1. What Is Etching in Art? – A Guide to
Learning Etching Techniques
Etching art is something that goes back as far as the
15th century and appears to be one of the oldest
mediums used for printing. As a printing technique, it
can be effective on its own or can be combined with
other techniques, making possibilities endless. In this
article, we will be showing you how to start etching
and what tools and materials you will need to create
your very own first print.
What Is Etching in Art?
2. Etching is normally of a small image that is printed on
paper and is usually done in black and white with various
shades of gray. However, you can also do etchings in
color. You have two approaches to this type of art, which
include etching and engraving.
At first glance, both methods seem to be identical, but
there is a vast difference between these two forms of art
with the tools and techniques being completely different.
Although the processes used in producing these two
forms of art are different, they are both used for printing
purposes and the printing process for both is identical.
Many artists use both forms together and create one
individual piece of artwork, which produces a larger
range of visual effects. On many occasions, the engraving
method is used in completing a certain design, by adding
3. more detail to the etching design, creating a better image.
Let us now consider further, what etching painting is.
Let us first consider engraving, which is an art form that
is centuries old and dates back to the Renaissance
period. Print engraving is used to reproduce artworks,
where a design or image is engraved into a soft metal
plate, usually copper, using a special tool known as a
“burin”. The burin is a steel rod that has a diagonally
sharpened point on one end, which is used to cut into the
copper plate. The lines cut into the metal can vary in
depth and width, which is used to create different shades
The deep lines will be able to hold more ink, while the
shallow lines hold less ink, which produces darker and
lighter tones when printed.
Different engraving techniques are used to create
amazing works of art, some pieces have been done by
famous artists such as Michel Angelo and Leonardo da
Vinci. The art of engraving requires a significant amount
of strength from the artist, as well as a specific degree of
metalworking skill. For this reason, many artists have
turned to the art of etching, which is a lot less demanding
on physical strength and does not require much
experience or specific skills. Let us now concentrate on
etching painting and see how that art form has
What is etching in art? Etching is a printing technique
known also as intaglio, where an artist takes a metal
plate, usually copper, zinc, or iron, and coats it with an
acid-resistant substance, referred to as etching ground.
This etching ground is usually beeswax, bitumen, or
resin. The wax is there to protect the surface of the
copper plate. The artist then takes a sharp tool, referred
to as an etching needle, and scratches or draws their
design through the wax resin.
The scratched or drawn lines in the wax expose the metal
underneath, which will be the design that is later to be
printed out. The plate is then taken and dipped into a
nitric acid solution which eats away the unprotected
areas of the plate, leaving behind the beautiful design or
image created by the artist using the etching process.
The plate is then rinsed off with turpentine, removing the
wax-protected coating completely, and leaving behind the
artist’s etched lines of their design or image. Now the
5. artist rubs the ink or paints over the plate and the etched
lines will hold the paint or ink that was applied. The plate
is then passed through the printing press, where the
design or image is transferred onto damp paper.
The etching process can be used in various other
printing techniques, or it can also be applied to glass or
some other hard surface material instead of paper. The
artist can also repeatedly mask off certain of their
etched lines altering the design or image, re-apply the
acid process, and creating a whole new image or
History of Etching in Art
A Swiss artist, Urs Graf, created the very first dated art
etching in 1513 that was printed from an iron plate. The
German artist Albrecht Durer was responsible for
creating five art etchings in 1518, where he tried to
imitate the quality of engravings by using etchings with
impulsiveness and flowing lines that were not yet
appreciated in northern Europe. At the beginning of the
16th century Daniel Hopfer, the German master created
the etching stroke technique, which was gladly welcomed
6. Saint Jerome in his Study (1514) by Albrecht
Dürer; Albrecht Dürer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
This technique greatly speeded up the plate processing,
making the hand movements, and subtlety of all the
7. strokes much clearer and reproduction more accurate.
They were able to print over 500 sheets without losing
the quality of the image, which contributed to making the
etching process very popular for five centuries. The
Italian artist Parmigianino, in the 16th century, mastered
the art and technique of etching with his graceful strokes
making the etching technique look easy.
The French printmaker, Jacques Callot, made use of the
etching process and technique with his series Miseries
of War (1633), using the special engraving burin tool,
and exposing the plate to acid.
Famous Artists and Their Etchings
Let us go back in history and observe the masters at
work, so we can gain the real impact etching has had on
the art world. These famous artists have paved the way to
allow new art styles to emerge in the present art world.
The art of etching has also had an impact on the printing
industry, creating new ideas for many budding artists. Let
us now consider a few of these famous artists and their
8. Christ Healing the Sick (1649) by Rembrandt
Artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669)
Title Christ Healing the Sick
Date Completed 1649
Medium Etching drypoint on paper, and engraving
Dimensions (cm) 82.55 x 71.12
Location Prints found in various museums throughout the world
Rembrandt van Rijn was an etcher, a draftsman as well as
a painter, and taught himself the etching process. As
such, he became the greatest etcher the world has ever
known. He was responsible for creating expressive and
exquisite images that are still used as models for printing
graphics in the 21st century. His work, by using dramatic
9. interlays, allows light and shadow to convey amazing
expressions and features. He produced 300 etchings in
Christ Healing the Sick (1649) by Rembrandt van
Rijn; Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most famous of his etchings is Christ Healing
the Sick (1649), where he made use of the drypoint
technique that produced velvety soft strokes. In this way,
he was able to achieve all the deep blacks and the
blinding light of the white paper. Christ as the center of
the etching, contrasts strongly with light and shadow.
