Notes on Printmaking Methods


Intaglio is the general term for most of the methods that I use in creating a plate for printing.  The term comes from Italian, meaning to carve.  (Intaglio is the opposite of relief printing, where ink sits on the surface of the plate, as in lino-cuts or woodblock printing.)  In the intaglio method, the plate is developed through processes such as etching, aquatint, drypoint, engraving, to hold ink below the surface.  When the ink is then applied to the plate, the plate must be wiped so that only ink trapped in these fine depressions & grooves is allowed to remain.  Then, as the plate is passed with great pressure under the roller of a printing press, the moistened paper laid on the plate’s face is actually forced into the grooved areas of the plate, and the damp paper lifts the ink out of these fine grooves.  This great pressure also produces an embossed border (the plate mark) on the finished print – a characteristic that makes it easy to identify the work as an intaglio print.

Various kinds of plates can be used in intaglio printmaking: zinc, copper, steel, even plexiglass.  I use the intaglio methods described below, alone or in combination on a single plate – all depending on the complexity of the image that I am intending to create:

Etching is certainly the most classic of the intaglio methods.  A metal plate is covered with a protective waxy or tar-like layer called a ground, and then the artist draws through this protective ground with a needle or stylus to expose the metal.  The plate is then immersed into an acid bath, and only the exposed areas are eaten away, producing the grooves and pits in the plate that will hold ink during the printing phase.

See etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dominique Ingres, Giorgio Morandi, Jean-François Millet, Edvard Munch, Giovanni Piranesi, Seymour Hayden, James Whistler, John Sloan, Lucian Freud.

Aquatint is a method that also uses acid to eat into the plate, but in a delicate & nearly invisible manner, so that a variety of tonal effects can be produced.  (The name aquatint is confusing, since there is no aqua involved; but the very subtle effects produced by this method can often mimic the delicate tonality of a watercolor wash.)  Instead of coating the entire plate with a waxy ground, the plate’s surface is dusted with minute particles of rosin that are then fused to the plate’s face by passing a flame under the back of the metal.  When then immersed in acid, the plate is eaten away in a random microscopic pattern that gives subtle tonal passages in the print, from very pale to richly dark, all depending on the length of time that the acid is allowed to bite into the metal.  The granules of fused rosin protect the plate, but the tiny areas between the particles are eaten away.  With a magnifying glass one can clearly see this effect in an aquatint print.  This is a delicate and time-consuming process, since each separate tonal area must be stopped out with wax or a tar-like liquid ground (asphaltum) to halt the action of the acid so that the correct tone can be achieved.  Many aquatinted plates have been sequentially bitten in acid and stopped out as many as a dozen times to achieve the varied tonal effect desired by the artist.  (Aquatint is often used as a second-stage intaglio process, combined with classical etching, where first a “regular” etching is done to establish the linear features of the image; these etched lines serve as a guide for the areas of plate that are then aquatinted and etched to further develop the tonal passages.)

See aquatints by Francisco Goya, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer. Georges Rouault, Otto Dix, Frances Myers, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Jim Dine.

Lift-ground, or Sugar-lift Aquatint is a variation of the above.  But the important difference is that this process allows the artist to directly make positive marks (instead of the reverse, where the stopping out of negative areas is the usual etching approach).  The plate is broadly dusted with the rosin particles and they are fused to the metal, as usual with aquatint.  Next, the artist paints the desired positive image onto the aquatinted plate with a sugar/water solution or even coffee/sugar syrup.  When this dries, the entire plate is coated with an asphaltum ground.  Then comes the trick: the plate is rinsed under hot water, dissolving & lifting the areas where there were strokes of sugar solution. The protective asphaltum ground remains only on the non-sugar negative areas.  Thus, the bare aquatinted areas where the sugar-solution was lifted will etch when the plate is put into the acid bath.  This technique creates lovely marks of flowing painterly quality.

Drypoint is perhaps the simplest and most direct method of intaglio.  As the name suggests, there is no acid used in creating the incised areas of the plate.  Instead, the artist scratches or digs into the bare plate with various tools: very sharp steel etching needles, gouges, textured steel roulettes, diamond-point scribes, even sandpaper and other abrasives.  The classic drypoint line is created when the steel needle rips into the plate, forming a microscopic furrow edged with a ragged ridge; this ridge is termed the burr.  The burr actually holds ink in such a way that the marks produced in a drypoint print have a unique and easily recognizable character: the marks are richly dark, with a soft, velvety quality that is much desired and admired by print collectors.  However, this fragile lip of metal burr is easily worn down as the plate is wiped and as it endures the great pressure of the press.  Thus, a drypoint plate has a very short life and produces fewer prints than any other intaglio process, and the resulting small edition tends to make a drypoint print much rarer and more valuable in the eyes of serious print collectors.  The drypoint method is also often used to further refine or develop an image on a plate that has been previously exposed to an etching or aquatint process.  In contemporary drypoint work, artists often use a more modern material for the plate: plexiglass.  It is more easily worked by hand, it is a cheaper material, and its transparency simplifies the transfer of the sketch to the plate.

See drypoints by Martin Lewis, Georges Braque, August Rodin, Mary Cassatt, Jacques Villon, Peggy Bacon, Raphael Soyer, Max Beckman, John Marin.

Carborundum prints, also termed carborundum collagraphs, are not strictly intaglio prints because the ink is held above and within the textured surface of the plate.  In making a typical collagraph, various materials (fabric, paper, string, plastic, leaves, found objects…) are affixed to a plate of metal, plexiglass, or even stiff cardboard. The ink trapped in these various textures produces an endless variety of tones and marks.  But with a carborunum collagraph, the artist uses a fine powder or grit called carborundum (specifically, silica carbide, similar to sandpaper grit) and this is mixed with a liquid acrylic medium that is applied to the plate.  When the medium dries, these rough areas of texture hold wonderfully dense concentrations of ink, creating a print with a highly saturated intensity of color or pigment.  Often this method is combined with drypoint so that finer linear marks can be added to the broader passages created by the carborundum.

Copyright  2012, Julia Roberts