"Along the Lines" by Guillaume Azoulay, hand signed, gold leaf etching with hand watercolour on paper, #41/50, 2005, 13.7cm x 17.1cm - Source: Assini-Thomson Collection
Few printing methods have as much 'old school' appeal as the etching. This type of intaglio printing, along with engraving, was the most popular way of producing commercial art prints between the 16th and mid-19th centuries.
These days, etchings are more likely to be original works of art in their own right rather than reproductions of artworks that already exist in another medium. But how can you tell you really do have an etching on your hands?
First of all...etchings are intaglio prints :)
Etchings are one of the more difficult print types to consistently identify, particularly given that etching is just one of the many intaglio printing processes - others including aquatint, mezzotint and engraving.
Where woodcuts and linocuts are relief prints, which involve cuts being made into the surface of the plate, and the ink applied to the raised areas that are left behind, as intaglio prints, etchings work on the opposite principles.
With etchings, indents or grooves are made into the plate and it is these indents that hold the ink, with the raised surfaces being wiped clean at the inking stage.
Consequently, when the plate is printed, it is the ink in the grooves that transfers onto the paper.
So ... what distinguishes an etching from an engraving?
Etchings and engravings may both be intaglio prints, but the means by which the grooves are created distinguishes them.
We Are Living In A Material World
Engravings tend to be created with copper plates, where a burin - a V-shaped cutting tool - is used to remove metal slivers from the surface. When producing an etching, copper is the traditional metal of choice however, zinc and steel can also be used.
Mark My Words
The marks on an etching are made by first applying a waxy, acid-resistant ground across the plate. Once applied, a pointed etching needle or similar tool is used to scratch off the ground - exposing the bare metal - in the areas of the plate where you want a line to show in the final print.
The plate is then placed in an acid bath for a period of time so the acid 'bites' into the exposed parts of the plate, creating the image in readiness for printing.
What implications does all of this have for identification?
You’re So Shady
The lines you see on an etching are inclined to be less precise than those on an engraving.
Areas of grey on the final print are another indicator of an etching rather than an engraving, which tend to have lots of smaller lines to represent shade.
As the plates used have a thickness, etchings can also be distinguished by plate mark impressions left on the paper (similar to a dent). This can be seen and felt. Also, the darkest lines are the most raised, again due to the pressure of the plate on the paper.
Private Eyes, They’re Watching You
Another identification technique is taking a magnifying glass and looking closely at the image. If it is a true etching, you’ll notice the lack of dots in the picture unlike in photos, or images that come from a printing press – think photos in a newspaper.
I Saw The Sign
In addition, etchings are generally hand-signed in pencil by the artist. Prints or fakes usually have signature copies.
Lastly, look out for a ‘blindstamp’ – a raised seal usually placed in the lower left corner of the piece. Throwing a spanner in the works: whilst this is a helpful attribute to look out for, don’t depend solely on the blindstamp as many fakes also have them.
To Sum Up
- Etchings are intaglio prints.
- The indents or grooves on a plate hold the ink.
- An etching plate is usually made of copper, zinc or steel. Copper is the traditional metal of choice with zinc a suitable alternative for beginners. Having said that, steel is gaining in popularity due to the rising prices of copper and zinc.
- Lines on an etching tend to be less precise than on an engraving.
- You will see a plate impression.
- An etching image will not have any dots.
- Etchings are hand-signed by the artist, usually in pencil.
Identifying etchings can be something of a minefield even for many experts, so don't worry if you struggle to do so consistently. This is something you’ll get better at as you become a more experienced art collector.
Lastly, if this method sparks your interest and you want to give it a whirl, go on and etch that itch. Practice makes perfect! ;)