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The Oculus Press - Etching and Aquatint

Etching is metal work. It originated from the sword makers and armorers. Although there are examples of swords with etched inscriptions that date back to around the year 1400, it was in the year 1431 that Jehan le Begue wrote down a recipe "to make a water which would corrode iron," documenting the early use of etching. Prints began to be pulled from etched plates around the year 1500. The first etched plate bearing a date was an image of a woman bathing her feet by Urs Graf dated 1513. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), a master engraver, is known to have also etched six plates between 1515 and 1518. Under the Patronage of the Medici family in the city of Nancy, Jacques Callot (1592-1635) created more than 1400 etchings and engravings. Aside from his artistic contribution, he was responsible for developing many technical innovations inventing an effective Hard Ground acid resistant coating (allowing him to spent months on his drawings), and the Echoppe a tool replacing the Etching Needle allowing one to continuously vary the width of a line. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) was one of history's most consummate etchers. His continuous development of plates, chronicled by the proofs which he made at each state, offer us tremendous insight into his thinking and artistic decisions.

Textures etched into the metal hold the ink that prints the image. An etching must first be resolved in metal. The metal work which must be mastered to execute an etching makes the etching a formal marriage of Art and Craft. Through our demonstrations, many people begin to connect the print to the fine metal work in etching and learn to appreciate the physical and spiritual connection to the metal. The image is cut into a metal plate with nitric acid through the etching process. Areas that are not etched are covered with an acid resistant coating called Asphaltum. To Line Etch, the acid resistant coating is drawn into with an etching needle or echoppe. Where ever the plate is exposed the acid will dissolve the metal which will then hold the ink and print a line during the printing process. Shades and tonal areas are etched in the Aquatint process. Microscopic rosin dust is melted onto the plate. Each tiny particle of rosin protects a surface of the plate. The acid eats around a field of these particles and cuts microscopic Devil's Tower or Butte shapes. The ink gathers at the base of these in the printing process and prints a continuous tonal area. Each of the different value areas on a plate is etched a different length of time. The deeper the etch, the more ink will gather in the etched texture and the more solidly the area will print. To learn to look at the topography of an etching; the metal's subtle clues of process and of the artist's decision-making choices, offers another level to enjoy.

Etched to the artist's satisfaction, the plate may be printed. Etching is not flat. It is an intaglio process meaning the design is bitten or engraved below the surface. The ink is rubbed deep into these textures and the surface is wiped clean. The ink only remains subsurface in the pits and grooves. The plate is put through the etching press which presses a dampened paper into its inked "nooks and crannies" under great pressure. This transfers the image from the plate to the paper while embossing the paper with the metal's textures. The lines and printed details end up raised on the page. This embossed surface gives etching its crisp focus, one of its most attractive features. Collectors often look closely at etchings with a magnifier. They may enjoy the microscopic landscape of texture. A single plate inked in a single color can be manipulated by allowing more or less plate tone. James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), is well known for using plate tone in his black and white etchings. Many colors can be applied to a single plate in the A La Poupee technique. This can allow the blending of colors directly into each other. The Oculus Press has also explored the use of hard edge inking using A La Poupee inking. A Transparent color can be applied in a Roll Up, with a soft rubber roller over the already inked plate. There are color techniques such as viscosity inking which rely on an etching's topography and would be impossible if etchings were flat. In Viscosity Color Printing, three factors must be controlled to effect the way the colors combine: the relative viscosity or oil content of the inks, differences in the densities of the inking rollers, and the topography of the etched textures in the metal. A soft rubber roller will deposit ink deeper into the etching than a harder roller. An area first inked with a slippery oily ink will resist a stiff ink applied over the first layer. The Oculus Press has explored the use of viscosity color theory to tiny areas of a plate using different pressures with a finger tip to areas too small for an inking roller. Sometimes in order to achieve transparent color overlays or the juxtaposition of different values or complimentary colors, multiple plates must be used. Multiple Plate printing registers several plates onto the paper to complete one image. They must be aligned exactly. Each time an etching is printed the plate must be inked and wiped by hand for the next print. Because every print in an edition of etchings is individually hand crafted, each is considered an original.