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WPA Collection: Graphic Arts Processes


Line Etching - An Intaglio Process

          Melting Pot by Dorothy Rutka
                 Line Etching, 6 1/4" x 6"

Line etching, one of the most distinguished of the graphic processes, was used by jewelers and armourers before the fifteenth century for decorating purposes. In the sixteenth century it was used as a short cut to engraving and became popular for its freedom and quickness. Among the first to use it was Albrecht Durer, the great German wood and copper engraver. Line etching is one of the intaglio processes. The design is carried by the deep indented parts of the plate instead of by the raised parts as in relief printing. Copper, polished to mirror brightness, is the ideal metal to use, though zinc and occasionally other metals are sometimes used. The plate is heated and an etching ground made of wax asphaltum and other ingredients is dabbed or rolled on the surface. The ground acts as an acid resistant.

The drawing is made on the grounded plate with a pointed steel stylus that breaks through the ground coating to the copper. When the plate with the drawing scratched through the ground is laid in an acid bath, the acid will attack and dissolve the copper wherever a stylus line has laid the copper bare. This is the process of biting the plate. The three most common acids used for biting are nitric, dutch mordant, and iron chloride. Certain areas are exposed to the acid longer in order to make the line deeper and blacker while other areas are "stopped" after a short bite with a varnish called the "stopping out varnish." The varnish and ground are removed after biting and the plate is ready for printing. The entire plate is covered with the etching ink. The ink is wiped off the surface with tarlton and the palm of the hand. Leaving ink only in the lines. A delicate film of ink also remains on the surface of the plate which helps to give etching its peculiar charm. The etching press consists of two heavy iron rollers with a flat iron bed between. The inked plate is laid face up on the bed; dampened etching paper is laid on it, followed by a piece of blotting paper and a felt blanket. In passing through the press, the rollers force the soft damp paper down into the lines, produces the characteristic plate mark, the smooth pressed surface and the raised lines of an etching. The damp proof is now flattened and dried between blotters and is ready for matting.

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