Etching Adventures, Part 3

Welcome back, etching lovers!

Last week, I shared with you my very first zinc plate etching.

This week, we're going to take that same plate and aquatint it.

What is aquatint, you ask? Essentially it's a variation of etching that lets you achieve a more painterly look. Line etching is precisely that: line. Modeling is achieved by hatching and cross-hatching multiple lines over one another.

This etching by Rembrandt is a good example of the hatching method.

Rembrandt self-portrait, ca. 1630. Note his build-up of line to create value, not to mention his mastery of facial expression!

Aquatint, by contrast, has a tonal, smokier look. Look at Goya's print below:

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. The background is an especially excellent example of aquatint.

How does one achieve this look? Basically you have to give texture to your plate. Traditionally artists would place their plate in a wooden box filled with rosin powder, a type of resin, and shake the box around to coat it. The plate would then be submerged in an acid bath, and the areas not covered with the powder would get bitten.

At BCA, we go with the quick-and-dirty method: spray paint. The result isn't quite so delicate as rosin, but it's close enough, and is a faster, less expensive approach.

The spray paint station all set up.

The first thing I needed to do was block out the sections I didn't want aquatinted with hard ground.

Once the hard ground had dried, it was time to spray paint. Typically you try to achieve a light, even coat, but rules don't always have to be followed precisely, and blotchy spray paint can allow for interesting effects. As it turned out, I ended up getting a pretty even coat.

Ready to tag my plate, so to speak.

My plate with the spray paint coating

Once the spray paint was dry, it was time for the acid bath. As with the line etching, this was nitric acid, but a weaker solution. Whereas 12 minutes is the average time for line etching, aquatint timing can range anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes, depending on how dark you want the etching to become. I kept mine in the bath for 5 minutes.

Hanging out in the acid bath again.

After 5 minutes, I plunged the plate into a water bath and cleaned off the hard ground in the wood chip box.

The cleaned plate. Note the textured look of the background compared to the shiny line etching. That's aquatint!

Finally, I ran a proof of my aquatinted plate.

Voila! The background now has a relatively uniform, textured appearance that really helps the skull jump out and get your attention. I also really like the contrast between the clean, etched lines and the hazier aquatint, as though the skull were emerging from some mysterious cavern or time portal. It's by no means a perfect print, but considering I've never done this before, I don't think it's terrible either.

On Saturday I went back to the studio to try printing it out on my personal stash of BFK Rives paper, which is of a higher quality than proofing paper. I ended up being pretty pleased with how it turned out.

My print on BFK Rives paper
The two states side by side: without aquatint, and with it.

We're now halfway through the class. Stay tuned as I embark on my second project!


  1. Not apropos of your current post but rather of the blog itself, I just wanted you to see this quote:
    “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!"

    — Gérard de Nerval, when asked why he kept a lobster as a pet and walked it on a leash.

  2. What a perfectly delightful quote; thanks for sharing! Indeed, animal ownership is a peculiar concept regardless of the species when you stop to think about it. If Dali can walk around with anteaters on leashes, then Nerval can certainly walk a lobster if that's his inclination.


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