With these two extremes, he shows the variations of the
shades of gray which add depth to the scene.
Television: Course de Chars a L’Antique II (1968) by Picasso
10. Artist Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
Title Television: Course de Chars a L’Antique II
Date completed 1968
Medium Etching drypoint, aquatint on paper, and engraving
Dimensions (cm) 31.4 x 41.7
Location Park West Gallery, Southfield, Michigan, United States
In the early 1960s, Pablo Picasso was involved in a
historic battle that raged against theoretical
and conceptual art, where the conceptualists stated that
anyone can be an artist, and anything can be regarded as
art. Picasso’s response was not with words but through
creativity, pointing the way back to the account of art
history and aesthetic beauty. In his 90s, Picasso created a
selection of etchings called the 347 series, where he
completed 347 etchings, in seven months from March to
October 1968. He hand-signed them all himself.
The etching by Picasso Television: Course de Chars a
L’Antique II (1968), depicts a chariot race that was one of
the very popular ancient Roman and Greek sports. He
loved to combine periods in history, icons, and cultures
with his creations, and he was able to have one theme
running throughout his etchings, which were that of a
participant instead of an observer.
Picasso was able to master the etching techniques in his
creations like engraving, drypoint, and aquatint, which
showed forcefully in his artworks. His etchings showed
the beauty and technical brilliance, which made his
work highly sought after by galleries as well as art
11. Artists during the 19th
centuries continued to
make use of the etching process, and the technique
seemed to gain popularity among some of the prominent
artists like Pablo Picasso, who used it for his Cubist ideas
and continued to exploit it during his classical period.
Other artists, in this era, also made use of the etching
process for their work like David Hockey, Georges
Rouault, Marc Chagall, Stanley Hayter, and Henri
Etching printmaking is a technique that has been used
since the 14th century to decorate metal but was not used
as a printing technique until the early 16th century. Ever
since then, etching techniques have developed and artists
have used them to produce amazing images and designs
that were not possible before. Let us now consider some
of these etching techniques in more detail.
12. Soft Ground Etching Technique
Hard ground etching has been the most popular etching
technique over the years, but soft ground etching is a
technique that became a trend in the late 18th and early
19th centuries. This technique requires the artist to take a
piece of tracing paper, which is then placed carefully over
the grounded metal plate. The artist can then draw the
design or image on tracing paper, which will remove the
ground on the surface of the plate.
Since the lines drawn on the ground of the plate are a
lot softer than the hard ground technique, the quality
of the lines becomes more pencil-like.
This will also result in the surface of the plate staying
tacky, allowing the artist to press paper or even leaves
onto the ground and thus create the image or design on
the leaf. The artist Nelson Dawson, in the 20th century,
13. made use of this etching technique regularly, as he loved
creating lively etchings that had a soft touch. Other
artists that made use of this etching technique are Joel
Ostlind, Cassatt, Pissarro, and Degas.
Hard Ground Etching Technique
This is the more popular and direct technique of etching
where a copper plate, that is coated with the ground, is
used to scratch a design or image using a sharp tool. The
plate is then covered in acid, which eats away the ground,
leaving the pattern or image behind. These patterns hold
the ink when the ink or paint is applied. The ink is then
wiped off the plate and the plate is applied to some damp
paper, transferring the image to the paper, which is then
passed through the printing press.
14. The Doorway (1880) by James McNeil Whistler; James
McNeill Whistler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
15. Famous artists that have used this etching technique with
great success are, James Mcbey (1883- 1959), Anders Zorn
(1860-1920), McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Frank Short
(1857-1945), and Ernest Lumsden (1883-1948). Although
this technique has been used for over 500 years, artists
are still finding new ways of using this etching technique
Mezzotint Etching Technique
The mezzotint etching technique is done using a copper
plate that has been grounded, and then instead of
scratching on the plate surface, a mezzotint rocker is used
to remove the ground. A mezzotint rocker is a semi-
circular tool that has fine sharp teeth and is rocked over
the whole plate surface.
This process is repeated but perpendicular to the
original rocking process, then it is again repeated in
various other directions until the desired image or
design is achieved. This technique produces a very
noticeable and soft characteristic that you are not able
to achieve using any of the other etching techniques.
The mezzotint technique was developed in Amsterdam in
century and was first seen in a portrait of Amelia
Elizabeth in 1642, and in the 1680’s it became the
preferred medium used by artists for reproducing
portraits. Artists making use of this technique are
Valentine Green entitled An Experiment on a Bird in an Air
pump (1739-1813), and George Stubbs entitled Sleeping
16. Drypoint Etching Technique
This etching technique is the most direct and simple of all
forms of printing. The artist scratches onto the surface of
the plate with an etching needle called a “whistler”,
which produces a velvety soft line that can hold the ink.
