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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeTechniques Harvey-LeeIntaglio Introduction Harvey-LeeEtching


Etching allows spontaneity and informality in drawing on the plate and consequently it is the technique most closely associated with artists’ original printmaking; and that with the longest continuous history.

Developed originally as a means of armourers’ decoration, etching was adapted as a pictorial printing technique in the early years of the 16th century. Perhaps because of this early association with armour, the first German exponents, Dürer, Hirschvogel, Lautensack, Amman and the Hopfers used iron plates, which gave a coarser, more uneven line, than the now traditional copper. Lucas Van Leyden in the Netherlands and Parmigiano, the first etcher of note in Italy, however employed copper for their plates. Copper prevails to this day, though in the 20th century zinc has also been used as a cheaper alternative, especially for very large plates, by artists such as Frank Brangwyn.

The word ‘etching’ has its roots in the old High German ezzen “to eat”, for traditionally the drawing is eaten (‘bitten’ in modern parlance) into the copper plate by acid. The etching acid is known as the ‘mordant’ (from the French mordre “to bite”).

Claude Gelee (known as ‘Claude’ or Claude Lorrain) (1600-1682):
“The Herd at the Watering Place”. Etching, c1635-60. (107 x 174 mm)

The artist lays a dark ground onto the copper plate, covering and sealing its surface. A ball of solid ground, composed of mixed waxes, resins and gums, is applied to the heated plate so that it melts and spreads easily. In previous centuries the ground did not come ready coloured, but was darkened by holding the prepared plate over a lighted taper (see right) whose smoke was absorbed by the ground and turned it black. The ground sets hard as soon as the plate is cold. The dark colour enables the artist to see the marks of the etching needle as he draws through the ground and exposes the copper beneath.

When immersed in nitric acid (or hydrochloric acid mixed with chlorate of potash – the Dutch bath) the exposed copper reacts with the acid which chemically cuts the drawing into the plate. In earlier times the plate was bitten by building low wax walls around the perimeter and pouring the acid over; today it is placed in a small ‘bath’ of acid. The longer the plate is exposed to the acid the deeper will the lines be etched, the more ink they will hold and the heavier and thicker will be the resulting printed line. Variety of tone, almost amounting to colour, can be achieved by controlling the degree of etching of different areas of the plate.

Stop-out varnish is applied to lightly bitten areas to protect them if the plate is further immersed to strengthen bolder areas of the design.

‘Trial proofs’ may be printed at different stages of the plate’s progress so the artist can see how his print is developing. ‘Counterproofs’ (see below right), which reverse the image, are sometimes printed by passing a freshly printed impression back through the press to print on to a new sheet of paper. The counterproof is in the same direction as the work on the plate and the artist can experiment with amendments by drawing or painting on top of the counterproof as a guide to how he should proceed on the plate. Artists also sometimes make these sort of amendments to trial proof impressions, which are known as ‘touched proofs’.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669)

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669)
“The Turbaned Soldier on Horseback”
Etching, c1632. (83 x 58 mm)

Only isolated experiments with etching were made in the 16th century but the following century it flowered as artists became aware of the expressive possibilities of its flowing eloquent line. The 17th century was indeed a golden age of etching. Many of the greatest painters of the period, and particularly the generation active 1625-45, were enthusiastic etchers; Rembrandt and Ostade in Holland; Reni and Castiglione as well as the Spanish Ribera and French Claude in Italy. For Jacques Callot, Stefano della Bella, Abraham Bosse and Wenceslaus Hollar it was their principle form of expression.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1697–1770): An Astrologer with a young Soldier. Etching, c1740. (134 x 170 mm)

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1697–1770): "An Astrologer with a young Soldier".
Etching, c1740. (one of the ‘Vari Capricci’ series).  (134 x 170 mm)

In the 18th century in England, France, and Holland printmaking became largely concerned with reproduction, utilising other printmaking techniques, but in Italy Canaletto, Tiepolo and Piranesi continued the tradition of original etching.

Samuel Palmer (1805–1881): The Bellman. 

Samuel Palmer (1805–1881): "The Bellman".  Etching, 1879.
A ‘remarque’ proof – see the small branch etched into the lower
border of the plate.  (190 x 251 mm)

The ‘Etching Revival’ in the 19th century was initiated in Britain by the artists of the Norwich School and in France by Daubigny and the artists of the Lyon and Barbizon schools, all of whom were inspired to follow the example of the great Dutch masters of the 17th century. The founding of etching clubs and the societies of Painter-Etchers gave a broader base of popularity and by the end of the century etching was once again practised widely as an original expression by artists.

Charles Meryon (1821-1868)

Charles Meryon (1821-1868): “L’Abside de Notre Dame”. Etching, 1854
(one of Meryon’s series of ‘Eaux-fortes sur Paris’). (163 x 298 mm)

Paris, as the artistic centre of Europe, had a seminal influence in exposing artists from all over Europe and America to original printmaking. The various art journals illustrated with original impressions of etchings further promoted the technique internationally.

Gerald Lesley Brockhurst (1890–1978)

Gerald Lesley Brockhurst (1890–1978):
"Portrait of James McBey".  Etching, 1931.  (267 x 190 mm)
Brockhurst was a superb technician and none of his peers could
do such fine needling or create such density of tone and texture.

By the early decades of the 20th century there was an ‘Etching Boom’ in England and a thriving international market supported by the Print Collectors’ Clubs which only collapsed with the Depression.

Etching lends itself to two stylistic approaches which can be recognized throughout its history, the calligraphic open linear style, combined with expressive ‘blank’ areas of paper and the tonal method of cross hatching with sometimes scarcely a glimmer of paper showing through the closely worked mesh of lines. Compare the etchings above by Claude, Rembrandt and Boreel with the Palmer and Brockhurst.

Artists also frequently mixed etching with other intaglio techniques, engraving, drypoint or aquatint.


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


May Tremel (Exhibiting 1907 – 1936):

May Tremel (Exhibiting 1907 – 1936):
The etched copper plate for "Taggia".  (151 x 207 mm)



Etching after René Gilbert, 1889

"An Etcher smoking the etching ground on his plate". Etching, 1889, by Achille Gilbert, after the painting by his son René Gilbert. Probably a portrait of the painter’s father, Achille, in his studio.




Ernest Heber Thompson (1891–1971). Pauline

Ernest Heber Thompson (1891–1971):
" The artist’s daughter Pauline resting".
Completed etching (above), together with (below)
a touched counterproof worked over in pencil.
(175 x 243 mm)

Ernest Heber Thompson (1891–1971). Pauline




Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
"A striped fur Muff and a coiled fur Stole".
Etching, 1642. (73 x 113 mm)



Edouard Manet (1832-1883): “Cats”

Edouard Manet (1832-1883): “Cats”.
Etching, 1868-69. (178 x 221 mm)



Frederick L. Griggs (1876-1938):
“St Botolph’s Bridge”.

Etching, 1917. (147 x 115 mm)



Graham Sutherland (1903–1980): The Sluice Gate.

Graham Sutherland (1903–1980): "The Sluice Gate".
Etching, 1924.  (138 x 135 mm)




Wendela Boreel (1895–1985): Bass Section of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Etching, c1924. (127 x 177 mm)

Wendela Boreel (1895–1985):
"Bass Section of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra". 
Etching, c1924.  (127 x 177 mm)

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