Kevin Cummins
Etchinginsights.com

THE ETCHING PROCESS

Etching is a very mechanical process. A zinc plate is coated and scratched by an etching needle, or painted with a design, and is then etched by acid in a controlled reaction. This forms an image on the plate that will hold ink. The inked plate and paper is run through an etching press which presses the plate image to the paper. The art of etching involves the variety of methods used to form the image on the plate. Etchings are typically black ink on white paper. Color is usually not involved. Some see this as a limitation; I see endless possibilities. The unique mechanical process of etching allows for a wide variety of shapes, textures and resonant grays and blacks that are not possible with any other medium.

Like many specialties, etching has its own language and thought processes. The following pages should give the reader a working knowledge of the terms and etching methods used on this website.

The processes described are for etching with zinc plates. I do not use copper plates or photo-etching.

HOW AN ETCHING IS DONE

PLATE PREPARATION

A new zinc plate is covered with a light layer of grease that can be removed by rubbing with ammonia and whiting. I have also seen printmakers use fine steel wool to polish the plate but I think this is unnecessary. The grease must be removed or acid resists will not completely adhere to the plate surface.

The edges of the plate are sharp and must be beveled with a file so that they do not cut into the paper or the press blankets when printing.

The beveling of the plate gives an etching a distinct look when printed. The edges of the plate will indent the paper surface, as the plate is pushed into the paper when printed. This is how you can tell an etching from a reproduction.

TRANSFERING DRAWING TO THE PLATE

After cleaning and beveling, I paint a thin layer of stop-out on the plate with a foam brush. I use back and forth strokes to give an even surface and let it dry overnight. The dry surface has an even sheen across the entire plate. Any stop-out on the back of the plate must be removed or it can cause indentations and uneven wear when run through the press.

A drawing is traced on clear frosted Mylar with a Number 2 pencil. Mylar is an easy surface to work on and I typically work from left to right (I am right-handed) to prevent my hand from smearing what I have already drawn.

The stopped-out plate is put on the press bed. The Mylar drawing is put on top of the plate with the drawing side down and taped in place. The plate and drawing are run through the press using light pressure. The pressure of the rollers will transfer the Mylar drawing to the stopped-out plate. The image will be in reverse.

ETCHING

When the image has been transferred, the plate is ready to be worked on and etched in nitric acid.

An etching needle can be used to go over the image. Only remove the stop-out with the needle; you do not have to dig into the plate. When the plate is put in the acid bath, the acid will eat into the exposed lines to give an image similar to pen and ink. If some lines of the image are to be light and others dark, the plate can be removed from the acid tray after a short period and the light lines stopped out. The plate can be then further etched, causing the exposed lines to be etched deeper and giving a darker line when printed.

Another method is to use a burnisher to scrape away areas of stop-out, exposing the plate that can then be aquatinted or open bit. This gives shapes of gray and black rather than the lines of an etching needle. An aquatint can be varied by stopping out areas that are to be lighter when printed and further etching areas that are to be darker.

Other acid resists such as litho crayons and soft grounds can be used to give different results.

The reaction of nitric acid and zinc causes bubbling on the plate. These can be wiped away using a feather or gently rocking the acid bath. If they are not wiped away, the etch can be uneven.

After the plate has been worked on, the stop-out is removed with kerosene. Aquatints are removed with alcohol.

PRINTING

To print, the plate is covered with ink, using cardboard or a plastic scraper in a back and forth motion to make sure the ink has penetrated all lines and etched areas. Excess ink is rubbed off the surface by tarlatan, leaving ink in only the lines and etched areas. Zinc plates scratch very easily, so it's important that nothing hard be rubbed against the surface. The inked plate is put on the press bed.

Paper should be cut or ripped to a size that allows at least a 2 or 3 inch margin around the image.

Paper is dampened before printing. This gives a better printed image. Paper is soaked in a water bath and then pressed between blotting papers to remove excess water. The paper is then put on the inked plate and run through the press. This is the first state.

After drying for several days, prints often have slight buckles or waves. This is the result of the paper being stretched when pressed. The buckled paper can be put between glass to straighten out or it can be dry-mounted. Sometimes a slight buckle will remain.

INTERMEDIATE TO FINAL STATE

After studying the proof of the first state , further actions can be taken to develop the plate.

When finished, the plate can be used to produce multiple impressions, also called a print edition. Etching, like other printmaking forms, is a fine art with the advantage of being able to produce multiple impressions, which allows for a wider audience.

Once an etcher has command of the etching methods, the possibilities are limitless. The underlying principle of the etching process is how does the etcher manipulate the acid resist to give the effect that is wanted?

As an etcher and an artist, I am not afraid to use etching materials in a new way. There is no such thing as failure because even failures can lead to new avenues. I've also had etching "accidents" that have led to new and different processes that have become part of what I do.

Going forward, I am documenting the etching process for each plate that I work on. This will show the variety of methods that can be used. When I finish a plate, I will put the process in pdf form.