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'Pick of the Pack'

Over 5,000 hand printed and coloured etchings and engravings from original, mostly antique, intaglio printing plates.



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Information - Printing Methods

Etching and Soft Ground Etching

TThere were several different uses for this process - it was (and still is) employed as an art form in it's own right, as part of a 'mixed process' plate, or it was often also used as a means of producing the initial design for line engraving on steel or copper plates for prints and maps. J.M.W.Turner did much of the preliminary etching himself for some of his important sets, the engraving then being completed by specialist engravers.

With etching, the copper plate, or after about 1830 sometimes steel, was first polished and thoroughly cleaned. It was then heated and covered with a type of varnish called 'etching-ground', this was often a dark colour although sometimes a transparent varnish was used. The ground was made of various ingredients including white virgin wax, resin, asphalt and pitch.

Then, whilst the plate was still warm, the ground would be covered in a uniform coat of black soot, from a candle, burning tapers or other such source, great care being taken not to melt the varnish. This black coating formed a base on to which the design could be transferred.

Various methods were employed to transfer the design to the blackened ground, usually involving tracing or carefully copying the original drawing onto ordinary paper or tracing paper, using a medium such as a lead pencil. This would then be transferred onto the ground in a light press, or if on tracing paper by carefully going over with a blunt needle from the back, to transfer some of the lead.

picture showing etchers tools Etching tools as illustrated in Feilding's 'The Art of Engraving', 1841. (a) etching needle, (b) scraper, (c) and (d) burnishers, (e) graver, (f) scooper, (g) scraper for mezzotints, (h) stipple graver, (i) roulette for mezzotints, (j) shading tool for mezzotints, (k) roulette for mezzotints, (l) dry-point graver, (m) hammer, (n) dabber for applying the 'ground', (o) brushes for applying varnish (p) calliper compasses.
Once the initial design was transferred, the etching could begin. Various types of etching needles would be used to penetrate the ground. Those with the most tapering points were used for skies and distance, pressing more heavily and changing them for others as the foreground was approached. Heavy foreground lines used a sharper, thicker needle held more perpendicularly to the plate to give a broader, deeper line. Rulers would be used for straight lines such as ship's masts. The needle had to penetrate through the ground to scratch the metal to ensure the acid would do it's work. Any mistakes were covered with a small amount of 'Brunswick black' ink, which when dry, had to be etched through again.

image of an etcher at workDetail from a French print dating from 1643. One can see the etcher creating the design through the blackened 'ground' on the copper plate, he has the original artwork propped to his right and has the plate propped at an angle below a window to catch the light.
The etcher had to take great care, especially when the plate was steel, not to breath on it to avoid oxidation (rust).

When the etcher was satisfied he had produced all, or as much as he could initially of the design, the plate would then need 'biting in' with acid -

A raised border was put around the edge of the plate using softened wax, to form a wall to contain the acid. Diluted nitric acid would be poured onto the plate and left to 'bite' for about 15 minutes. Any bubbles being swept off with a small brush. After this time the plate would be washed with water and thoroughly dried with bellows. The delicate parts of the image would then be 'stopped out' with 'Brunswick black' to avoid any further action from the acid. The acid would the be applied to the plate a second time for about 20 minutes to give the next degree of depth. Again the plate would be washed and dried, further parts stopped out and more acid applied to give the heaviest lines.

After this the plate would be thoroughly cleaned with turpentine, washed and dried. A proof would then be taken to ascertain any further work that may be needed. Artist's etchings may need several repeats of this process to be completed, whereas simpler designs may be accomplished in one process. Also, artist's etchings may have other methods employed to complete the image, such as removing some of the finished plate's polish with emery paper, to give a delicate tint, or burnishing bright areas to lighten them.

Although physically less demanding than engraving, etching required a high degree of skill, as the result after exposure to the acid may not always have been what the etcher intended.

etching by F.C.Lewis

Etching by Frederick Christian Lewis (1779 - 1856) titled 'Endsleigh Cottage', about 1840. Shown reduced size. Lewis was a landscape painter, etcher and prominent aquatint and stipple engraver of sporting subjects, landscapes, topographical views and portraits, after Old Masters, his contemporaries and his own designs. He worked with Turner and for several members of the Royal Family. He produced a great many prints, some very sought after. One of his specialities was river views, of which he produced several sets, this is from one of those sets.

image of sky area in an etchingThis is a close up of part of the sky in the above print. It illustrates the varying effects and tones that can be produced by careful 'stopping out' of the plate. The acid has been allowed to bite deeply into the foliage in the lower right, and much more lightly in the sky area. There is also some shading apparent in the sky from rubbing down the area to remove some of the polish, and use of the 'roulette' is apparent in the sky indicated by the dotted lines.

image of water area in an etchingAnother detail from the above print, this time of the water's edge in the bottom center of the print. Light lines can be seen 'brushed on' where areas have been stopped out between 'bites' of the acid, creating the effect of a reflection on water in the finished print.

Soft Ground Etching

This was a style of etching used to imitate chalk or pencil drawings. It was more or less superseded as a result of the invention of lithography in the mid nineteenth century.

This process depended greatly on having a 'ground' (see above) that was just tacky at ambient temperature, made up of normal etching ground mixed with hog's lard to a varying degree, depending on the temperature.

The plate would be coated with the ground and smoked in the usual way. The outline of the subject would then be drawn lightly on a piece of thin paper, which was at least an inch larger each way than the plate. This paper was then dampened and laid carefully on the plate, the edges being turned under and pasted to the back of the plate. When dry, the paper would be stretched smooth. The subject would then be drawn on the paper with a medium hardness pencil, pressed strongly for darker areas, and lightly for more delicate areas. When the drawing was finished the paper was removed carefully with some of the tacky ground sticking to the back of the lines, leaving the plate partially exposed. It would then be etched with acid as above in the normal way. If all went well the plate would end up as a near exact copy of the drawing.

soft ground etching by alkenTo the left is an example of a soft ground etching, from Henry Alken's Symptoms of Being Amused, 1822, with full original hand colour.

detail image of soft ground etchingThis detail from the above print illustrates the free nature of soft ground etching. As can be seen the lines and shading are softer than with a normal etching, the pencil strokes used can clearly be seen in the shading on the overcoat. For a closer look at this shading follow this link.

Soft ground etching can sometimes be mistaken for lithography due to this soft 'free' nature. Several ways to help distinguish the two are -

1. Is the print dated? If it is and the date is in the 1820's/30's or after then it could be a lithograph, if before it is more likely to be a soft ground etching, although there are early lithographs dating from the 1790's.

2. Is there a plate mark? If there is then it is an etching, printed under pressure from a plate. If not then it could be a lithograph, or the plate mark has been trimmed off.

3. Are there any fine, 'engraved' looking parts to the image? The print above, for example, has the title "of a wild one" above the image. This is very fine and well defined, showing all the signs of having been engraved in a metal plate rather than drawn on a lithographic stone.

 


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