History of Aquatint

Jean Baptiste Le Prince claimed the discovery of gravure au lavis (literally “etching with wash”), though in fact Jan van de Velde IV in the 17th century had, untrumpetted, anticipated him in isolated examples of aquatint, and Le Prince’s contemporary St Non was an equally early practitioner of the technique. The tonal quality of aquatint was also anticipated in the 17th & 18th centuries by etchers such as Rembrandt and Mulinari in their use of a sulphur tint. Powdered sulphur, dusted over the plate already thinly spread with oil, corroded the surface so that it held ink as a uniform tone in printing. Burnishing gave tonal variations.

Le Prince described the process of aquatint for the first time in a paper to the French Academy in 1768. Le Prince’s aquatints were printed in sepia ink in imitation of his sepia wash drawings which they sort to emulate. In France the technique was soon adapted to coloured inks printed from multiple plates made by professional engravers after paintings by the leading artists of the day (see page on Colour Intaglio).

Goya (see above) was one of the few great artists in the late 18th century to recognise the potential of the medium for original printmaking.

The term 'aquatint' was coined in 1776, by Paul Sandby, to describe his invention the previous year both of the spirit ground technique and the sugar-lift method. (Today the single word ‘aquatint’ suffices for all the versions of the technique.) English watercolour artists found the process congenial both for creating original prints (Sandby - see illustration, top right, Thomas Malton, William Daniel &c.) and for the reproduction of their topographical and sporting watercolours by professional aquatinters such as Stadler, Bluck, Sutherland, Hill etc. who either etched the whole plate or merely added aquatint tone to a plate etched in line by the artist. The Swiss also produced particularly fine reproductive topographical aquatints at this period when early tourists began to appreciate the picturesque qualities of the Swiss landscape. The reproductive aquatints of the first half of the 19th century were usually hand-coloured in the publisher’s workshop to a model supplied by the originating artist. Largely for economic reasons this sort of aquatint was superseded by lithography from about 1840.

Aquatint enjoyed a limited revival from 1890–1940 as an artist’s technique. Picasso particularly enjoyed using the sugar-lift process (see illustration).


May Tremel (Exhibiting 1907 – 1936): The aquatinted copper plate for "Beamsley Beacon".  (193 x 285 mm)


Paul Sandby (1725–1809): Chepstow Castle. Etching and aquatint, 1777, from the third series of ‘Twelve Views in Wales’. (236 x 312 mm)

Paul Sandby (1725–1809): "Chepstow Castle". 
Etching and aquatint, 1777, from the third series of ‘Twelve Views in Wales’.  (236 x 312 mm)

Edouard Manet (1832–1883): La Femme à la Mantille (Fleure exotique). Etching with aquatint, 1868. (173 x 115 mm)

Edouard Manet (1832–1883):
"La Femme à la Mantille" (or "Fleure exotique"). 
Etching with aquatint, 1868.  (173 x 115 mm)

Manet was a great admirer of Spanish art and the inspiration of Goya is evident here.

Edouard Manet (1832–1883): La Femme à la Mantille (Fleure exotique). 

Detail of aquatint tone on the the forehead of Manet’s, "La Femme à la Mantille". (See full image above).



Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
“To the City of Cordova”
The sugar lift "brush marks" are clearly
visible in the image above.

See also :

INTAGLIO PRINTS - A General Introduction

Line Engraving
French Engraving in the Crayon and Pastel Manners
English Stipple Engraving
Soft-Ground Etching
Colour Printed Intaglio Prints

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