1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Etching

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ETCHING (Dutch, etsen, to eat), a form of engraving (q.v.) in which, in contradistinction to line engraving (q.v.), where the furrow is produced by the ploughing of the burin, the copper is eaten away or corroded by acid.

To prepare a plate for etching it is first covered with etching-ground, a composition which resists acid. The qualities of a ground are to be so adhesive that it will not quit the copper when a small quantity is left isolated between lines, yet not so adhesive that the etching point cannot easily and entirely remove it; at the same time a good ground will be hard enough to bear the hand upon it, or a sheet of paper, yet not so hard as to be brittle. The ground used by Abraham Bosse, the French painter and engraver (1602–1676) was composed as follows:—Melt 2 oz. of white wax; then add to it 1 oz. of gum-mastic in powder, a little at a time, stirring till the wax and the mastic are well mingled; then add, in the same manner, 1 oz. of bitumen in powder. There are three different ways of applying an etching-ground to a plate. The old-fashioned way was to wrap a ball of the ground in silk, heat the plate, and then rub the ball upon the surface, enough of the ground to cover the plate melting through the silk. To equalize the ground a dabber was used, which was made of cotton-wool under horsehair, the whole inclosed in silk. This method is still used by many artists, from tradition and habit, but it is far inferior in perfection and convenience to that which we will now describe. When the etching-ground is melted, add to it half its volume of essential oil of lavender, mix well, and allow the mixture to cool. You have now a paste which can be spread upon a cold plate with a roller; these rollers are covered with leather and made (very carefully) for the purpose. You first spread a little paste on a sheet of glass (if too thick, add more oil of lavender and mix with a palette knife), and roll it till the roller is quite equally charged all over, when the paste is easily transferred to the copper, which is afterwards gently heated to expel the oil of lavender. In both these methods of grounding a plate, the work is not completed until the ground has been smoked, which is effected as follows. The plate is held by a hand-vice if a small one, or if large, is fixed at some height, with the covered side downwards. A smoking torch, composed of many thin bees-wax dips twisted together, is then lighted and passed repeatedly under the plate in every direction, till the ground has incorporated enough lampblack to blacken it. The third way of covering a plate for etching is to apply the ground in solution as collodion is applied by photographers. The ground may be dissolved in chloroform, or in oil of lavender. The plate being grounded, its back and edges are protected from the acid by Japan varnish, which soon dries, and then the drawing is traced upon it. The best way of tracing a drawing is to use sheet gelatine, which is employed as follows. The gelatine is laid upon the drawing, which its transparence allows you to see perfectly, and you trace the lines by scratching the smooth surface with a sharp point. You then fill these scratches with fine black-lead, in powder, rubbing it in with the finger, turn the tracing with its face to the plate, and rub the back of it with a burnisher. The black-lead from the scratches adheres to the etching ground and shows upon it as pale grey, much more visible than anything else you can use for tracing. Then comes the work of the etching-needle, which is merely a piece of steel sharpened more or less. J. M. W. Turner used a prong of an old steel fork which did as well as anything, but neater etching-needles are sold by artists’ colour-makers. The needle removes the ground or cover and lays the copper bare. Some artists sharpen their needles so as to present a cutting edge which, when used sideways, scrapes away a broad line; and many etchers use needles of various degrees of sharpness to get thicker or thinner lines. It may be well to observe, in connexion with this part of the subject, that whilst thick lines agree perfectly well with the nature of woodcut, they are very apt to give an unpleasant heaviness to plate engraving of all kinds, whilst thin lines have generally a clear and agreeable appearance in plate engraving. Nevertheless, lines of moderate thickness are used effectively in etching when covered with finer shading, and very thick lines indeed were employed with good results by Turner when he intended to cover them with mezzotint (q.v.), and to print in brown ink, because their thickness was essential to prevent them from being overwhelmed by the mezzotint, and the brown ink made them print less heavily than black. Etchers differ in opinion as to whether the needle ought to scratch the copper or simply to glide upon its surface. A gliding needle is much more free, and therefore communicates a greater appearance of freedom to the etching, but it has the inconvenience that the etching-ground may not always be entirely removed, and then the lines may be defective from insufficient biting. A scratching needle, on the other hand, is free from this serious inconvenience, but it must not scratch irregularly so as to engrave lines of various depth. The biting in former times was generally done with a mixture of nitric acid and water, in equal proportions; but in the present day a Dutch mordant is a good deal used, which is composed as follows: Hydrochloric acid, 100 grammes; chlorate of potash, 20 grammes; water, 880 grammes. To make it, heat the water, add the chlorate of potash, wait till it is entirely dissolved, and then add the acid. The nitrous mordant acts rapidly and causes ebullition; the Dutch mordant acts slowly and causes no ebullition. The nitrous mordant widens the lines; the Dutch mordant bites in depth, and does not widen the lines to any perceptible degree. The time required for both depends upon temperature. A mordant bites slowly when cold, and more and more rapidly when heated. To obviate irregularity caused by difference of temperature, it is a good plan to heat the Dutch mordant artificially to 95° Fahr. by lamps under the bath (for which a photographer’s porcelain tray is most convenient), and keep it steadily to that temperature; the results may then be counted upon; but whatever the temperature fixed upon, the results will be regular if it is regular. To get different degrees of biting on the same plate the lines which are to be pale are “stopped out” by being painted over with Japan varnish or with etching ground dissolved in oil of lavender, the darkest lines being reserved to the last, as they have to bite longest. When the acid has done its work properly the lines are bitten in such various degrees of depth that they will print with the degree of blackness required; but if some parts of the subject require to be made paler, they can be lowered by rubbing them with charcoal and olive oil, and if they have to be made deeper they can be rebitten, or covered with added shading. Rebiting is done with the roller above mentioned, which is now charged very lightly with paste and rolled over the copper with no pressure but its own weight, so as to cover the smooth surface but not fill up any of the lines. The oil of lavender is then expelled as before by gently heating the plate, but it is not smoked. The lines which require rebiting may now be rebitten, and the others preserved against the action of the acid by stopping out. These are a few of the most essential technical points in etching, but there are many matters of detail for which the reader is referred to the special works on the subject.

