Etching, what is it exactly?

Etching is an intaglio engraving process that is most often practiced on copper. This method replaces the mechanical action of the chisel with the bite of a chemical solution.

At the start, the etching was nitric acid, replaced today by less toxic mordants, such as ferric chloride.

Etching the "Saint Martin Knight". For the record, I own all the copies of the series, which are just signed...
Etching the “Saint Martin Knight”. For the record, I own all the copies of the series, which are just signed…

This “intaglio” technique is called “indirect carving”, as opposed to “direct carving” which is done with tools.

Etching, how do you do it?

The plate is covered with a varnish, in which the artist draws his motif using a drypoint. Then, the plate is placed in a bath which “bites” the exposed areas. From there, the etching acts where the metal is bare, while the varnish protects the protected places.

Note: The tip slides on the copper without attacking it, and therefore gives more freedom to the engraver. This results in a soft line, the depth of which depends on the hardness of the bite.

etching on the varnish

All the detailed steps of “etching” Click HERE, duration 1 minute 50

The name etching, commonly refers the process, the engraved metal plate and the print obtained by this engraving.

The different processes

Aquatint is intended to mimic the effects of watercolor, creating many shades of gray. First the plate is sprinkled with a thin layer of resin. This is heated, so that the grain adheres. Finally, the areas that we want to spare are covered with varnish.

The plate is then immersed in the mordant, which attacks the copper creating a velvety mesh. Many shades of gray going as far as black will be obtained by carrying out successive baths of different durations.

  • Wash engraving.

The purpose of the wash etching process is to imitate wash drawings. First, the contours are etched, then a graining is created, which is particularly suitable for pictorial effects. This makes it possible to obtain chiaroscuro values   ​​comparable to those of a  wash  or a  watercolor. Then, the operation is repeated as many times as necessary, going from the weakest shade to the strongest.

  • The pencil way.

The way of pencil, is a process whose goal is “to get closer, to the effect of the pencil”. First, the copper is varnished as for etching. Then, instead of using normal drypoints, a whole series of instruments are used to imitate the dotted lines of the pencil. Among them, double or triple points, punches, hammers, rollers, etc.


Printing is the common feature of intaglio engraving processes. Indeed, the inking method and the material used are the same.

All Stages of Intaglio Printing. Duration 1 Minute 49 Seconds Click HERE

For limited editions, once the number of copies is obtained, the copper is crossed out twice so as not to be reused. Unlike lithographic stones, which “fade”, copper plates are single-use.

Summary table of printmaking methods

summary table of printmaking methods

Download summary table of printmaking methods, click HERE

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