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Etching - The Art of Engraving

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Etching is the art of engraving by eating into the metal plate on which the design is incised with a mordant. The so-called 'Dutch bath' (hydrochloric acid and potassium chlorate), dilute nitric acid or a solution of perchloride of iron is the mordant commonly used.

In 'hard-ground' etching, a thin layer composed of gums, waxes and resins is spread over the metal plate to form the 'etching-ground'. One method of applying the ground is as follows. The gums, etc, are squeezed into a ball covered with silk. If the heated copper is brought into contact with the ball, the composition oozes through the silk, and as it melts may be spread over the plate with a silk pad or dabber. Usually the etcher holds the ground over a flame so as to blacken it with smoke. The object of this is to show up the lines he opens. If he wants to transfer a design, all he need do is to cover a thin sheet of paper with chalk and then trace over the design on the paper, when it is laid upon the copper plate. When the drawing is traced through the ground with an etching needle, the plate is immersed in the acid bath, and the mordant 'bites' into the lines. After the most delicate strokes are sufficiently etched, the plate is taken out and these strokes are filled up with a stopping-out varnish, like Brunswick black.

This process of immersion in the bath and stopping-out the lighter gradations is continued until the acid has bitten in sufficiently to make the blackest lines. The etcher can also follow a different procedure. At first he uses his needle to open only the darkest lines and then dips his plate into the mordant so as to get these partly bitten. He next draws in the parts which are to be a shade lighter, and allows the acid to corrode these. This process is persisted in till he comes to the lightest parts. It will be seen that the corrosion is in proportion to the depth of tone required. If a 'soft-ground' etching is required (that is, one imitating the texture of a crayon drawing), tallow is mixed with the etching ground and the design is firmly traced through a sheet of paper, when the grain of the latter and the kind of pencil used will leave their mark. Otherwise the process is the same as for 'hard-ground' etching.

Often combined with this method was the crayon manner. For this process the artist perforates his etching-ground with special needles like the mace-head or roulette, his aim being to suggest the rough texture of crayon strokes. If, after biting, the tone is increased by additional work with a technique known as stipple engraving. Both stipple engravings and prints in the crayon manner are frequently printed in red.

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