What Is an Etching in Art?

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What Is an Etching in Art?

Etching is a word used to describe engraving a material (usually metal, glass, or stone).

But more specifically, in the art world, etching is usually a word used to describe the printmaking process that I’ll be explaining below.

Check out the video on how etchings are made and what the final print looks like.

How to make an etching

As you can see in the video, you first need a metal plate which is usually made with iron, copper, or zinc.

To prepare the metal plate for etching, it is first polished to remove all imperfections from the surface. Then, it’s covered with a layer of acid-resistant wax or varnish, which is called the ground.

Scratching the ground exposes the metal beneath. So, using an etching needle (Amazon), the artist gently scratches away parts of the ground to create the artwork.

The metal plate is then dipped in acid. The acid will eat and create depressions (engraved areas) into the metal only where it’s exposed. These depressions will be able to retain ink.

Once the artist removes the metal plate from the acid, it’s rinsed with water, dried, and inked.

Inking the metal plate means that ink is dabbed into the metal plate and the excess ink is removed from the surface of the metal plate with a cloth. At this point, the depressions in the metal plate are still holding ink.

With the ink side up, the metal plate is now placed on the bed of a rolling printing press. It’s then covered with a sheet of damp paper and a set of printing blankets (used to soften the pressure on the metal plate).

The plate is then moved through the press, the damp paper is pressed into the depressions of the metal plate, and the etching’s artwork appears (in reverse) on the paper.

While shopping for an etching, you might also come across another word: intaglio and photopolymer etching.

Intaglio is just a word used to describe any design carved or engraved into a material. Etching is an intaglio printmaking process.

Photopolymer etching uses the same etching printing process described above, but instead of having an artist directly draw onto the metal plate, an image is transferred to a light-sensitive plate and exposed to light. After the image is transferred to the plate, the plate is rinsed in water, dried, and then inked and printed on an etching press.

Is an Etching Original Art?

If a print is handmade by an artist (or artisan), they are usually called original prints or manual prints.

No two etchings are going to be 100% exactly alike, which is what makes them original.

This is especially true when the artist likes to make changes to the metal plate to create a unique image (like emphasizing certain lines by adding the metal plate in acid again or adding more ink to certain parts of the metal plate).

What Is the Difference Between an Etching and a Drawing?

A drawing is an image drawn directly onto paper (or whatever surface the artist wants to use) using something like a pen, a pencil, chalk, or crayon.

In etching, the process of creating an image is much more complex.

While you are directly drawing onto a metal plate, you’re removing the wax ground from the plate and then exposing that plate to acid. So, in the end, the image is engraved into the metal plate.

The process of etching is almost like creating a metal stamp, but in reverse, because the ink is going to be dabbed into the depressions of the metal and the surface will be cleaned off.

Another important difference between etchings and drawings is that the final product of the etching printing process will be a mirrored image of the original artwork.

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Are Etchings Valuable?

An etching is usually much more affordable than original art created by a well-known artist, but still has an air of exclusivity as the artwork is not mass-produced.

Some factors that have the potential to increase the value of an etching are:

  • Has a limited quantity (limited edition)
  • Is numbered (another sign that it’s from a limited edition)
  • Is signed by the artist
  • Was hand-printed by the creator of the original artwork

So now that you know what etchings are, go ahead and buy art (my two favorite spots for finding affordable etchings are Etsy and Saatchi Art), support independent artists, and HAVE FUN shopping!