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Rembrandt and the Technique of Etching

The chemical technique of etching was developed in the Middle Ages by Arabic armouries as a means of applying decoration to weapons. It flourished in the fifteenth century in south Germany, where the first etched prints on paper were printed towards the end of the century.

During the first decades of the seventeenth century Dutch artists experimented with the technique. They were looking for greater tonality and an atmospheric effect in their landscape prints and tried to achieve this by breaking up the long contour lines into short strokes and dots.
Rembrandt must have taken more than a little interest in these developments. In his hands, etching became a fully fledged medium which occupied him at intervals for the rest of his life. This resulted in an oeuvre of some 290 etchings, all intended as substantive works of art. Rembrandt’s masterly use of the drypoint and the unique deep black of many of his etchings were famous even in his own day and his work was much sought after by the many print collectors of the time.

What follows here is a description of the technique of etching. Prints are impressions, usually on paper, of designs fixed by the artist on some kind of medium, by drawing, painting or cutting. The medium may be a wooden block, a plate of metal, or a silk screen. Here the medium is a thin copper plate. This is covered with an acid-resistant mixture known as the etching ground, composed of asphalt, resin and wax. Into this thin covering the design is drawn with an etching needle, so that where the needle penetrates the etching ground the copper is exposed.
We know that Rembrandt used a fairly soft, pasty etching ground of his own devising. This allowed him to draw the design in a free, loose manner. Rembrandt almost always drew his design straight onto the plate. True, he often drew preliminary studies on paper, but these were used only as a guideline.

The plate is then laid in a bath of dilute acid. producing in the surface of the metal. The longer the plate is left in the bath, the deeper these grooves become. If particular lines have to be deeper than others, the plate is removed from the bath, the lines that have been bitten deeply enough are covered with acid-resistant stop-out varnish, and the plate is replaced in the bath.

Rembrandt used a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid. This worked slowly and did not make thin lines coarser.

Now the etching ground is removed and the clean plate inked with an ink-pad or roller. The next step is to lay a damp sheet of paper on the plate. Then plate and paper are passed through the rollers of the press. The paper absorbs the ink from the grooves, producing a reversed impression of the design on the plate. The lines that have been bitten the deepest, which therefore contain the most ink, come out darkest in the print.

This process is etching proper. Gradations in the lines can be achieved only by etching the plate more than once. However, there are also other ways of producing variation in the density of lines.

Almost all Rembrandt’s etchings exist in more than one state, sometimes as many as ten or more. Often the changes are slight, amounting to little more than minor additions or corrections. Sometimes they are so drastic that the result is virtually a new composition.

Only a limited number of impressions can be ’pulled’ from an etching plate. The maximum is probably around a hundred; only about fifteen in the case of a drypoint plate. By the same token, prints of the same state may vary considerably as the plate and the burr become worn.

Comparatively few of Rembrandt’s plates have survived. A batch of 78 plates owned in the eighteenth century by the French printer and engraver J .P. Basan carne into the possession of the American collector Robert Lee Humber in 1938. After his death this collection was sold in the London art market (spring of 1993).

It is also possible to introduce deliberate variation by inking the plate differently. The artist can leave more or less ink in the impression..
Different types of paper (e. g. European, Japanese and ’Chinese’) and vellum (made from animal skins) vary in colour and surface structure. This can be exploited to good effect. The same plate printed on different papers could produce totally different impressions.

From about 1650 Rembrandt sought increasingly to introduce variation into his prints by using different sorts of paper. Japanese paper, its fine, smooth surface Japanese parer does full justice to the drypoint work. Many of Rembrandt’s prints were done on Japanese paper.

Ed de Heer, "Technique of Etching" in Nel Segno d Rembrandt, edited by Giuseppe Bergamini and Bert W. Meijer, Venice, 1999, pp. 46-51

Abraham Bosse. Printers Etching. 1642

Technique of etching is not forgotten still and is used by rather large number of artists. Ukrainian school of etching in our site is represented by Oksana Stratiychuk, who teaches a brief-master class of the ancient technique of etching.

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