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Intaglio Printing

Intaglio is the Italian word for incising or engraving. Intaglio printing uses a flat printing plate, usually a sheet of copper, on which an image is made as grooves drawn by one means or another. In the printing shop the plate is inked all over, the ink being forced into the grooves. The ink is then wiped off the surface of the plate, leaving ink in the grooves. Paper is pressed onto the inked plate where it picks up the ink, the image. The printing press must press harder than for relief printing, one reason why there is a clear plate mark because the paper is squeezed over the edge of the plate; and the paper has to be dampened to be soft enough to reach into the grooves and pick up the ink. In the process of inking and wiping the printing plate becomes worn; the image become faint and detail may be lost.
The image drawn on the plate has to be in reverse (true of relief printing as well). Note that a landscape mirror, popular with tourists and artists in the late 18th century, provides an image in reverse for you to be able to copy onto your sketch pad.


Etching is one process for drawing the image on the plate. The copper plate is warmed and a wax rubbed all over its surface, a coating called a ground which resists acid. The back of the plate is varnished to protect it. Etching ground can be purchased, or an artist might make his own. A typical recipe has asphaltum, Burgundy pitch and white wax, which are melted together and prepared as balls of ground wrapped in stout silk cloth. The ground is applied by rubbing the ball on the hot plate, the ground melting and oozing onto the plate.
The artist or engraver scribes his drawing in the ground, exposing the copper plate. The plate is then dipped in acid which bites the image into the copper. The bite can be controlled; a longer bite going deeper, holding more ink, making a darker image on the paper. Part of the drawing can be stopped out by a coat of varnish after an initial bite, and the rest of the image bitten deeper by another dip in the acid. New lines can be added at any stage.
Etching has been used since the early 16th century.


For an aquatint the ground is of various fine particles than can fix to the copper plate and resist acid. Most frequently the ground is fine particles of resin, or asphaltum, bitumen or pitch. The particles can be dusted onto the plate, which is heated to stick them in an irregular pattern. Or they might be spread as a suspension in alcohol, which dries off in the heating. The two methods leave recognizable different irregular patterns. The plate is dipped in acid for a short time that will have it print as the lightest tone required. The light areas are then stopped out by painting on varnish, and the plate dipped again to the next level of tone. The plate might be ready after perhaps a dozen stages of dipping and stopping out. Line engraving might be added to the plate, and other techniques can be used as well, in particular the lift ground or sugar lift process (see one of the books below).
The method was discovered in the mid 17th century, but not much used till the mid 18th century, it was common from the 1770s onwards and used up to the 1820s when lithography replaced it. The method's name comes from its ability to imitate a watercolour wash.

Soft Ground Etching

The wax etching ground has tallow added to it before it is spread on the copper plate. One artist's instructions state 1 part of hog's lard to 3 of common etching ground, but a little less in warm weather. This ground doesn't completely harden but remains a little tacky. Paper is laid over the ground and the image is drawn with a pencil; the paper is lifted off, bring the ground with it where the pencil pressed. When drawing the artist must use a bridge to rest his wrist, not accidentally rest on the plate. The width of line exposed on the plate depends on the pressure of the pencil. The plate is bitten with acid as before.
The method was known but little used in the 17th century, it became important in the 18th century and was popular up to the 1820s when it was replaced by lithography. Soft ground etching imitates the broken lines of crayon drawing, and can be very flexible in creating subtle effects.


It has been said that a drawing could be made in the field on thin paper; in the studio the paper would be placed face down on the plate and the image drawn, guided by the marks showing through the paper. William Green, Ambleside, is said to have used this method and some of his original field drawings are said to exist. I have as yet found no confirmatory evidence for this technique.

Gascoine, Bamber: 1995: How to Identify Prints: Thames and Hudson (London):: ISBN 500 23454 X

Russell, Ronald: 1979: Guide to British Topographical Prints: David and Charles (Newton Abbot, Devon):: ISBN 0 7135 7810 4

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