What is an Etching?

An etching is done by an artist who loves the idea of taking a perfectly innocent piece of copper and gouging an image into it that won’t get out of their head in any other way. Etchings are created by taking a piece of copper plate and either scratching a drawing directly into it with an etching needle or covering it with a black, tarry substance (an acid resist) and drawing onto it. The plate is then put into a bath of mordant acid that eats away at the metal made vulnerable by all this scratching.

Once you have a plate bitten by acid, the drawing on it creates grooves that will hold ink. The etched plate is gently heated and ink scraped into the grooves and the excess wiped away with stiffened cheesecloth. All this creates a lovely mess revealing the drawing on your plate.

The inked plate is placed on the flat steel bed of a printing press and covered with paper made of cloth that has been soaked and blotted. Special blankets are pulled down between the plate and the paper now covering it to protect the smooth roller on the press. The roller is tamped down with large screws and the press bed pulled through beneath it by turning a large wheel on the side of the machine.

When you pull the blankets back and peel the paper up you get to see your drawing for the first time. This is called “proofing”. By proofing a plate you can see what processes you’ll want to do next to bring the image into being. There are many, many techniques to do this but you’ll always need to proof the image to see what’s actually happening on the plate. This makes printmaking one of the most intuitive and labor-intensive things an artist can do. In our society the word “print” is often used to describe an image that can be gotten by pressing a button or two. A real fine-art printmaker is a workman. Coaxing an image into metal is a process involving real effort and the copper plate may need to be proofed, worked on and proofed again dozens of times.

I love etching plates because it somehow matches how my brain works. I’ve always been able to write and draw in reverse, which comes in very handy in printmaking given the fact that the image you draw prints out that way. Since you don’t really get to “see” what you’ve done until you proof it you have to work very intuitively. It’s like working blind; which means you need to see on a completely different level—one requiring technical foresight. The act of etching can be an act of vision and faith and the resulting proof may reveal success, disaster or a very strange mixture of both. However it unfolds the seed of your vision demands that you push through metal until the image appears. These are the moments I live for.