Etching is the process of using strong acid to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio in the metal. As an intaglio method of printmaking it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains widely used today. In pure etching, a copper, zinc or steel plate is covered with an acid resistant wax. The artist then scratches an image in the wax with a pointed etching needle, exposing the bare metal. The plate is then dipped in a bath of acid, technically called the ‘mordant’, and the acid bites into the metal where it is exposed, leaving behind lines sunk into the plate. The depth of this ‘etch’ is controlled by the amount of time the acid is allowed to ‘bite’ the metal. After removing the remaining wax, the plate is inked all over, and then the ink wiped off the surface, leaving ink in the etched lines. The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press (similar to an old washing mangle) together with a sheet of dampened paper. The paper picks up the ink from the etched lines, revealing a faithful mirror image of the etched drawing. This inking procedure is then repeated for each print.
The printing process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions could be printed before the plate shows much sign of wear, but a limited number of prints are usually made. The artist signs each print with the title, a signature and a fraction showing its position in the edition. For example 25/100 is the twenty fifth print out of an edition of one hundred. The artist is also allowed to make an extra 10% for personal use. Therefore, in an edition of one hundred, one hundred and ten prints are made. The extra ten are marked A/P (artists proof) instead of the fraction. They are valued above numbered prints by collectors because of their association with the artist. Finally, the plate is cancelled by scratching a line through the image. A print made from a scratched plate is called a ‘cancellation print’. It ensures that further prints cannot be made and the numbered impression can be trusted.
‘Original’ prints are images made by the artist from beginning to end directly in or on the plate, stone, wood block & other matrix. Each print is a work of art, one of a limited edition and signed by the artist. The photo mechanical reproduction of paintings and drawings are often described as ‘Fine Art Prints’ but this term is misleading as they are not works of art, even if they have an artist’s signature.