Then the plate is inked and cleaned off, and ready for the
printing press. This printing requires a lot of strength so
it cannot be done by hand.
Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves (1653) by
Rembrandt van Rijn; Rembrandt, CC0, via Wikimedia
17. Many artists make use of the hard ground technique and
incorporate into their designs the drypoint technique for
a more delicate finish. An excellent example of this
technique is Christ Crucified Between the Two
Thieves (1653) by Rembrandt van Rijn. Other artists using
this technique are James McNeill Whistler, Picasso,
Albrecht Dürer, Max Beckman, David Brown Milne, and
Pedro Joseph de Lemos, who made the technique easier to
use in art schools.
Aquatint Etching Technique
This is the most difficult of all the etching techniques, as
it can produce tonal values with ink and watercolors,
creating a wash effect. In the traditional method, the
artist used powdered pine resin that was put into a box,
and a bellows was used to blow the resin around inside
the box. Then before the resin has a chance to settle, the
plate is placed inside the box where the resin is allowed
settle onto the plate.
Next, the bottom side of the plate is heated, causing the
resin to melt which will offer a certain amount of
resistance to the acid when applied. This will result in a
high-resolution halftone print being produced.
During the 17th century, many attempts were made to
perform this technique but without success. However, in
1768, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, the French printmaker,
used powdered resin that produced the desired results.
This etching technique became very popular during the
18th century, particularly with illustrators, but the
18. artist Francisco Goya used this process, and he was
considered to be the master of the technique.
Etching Art Tutorial
As we have learned, etching is known as an intaglio
printmaking process, where lines are scored into a
copper, zinc, or iron plate that is covered with a ground
of wax, leaving the lines on the plate. These lines are then
able to hold the ink when the ground is removed,
enabling the image to be printed out. Let us now take you
through the process step-by-step so that you can follow
the process to ensure a perfect etching image or design.
Preparing for the Etching Process
To start, the plate is first cleaned and polished removing
any scratches or imperfections on the plate surface. When
the plate is completely smooth and clean, it is covered
with an even layer of acid-resistant wax or varnish,
which is referred to as the ground.
Creating the Design Over the Ground
Take your etching needle or a blunt stylus and very gently
scratch your image or design over the ground. This will
expose the metal underneath. When you are satisfied
with the image, acid is used to pour over the plate, or the
plate is dipped into the acid.
19. Placing the Plate in Acid
The acid will eat into the metal, only in the areas where
the metal has been exposed, these recesses will be able to
hold the ink. The longer you hold the plate in the acid, the
broader and deeper the recesses. This means the lines
created will hold more ink, and they will be darker and
thicker when printed onto the paper.
At times, you may want to use paint instead of ink and
this process allows you to create “a nuanced tonal
This means you create a color scheme consisting of one
main color with different shades of the same color in that
group. To accomplish this, you need to expose the acid to
the plate more than once to create darker shades. Lighter
shades are achieved by protecting the lines from further
acid bites by covering the lines with the ground.
Inking the Etching Plate
When you are satisfied with the image or design, you can
then remove the ground using a solvent, and the plate is
now ready to be inked. With the intaglio process, the ink
applied is preserved in the scored lines. To apply the ink,
you can use a cardboard tab or a cotton wool ball, making
sure the ink is spread over the entire surface of the plate.
Using the same material you used for inking, you remove
the excess ink. Make sure the plate is properly cleaned by
using a tarlatan cloth, which is a very heavily starched
20. Printing the Image
Some artists prefer to leave a thin layer of ink on the
surface of the plate to create a different tone. Many of the
early intaglio printmakers took a piece of paper and
pressed it down onto the surface of the plate using their
hands. However, to get the finely cut lines of your image
printed properly, you need to apply a force that requires a
printing press with rollers.
To ensure the metal plate is protected from the pressure
applied by the press, the plate is covered using a
dampened sheet of paper and then a printing blanket is
placed over that, which is usually made from felt before
the plate is passed through the press. The pressure
applied by the press forces the ink onto the damp support
paper, and the image is printed onto the support paper.
21. Remember, the etching image or design will appear in
The etching process has its place in the art world, but it
takes a lot of time to create an etching art piece.
However, it is something special that can be admired.
Etching techniques are not only something that was
done in the past but it is still used by many prominent
Take a look at our etching art webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Etching in Art?
Etching printmaking, known as an intaglio technique, is
an etching printmaking process that requires lines to be
scratched into a metal plate surface, like copper, iron, or
zinc, that is covered with the ground, which can hold the
ink. Next, the plate is put into acid that eats away the
uncovered metal. The plate is then cleaned, leaving your
image or design behind.
Are Engraving and Etching the Same Thing?
22. Etching is regarded as a traditional method of making
several prints from a single effort using a chemical
process. Engraving is more of a physical process, but both
are used for printing purposes.
Why do Artists Use the Etching Process?
Artists use the etching process as it takes less physical
effort than engraving. You create the design by using
ground or wax instead of cutting into the metal. Etching
is best for smaller projects and thinner materials, and you
do not require much knowledge of metalworking.