Printmaking Explained II: the RBSA guide to Fine Art printmaking

In the second part of our series on printmaking, RBSA Art Historian Brendan Flynn reveals some of the processes used by artists.

If you want to start collecting Fine Art prints, why not come to our Prize Exhibition, which opens on 26 July


Sharon Baker, ‘Robot Monlith I’, Photo etching with block printing £280

A plate of polished copper, zinc or steel is coated on one side in a resinous layer, or ‘ground’ which is impervious to acid. The back of the plate is coated in a protective shellac. The artist will then draw or trace the design on the plate through the ground, exposing the drawn lines as bare metal. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath and the exposed areas of the plate are burnt by the acid. The plate is removed, and a solvent used to remove the ground leaving the drawn design bitten into the polished surface of the plate. A thick oil or water- based ink is applied to the plate and worked into the lines. It is then wiped clean, leaving the ink embedded only in the etched lines.

To take a print from the plate, a sheet of slightly dampened paper is laid over it and it is passed through the press at immense pressure, forcing the paper into the etched lines to pick up the ink. The resulting image is the reverse of the artists’ drawing. The plate mark, where the paper has been pressed over the edges of the plate is normally visible.


Lucy Ball, 'Judging Pool', Etching and aquatint £213

Lucy Ball, ‘Judging Pool’, Etching and Aquatint £213

Often used in conjunction with linear etching, aquatint is the application of a fine layer of resin powder to the surface of the metal plate. This is done by using an aquatint box – a simple container with a quantity of resin powder dispersed by a hand-operated fan to create a fine mist of resin which settles evenly on the plate.

The plate is then heated to melt the resin which is allowed to harden and placed in an acid bath. The acid bites the tiny spaces between the resin grains and the plate. Different tones can be created by re-inserting the plate into the acid to take a deeper bite which will trap more ink while paler areas can be retained by masking out with shellac.

When the required tones have been created the plate is cleaned to remove the resin leaving the metal textured by thousands of pits which when inked up, give granular areas of tone. The plate can be worked with a steel burnisher to remove areas of pitting to create lighter tones. When finished, the plate is inked, wiped and with the dampened paper laid on top is passed through the etching press.

Aquatint got its name from its ability to mimic the softly modulated tones of watercolour or sepia drawings and was often used to reproduce them in publications.

Dry-point Engraving

Julia Timmins, 'The Well Trodden Path', Drypoint, £125

Julia Timmins, ‘The Well-Trodden Path’, Drypoint, £125

The artist draws with a steel burin directly onto the copper plate creating furrowed lines which will trap and hold the ink. It favours a broad, expressive approach and retains the vigour and spontaneity of the artist’s drawing. A disadvantage is that the raised furrows on the edge of the lines are compressed repeatedly during printing, so it is only possible to print relatively small editions before the lines lose definition.

The Swedish painter Anders Zorn was one of the greatest dry-point engravers and his works illustrate the qualities of the medium very well.

Mezzotint Engraving

Scan 9

Martin Maywood, ‘Boy with Shark Fin’

Mezzotint is normally used in conjunction with linear engraving and/or etching. The surface of the metal plate is pitted all over using a spiked steel roller. The method can be easily identified as multiple evenly spaced dotted lines. Different areas of tone can be created by smoothing out the pits with a steel burnisher to control the amount of ink the plate will retain.

By Brendan Flynn RBSA Art Historian

RBSA Workshop

Join Martin Maywood on his mezzotint workshop which takes place on 23 August.

Receive expert guidance on how to create and print a mezzotint engraving. This workshop is suitable for both beginners and experienced printmakers. Ready-rocked Mezzotint plates will be provided.

Many of the works featured above are part of our  Print Prize Exhibition, which is on until 1 September.

Banner Image: Ian Chamberlain, ‘Transmission III’, Etching, £750

#printmaking #drypoint #mezzotint #aquating #etching

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