There are many varieties in the processes of etching, and it is only necessary here to indicate the essential facts. A brief analysis of different styles may be given.

(1) Pure Line. As there is line engraving, so there is line etching; but as the etching-needle is a freer instrument than the burin, the line has qualities which differ widely from those of the burin line. Each of the two has its own charm and beauty; the liberty of the one is charming, and the restraint of the other is admirable also in its right place. In line etching, as in line engraving, the great masters purposely exhibit the line and do not hide it under too much shading. (2) Line and Shade. This answers exactly in etching to Mantegna’s work in engraving. The most important lines are drawn first throughout, and the shade thrown over them like a wash with the brush over a pen sketch in indelible ink. (3) Shade and Texture. This is used chiefly to imitate oil-painting. Here the line (properly so called) is entirely abandoned, and the attention of the etcher is given to texture and chiaroscuro. He uses lines, of course, to express these, but does not exhibit them for their own beauty; on the contrary, he conceals them.

Of these three styles of etching the first is technically the easiest, and being also the most rapid, is adopted for sketching on the copper from nature; the second is the next in difficulty; and the third the most difficult, on account of the biting, which is never easy to manage when it becomes elaborate. The etcher has, however, many resources; he can make passages paler by burnishing them, or by using charcoal, or he can efface them entirely with the scraper and charcoal; he can darken them by rebiting or by regrounding the plate and adding fresh work; and he need not run the risk of biting the very palest passages of all, because these can be easily done with the dry point, which is simply a well-sharpened stylus used directly on the copper without the help of acid. It is often asserted that any one can etch who can draw, but this is a mistaken assertion likely to mislead. Without requiring so long an apprenticeship as the burin, etching is a very difficult art indeed, the two main causes of its difficulty being that the artist does not see his work properly as he proceeds, and that mistakes or misfortunes in the biting, which are of frequent occurrence to the inexperienced, may destroy all the relations of tone.

Etching, like line engraving, owed much to the old masters, but whereas, with the exception of Albert Dürer, the painters were seldom practical line engravers, they advanced etching not only by advice given to others but by the work of their own hands. Rembrandt did as much for etching as either Raphael or Rubens for line engraving; and in landscape the etchings of Claude had an influence which still continues, both Rembrandt and Claude being practical workmen in etching, and very skilful workmen. Ostade, Ruysdael, Berghem, Paul Potter, Karl Dujardin, etched as they painted, and so did a greater than any of them, Vandyck. In the earlier part of the 19th century etching was almost a defunct art, except as it was employed by engravers as a help to get faster through their work, of which “engraving” got all the credit, the public being unable to distinguish between etched lines and lines cut with the burin. But from the middle of the century dates a great revival of etching as an independent art, a revival which has extended all over Europe.

