Engraving and etching

‘Engraving’ is the process for making an ‘engraving’. You can engrave by cutting directly with a sharp tool (‘graver’ or ‘burin’) into a metal or stone plate, by scratching the metal with a ‘dry point’ needle or by alternatively pitting the metal and sanding it to render certain parts smooth again. As an alternative, you can practice different techniques using an acid bath, called ‘etching’, ‘eau-forte’ or ‘aquatint’. Working in his Burgundy Studio, François Dupuis uses all these techniques, sometimes even on the same plate!

The idea of engraving and etching is to create little lines and holes in the metal surface, covering the metal with ink and then removing the ink again from the surface, leaving it in the deeper grooves. Next, the plate is carefully positioned on a sheet of paper, and pressed in a special printing press. The ink from the lines and dots is absorbed in the paper to create the image.

This process can be repeated several times, but not indefinitely. Especial engravings with softer metal, like copper, will lose some sharpness after several pressings. This is especially true with dry-point engravings, where the metal is not removed, but thrown aside like earth from a furrow. This little ridge loses its sharpness and depth relatively quickly.

The fact that the copper will be ‘used up’ is one of the reasons all printed works are numbered. François Dupuis usually makes series of 30 prints maximum, signed and numbered from 1/30 to 30/30.

The ‘Little Mess’ above was made with an engraving technique called ‘etching’. The copper is covered with a protective coating, which is then scratched away by the artist to expose the copper. The copper plate is submerged in an acid bath, and the exposed parts are ‘eaten away’ by the acid. This is how the necessary depressions are created that will hold the ink. Sometimes the process of coating and uncovering the plate  needs to be repeated several times to create deeper and lighter nuances in the image.

A self portrait engraving made in the 17th century by a certain Rembrandt van Rijn. The plate is almost 400 years old, but the print is quite recent!

Check out the excellent video of the Philadelphia Museum of Art about the etching and dry point techniques of Rembrandt…