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Using the same techniques perfected hundreds of years ago, today's artists create beautiful original prints.

Among the many forms of printmaking available to artists today, one of the most intriguing and beautiful is the intaglio process that produces an original etching. Like other kinds of printmaking, the etching process results in an edition of multiple originals: a limited number of finished prints, all created personally by the artist and all subtly different.

What makes etchings so special? To some, it's the fact that the artist is so closely involved in the actual platemaking process. Today, so many kinds of art are just photocopied from an original, and the artist isn't involved in creating the actual print. But in an etching, all the work is done on the plate. It's a very time-consuming method. The artist who makes an etching is very devoted to the medium and it's very personal for him/her.

An etching is basically different from any other art form in the way it's created and printed. There's a different depth in the line, and when it's printed, you get a three - dimensional effect in the paper. You can do things with an etching that you can't do with any other media.

All good original prints are interesting in their own right. Each has its own fingerprint. Etchings have a great depth of color and tonal value because the paper is run through a press while damp. This forces the colors deep into the fiber of the paper.

Rembrandt did etchings, and they haven't changed much since. An etching is truly one of the most beautiful original forms of printmaking.

What Is an Etching

An etching is one entrant in a whole category of art that falls under the heading "intaglio prints." In any kind of intaglio printing, the portion of the printing plate that will accept ink is somehow cut into the plate itself; the ink falls into grooves below the surface of the plate.

When making an etching, the most common surfaces to begin with are zinc and copper plates. Zinc is somewhat less expensive and does not stand up as well over long printing. Copper is harder and gives a very fine, beautiful line.

Once the plate is chosen, the artist's printer prepares it by covering its face with an acid-resistant ground, usually asphaltum. The artist draws his image into the ground with any king of sharply pointed tool. (He may draw directly into the ground, or he may first transfer the image onto the ground through a piece of tracing paper on which he has sketched the image.) He is not actually cutting into the plate with the tool, merely leaving a definite line in the asphaltum.

Once the artist is satisfied with the image drawn on the plate, the plate is immersed in an acid bath, which eats away-or etches-the lines into the plate. Depending on how long the plate is left in the bath, the lines will be deeper (and wider). The deeper the line, the more ink it will hold and the darker the color on the finished print.

Once the plate is finished, it is ready to be inked and placed on the press. In the simplest etching, a single color of ink is applied to all the lines on the plate. The plate is then carefully wiped clean-first with a specially prepared, stiff cheesecloth material-then with the palm of the printer's hand. Inking and wiping are crucial to the final appearance of the etching. While an artist can do his own printing, it is usually done by a printer under the close supervision of the artist. A plate must be inked and wiped for each print pulled in an edition.

While simple etchings are printed in a single color-usually black or brown-more artists today add color to their prints, either through printing with different colored inks or adding hand coloring to the finished print. Two or more different colors of ink can be added to a single plate, or different plates can be etched to hold different colors. It is rare that an etching will be printed from more than four plates, however, or incorporate more than 10 colors of ink.

Once the plate is inked, high-quality rag paper is dampened and laid on it to go through the press, which consists basically of a press bed and a heavy roller. Because the paper is dampened, the pressure of the roller forces it into the etched lines to accept the ink. The pressure is also so great that it invariably embosses a line around the image where the edge of the plate is forced into the paper. This is one way even novices can tell that the print they're looking at is an etching.

The ink you put on a print is an integral part of the etching medium. Kathleen creates four or more plates to put color on an etching and does no hand coloring. She creates the master plate and watercolors a print from it to get an idea of the mood she wants to create with color. She'll have to figure out how she can create that mood with four or five different plates. Sometimes she'll have eight or nine colors on one plate, and we'll have to wipe very carefully. When she's done, it looks like a fine painting. It takes a lot of time to create an etching this way.

Not all artists restrict themselves to adding color through inking the plate. Handcoloring has become a popular device to finish off an etching, but not all artists approve of the method. In art school, we are taught that handcoloring is taboo-an etching is technically a print, and so everything in it should be printed.

Edited Version
Reprinted with permission from Decor Magazine

Kathleen has recently perfected a technique to enhance the colors in some of her images. In combination with a brighter paper that she has begun using, this has given an added boldness and more clarity to details in these prints.

The States of an Etching >>

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