Apart from the copying of pictures by etching—which was found commercially preferable to the use of line engraving—a number of artists and amateurs gradually practised original etching with increasing success, notably Sir Seymour Haden, J. M. Whistler, Samuel Palmer and others in England, Felix Bracquemond, C. F. Daubigny, Charles Jacque, Adolphe Appian, Maxime Lalanne, Jules Jacquemart and others on the continent, besides that singular and remarkable genius, Charles Méryon. Etching clubs, or associations of artists for the publication of original etchings, were gradually founded in England, France, Germany and Belgium. Méryon and Whistler are two of the greatest modern etchers. Among earlier names mention may be made of Andrew Geddes (1783–1844) and of Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841). Geddes was the finer artist with the needle; he it was whom Rembrandt best inspired; his work was in the grand manner. Of the rich and rare dry-points “At Peckham Rye” and “At Halliford-on-Thames,” the deepest and most brilliant master of landscape would have no need to be ashamed. David Wilkie’s prints were, naturally, not less dramatic than his pictures, but the etcher’s particular gift was possessed by him more intermittently: it is shown best in “The Receipt,” a strong and vivid, dexterous sketch, quite full of character. J. S. Cotman’s (1782–1842) etchings are also historically interesting though they were “soft ground” for the most part. They show all his qualities of elegance and freedom as a draughtsman, and much of his large dignity in the distribution of light and shade. T. Girtin (1775–1802), in the preparations for his views of Paris, was notably happy. The work of Sir Francis Seymour Haden (b. 1818) had a powerful influence on the art in England. Between 1858 and 1879 Seymour Haden—the first president of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers—produced the vast majority of his plates, which have always good draughtsmanship, unity of effect and a personal impression. They show a strong feeling for nature. If, amongst some two hundred subjects, it were necessary to select one or two for peculiar praise, they might be the “Breaking up of the Agamemnon,” the almost perfect “Water Meadow,” the masterly presentment of “Erith Marshes,” and the later dry-point of “Windmill Hill.” Another great etcher—Frenchman by birth, but English by long residence—is Alphonse Legros (q.v.). Great in expression and suggestive draughtsmanship, austere and economical in line, Legros’s work is the grave record of the observation and the fancy of an imaginative mind. In poetic portraiture nothing can well exceed his etched vision of G. F. Watts; “La Mort du Vagabond” is noticeable for terror and homely pathos; “Communion dans l’Église St Médard” is perhaps the best instance of the dignity, vigour and grave sympathy with which he addresses himself to ecclesiastical themes. Something of these latter qualities, in dealing with similar themes, Legros passed on to his pupil, Sir Charles Holroyd (b. 1861)—an etcher in the true vein; whilst an earlier pupil, prolific as himself, as imaginative, and sometimes more deliberately uncouth—William Strang, A.R.A. (b. 1859)—carried on in his own way the tradition of that part of Legros’s practice, the preoccupation with the humble, for which Legros himself found certain warrant in a portion of the great œuvre of Rembrandt. Frank Short, A.R.A. (b. 1857), as with the very touch of Turner, carried to completion great designs that Turner left unfinished for the Liber studiorum. The delicacy of “Sleeping till the Flood,” the curiously suggestive realism of “Wrought Nails”—a scene in the Black Country—entitle him to a lasting place in the list of the fine wielders of the etching-needle. D. Y. Cameron (b. 1865) betrays the influence of Rembrandt in a noble etching, “Border Towers,” and the influence of Méryon in such a print as that of “The Palace, Stirling.” His “London Set” is particularly fine. The individuality of C. J. Watson is less marked, but his skill, chiefly in architectural work, is noticeable. Admirers of the studiously accurate portraiture of a great monument may be able to set Watson’s print of “St Étienne du Mont” by the side of Méryon’s august and mysterious and ever-memorable vision. Paul Helleu (b. 1859) in his brilliant sketches, particularly of women, has used the art of etching in a peculiarly individual and delightful way. Among the numerous other modern etchers only a bare mention can be made of Oliver Hall, Minna Bolingbroke and Elizabeth Armstrong (Mrs Watson and Mrs Stanhope Forbes), Alfred East, Robert Macbeth, Walter Sickert, Robert Goff, Mortimer Menpes, Percy Thomas, Raven Hill, and Prof. H. von Herkomer, in England; in France, Roussel, J. F. Raffaëlli (b. 1850), Besnard and J. J. J. Tissot (1836–1902).

The oldest treatise on etching is that of Abraham Bosse (1645). See also P. G. Hamerton, Etching and Etchers (1868), and Etchers’ Handbook (1881); F. Wedmore, Etching in England (1895); Singer and Strang, Etching, Engraving, &c. (1897).