How Tones Are Created in the Etching

Morning Mist, aquatint

Morning Mist, aquatint

If you have ever wondered how the fine tonal areas are created in an etching, here is an example of a modern method.

The idea is to create a speckled pattern of an acid resistant material on the plate so the acid can eat around the speckles, leaving tiny raised metal points. When ink is applied and then wiped with rags, the depth of the etch determines how much ink remains on the plate, and therefore, how dark the printed tones.  In the example at left, the palest tones  resulted from a 10 second dip in the acid, while the darkest areas soaked in the acid about 15  minutes.

 

So what is thus mysterious speckled resist?  In modern times, we can use spray enamel paint for a quick and reliable method to cover the plate in a fine and even mist.

Aquatint ground for tone

Aquatint ground on plate

In the image at the left, you can see that the coverage of enamel is at 40% or so. Coverage in the range of 40% – 60% will work well.

Krylon Spray Enamel

Krylon Spray Enamel for making aquatint ground

 

 

 

 

Next, the same liquid wax and asphaltum ground that was used to cover the plate for the line etch is now painted on the plate to protect areas that will have no etched tone.

Painting hard ground

Painting hard ground

 

 

Sometimes very fine brushes are used to work delicate details.

When the areas of the plate that need to remain “white” are protected with ground (which looks coffee-colored in the photo), the plate is ready for an acid soak.

IMG_2689

 

 

The plate will be bathed in the acid repeatedly to achieve a variety of tones.  When the plate is removed from the acid, it is rinsed with water and dried.  Then additional ground is placed on the plate to protect the tones just etched before it is returned to the acid to continue etching some areas to a deeper level. The longer the aquatint soaks in the acid, the darker the tone will print.

IMG_2692

 

I could use the regular liquid hard ground for this purpose, but for complex tone development, I find it easier to visualize the tones I have already etched if I use paint markers in different colors to protect the plate for subsequent etches in the series.IMG_2693

 

 

 

 

I start with a general plan of how many times I will return the plate to the acid, and for how many seconds or minutes each acid bath will be.  This plan comes from years of experience, a sense of how potent the acid bath is, and noting how warm the studio is.  I keep notes of how long the plate has been in the acid as I progress, so that I can keep track of how long the still exposed areas have been etched in total. Many of my plates have 6 – 10 separate acid baths during this phase of development, and it is easy to forget just how many times the plate has soaked, and for how much time.

Finally, all of the enamel, hard ground and paint marker is removed from the plate, and the plate is inked and printed to check progress.

MacKerricher Beach, Second State Proof

MacKerricher Beach, Second State Proof

 

The acid has etched between the speckles of enamel, leaving a high point at each place where enamel adhered to the plate.  When inked and wiped, the plate will hold ink between these high points.  The more difference between the high points and the depth of the etch, the more ink the plate will hold.  If you look closely at an aquatint print, you will see the fine pattern of white spots from these high points of metal.

I could  scrape or burnish some of the aquatint areas to give more subtle variations in the tone. Burnishing is like lightly erasing – is will make the aquatint print in a lighter tone.

Note that there are a few unintended marks in the “sky” area – this is where the hard ground was not thick enough and allowed the acid to seep through; this is known as “false bite”.  If it does not work with the image, it will be scraped and burnished to clean up the area.

The next step will be to create a brooding sky with a technique called “spit bite”, and some sand in the foreground with surf tumbling up between the rocks. That will be for my next blog!

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