What Are Etchings? (A Simple Definition of Etching, an Intaglio Printmaking Process)

What Are Etchings in Art?

Etchings are a type of art that dates back to the 15th century and is one of the oldest printmaking mediums.

An etching will usually be a small image printed on paper. They’re typically done in black and white with shades of gray, but they can also be done in color.

A reproduction (art print) of one of Rembrandt’s famous etchings, “Head of an old man, 1631”, can be seen on iCanvas.

Simply put, etchings were created by the following steps:

  1. First, the artist would need a metal plate. This could be made of copper, zinc, or even aluminum.
  2. Next, the artist would coat the plate in a wax material (also called ground), which acted as a resist (a material that would later protect the metal plate when it was exposed to acid).
  3. Once the wax was applied, the artist could use a variety of sharp tools to etch (scratch) their artwork on the wax surface.
  4. Once they were happy with their etched design, it was time to expose the plate to acid. This would ‘bite’ into the exposed areas of metal, creating an etching.
  5. The metal plate was then washed and ink was applied to the metal plate.
  6. The metal plate was then pressed onto paper with a printing press, resulting in a work of art that has been created through a truly unique process.

Etchings are a unique and popular type of art that can be used to create a wide variety of images, from detailed landscapes to simple geometric shapes.

History of Etchings

Etchings have a long and storied history in the world of art.

Dating back to the 15th century, in Europe during the Renaissance period, etchings were initially created as a means of reproducing artwork. Over time, however, artists began to experiment with the medium, using it to create unique and original works of art.

Today, etchings are still used by artists all over the world and are prized for their delicate lines and intricate details.

Etching: Printmaking Technique in Detail

Check out the video (below) on how etchings are made and what the final print looks like (or keep scrolling to read about the etching technique below).

How to make an etching | National Museums Liverpool

As you can see in the video, the artist first needs a metal plate (also called an etching 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 usually dipped in a mordant bath (which is a corrosive chemical solution made from copper sulfate) or sometimes in a strong acid bath. The mordant will eat and create depressions (engraved areas) into the metal only where it’s exposed. (These depressions will be able to retain ink later on.)

Once the artist removes the metal plate from the mordant bath, 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.

What Are the Different Types of Etchings?

There are many variants of etchings, but here are the most popular terms you’ll see today:


Intaglio is just a word used to describe any design carved or engraved into a material.

Traditional etching, as described in detail in this post, is an intaglio printmaking technique.

Photopolymer Etching

Photopolymer etching uses the same etching printing process described above, but instead of having an artist directly draw onto the metal plate, an image (a drawing or a photograph) 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, inked, and then printed on an etching press.

Examples of photopolymer etchings can be seen on Saatchi Art.

Drypoint Etching

Drypoint is similar to the traditional etching method first described in this post. However, an image is incised (marked with a series of cuts) into a copper or zinc plate with a sharp tool, instead of scratching away at a wax ground.

Scratching the plate with sharp tool results in burrs. A burr is a raised edge on a metal plate that is caused by the scratching/engraving process. Once the artist is happy with the design, there’s no need to expose the plate to acid since the burrs themselves will retain the ink.

Drypoint offers a unique textural quality that can add depth and interest to an image.

Examples of drypoint etchings can be seen on Saatchi Art.

Wet & Dry Etching

There are two main types of etching: wet and dry. The main difference between wet and dry etching is the way in which the material is removed.

With wet etching, the material is dissolved by the chemicals used. This means that there is a greater degree of control over the process, as the chemicals can be precisely controlled.

Are Etchings More Valuable Than Prints?

Etching is a type of print.

However, if a print is handmade by an artist, it is usually called an original print (also called fine art print).

No two etchings, even when printed with the same metal plate and image, are going to be 100% exactly alike. This is what makes etchings original works of art. 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 a mordant bath again or adding more ink to certain parts of the metal plate.

However, when people say “print”, what they’re usually thinking about is a “reproduction” (or a copy of an original work of art).

Reproductions (e.g. art prints and canvas prints) are typically mass-produced and lack the individuality of an etching. On the other hand, each etching is handcrafted and has slight variations that make it one-of-a-kind. This uniqueness means that etchings often sell for a higher price than reproductions.

While both etchings and reproductions have their own merits, etchings are often seen as more valuable due to their unique nature.

Etchings also have a longer lifespan than reproductions. With proper care, an etching can last for centuries without losing its quality. Reproductions, on the other hand, will typically fade and lose their detail over time.

For these reasons, many art collectors see etchings as a better investment than reproductions.

Conclusion: Are Etchings a Good Choice for You?

Are you torn about whether or not you should buy an etching?

If you’re looking for a type of print that has a lot of intricate detail, then etchings might be a good choice for you.

Plus, you’ll also have a one-of-a-kind piece of art, so it will most likely increase in value over time.

Etchings also tend to be more affordable than other types of original art, such as paintings and sculptures. So, they’re a good option if you’re on a budget.

On the downside, etchings are usually quite small, so they may not be suitable if you’re looking for something to fill a large space on your wall. (Typically, etchings are in the ballpark of 8 inches by 11 inches.)

Another downside is that etchings are not as widely available as other types of art, so it may be difficult to find one that fits your taste.

Ultimately, whether or not an etching is for you is a matter of personal preference.

Etchings are a good choice for those who want a unique look for their home. While they may be more expensive than mass-produced reproductions, the quality and artistry of etchings make them worth the investment.