The development of intaglio printmaking
Intaglio is the generic term for a range of techniques that involves printing from lines and areas cut into the surface of a flat metal plate. As artists have always been quick to exploit the techniques of printing for their unique qualities, the term "printmaking" was adopted to distinguish the making of original prints from reproductions (see Why original print?) . Printmaking artists now use the print media as a means of self-expression rather than for purely reproductive purposes.
Etching - the history
Etching seems to have developed in both Italy and Germany at around the same time, hence the terms intaglio (from the Italian verb tagliare meaning to cut) and etching (from the German "atzen" meaning to eat away or corrode).
The use of acids to etch metal was widely practised by jewelers before the 16th century, and by the beginning of that century prints were being made from designs etched into flat iron plates. As printing from engraved (non etched) plates was already in practice, printing from etched plates was a logical development.
Unfortunately, the line etchings of the 16th and early 17th centuries, drawn with a single point and bitten to a uniform depth with a single etch were lacking in tonal depth and variation in line. Even the etchings of Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) or Lucas van Leyden (1494 – 1533) could not compare with their engravings.
By the 17th century however, the etched line became much freer. Coupled with the reliability of acids or mordants for etching, the increasing practice of biting various lines for different lengths of time allowed for greater expression in etching. With the use of copper as a softer metal came the practice of altering the quality of line by scraping and burnishing: a technique employed to great effect by Rembrandt van Rijn in the 17th century and more recently Pablo Picasso among others. Etching has never lost any of its attraction and is still widely practised by contemporary artists world wide.
Etching – the techniques
Etching the metal plate, usually copper, steel (iron) or zinc involves covering it with a thin acid resistant wax layer or ground which when scratched through, re-exposing the metal to the action of the acid when placed in an acid bath. After etching, the wax is removed and the design can be seen etched into the surface of the plate.
Ink rubbed into the plate can be wiped off the plate surface but will catch in the etched areas. When the inked plate together with the printing paper is passed under pressure between the rollers of the etching press, the ink in the etched design will transfer to the paper.
Traditionally etching and engraving were line processes and form and tone were created and suggested by cross hatching and stippling. It was the painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde IV who invented the aquatint technique in Amsterdam around 1650 which allowed artists to work in areas of fine tone. This is why historically one may see the term "etching and aquatint" although it is actually an etching technique. With aquatint, a very fine layer of acid resistant resin dust fused to the plate surface, allows the acid to etch a network of very fine lines between the resin particles, appearing as a solid tone. The longer that plate is immersed in the acid the deeper the lines or aquatint will etch. The deeper they are, the more ink they will hold and will therefore print darker.
Mezzotint – the history
Mezzotint was invented in the Netherlands in 1642 by Ludwig von Siegen. Apparently he had observed that something had scrapped and burnished the rough surface of his musquette while serving in the army. Being familiar with the printing of etchings and engravings, he set about perfecting the technique of making continuous tones or mezzotints on copper plates.
For years many were baffled as to how these prints were made as he seemed not to share his invention. However mezzotint was soon to spread throughout Europe reaching its peak by the 18th century. With the invention of photography and photogravure from the 1830’s on, the reproductive mezzotint unfortunately suffered and became obsolete.
Interestingly, the last two or three decades seem to have witnessed a revival in the interest and practice of mezzotint among printmakers.
Mezzotint - the technique
Mezzotints are also intaglio prints and are printed in the same way as etchings. The method of producing a mezzotint plate is very different however. A copper plate is ideal as the plate is cut and manipulated by hand as opposed to the use of acid. Steel is too hard resulting in excessive wear on the tools and zinc is too soft making the rendering of mid tones very difficult and also results in rapid wear and breakdown of the plate.
The technique involves producing a rough surface of burrs and pits on the surface of the plate which when inked up would catch the ink and print jet black. This is achieved by rocking the serrated blade of the mezzotint rocker over the plate in many different directions producing a uniform surface.
The image is then rendered on the plate in tones from the richest black, through a range of greys to the most brilliant polished white. To achieve this the plate is scraped and burnished, reducing the height of the burrs and the depth of the pits and therefore the amount of ink held and subsequently printed. Scraping (rather than burnishing) naturally produces a more stable plate and this is why, historically, collectors refer to a quality mezzotint as "a good piece of scraping".
Laying a mezzotint ground with a rocker is a very labour intensive process. It can take weeks of preparation prior to scraping the image for even modest sized plates. This is perhaps why mezzotints tend to be dark and smaller in scale than in other contemporary printmaking media.
All my digital prints (aka computer graphic images or CGI's) are conceived solely as digital artworks and are not scanned reproductions of original art works in another medium. As such they are "original prints" like my etchings and mezzotints, conceived and executed solely in print.
They too, are printed on to acid free conservationaly sound printmaking paper with lightfast inks. They are not to be confused with so-called "giclee fine art" or "limited edition" prints which are reproductions of original artworks in another medium. Signing and numbering of reproductions is a practice that I and many printmakers have very strong views on and take a very firm stance against.