18 Jun 2021

A Brief History | Etching

Unframe London

A Brief History | Etching

We look at an array of both historical and contemporary artists who revolutionised the art form of etching and printmaking.

Etching has been deeply influential in art history, paving the way for the development of printmaking as a whole. Originating in the 15th century, etching is one of the oldest forms of printmaking. As a technique, it developed through being used as decoration on metal armour. Printing masters include Rembrandt van Rijn, Albrecht Dürer, and Francisco Goya. All of which used printmaking to capture the essence of the social and political climate they were living in at the time. These particular artists revolutionised the art form of etching and printmaking. The 19th century saw many new European theories on aestheticism and artistic manifestos. As a result, printmaking became a bold and original forerunner to modern art.

With that in mind, we look at an array of both historical and more contemporary etchers. For this article, we discuss the medium of etching and printmaking whilst looking at the work of Francisco Goya, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijnand and Lucien Freud.

Goya Etching
‘Self Portrait in a Flat Cap and Embroidered Dress’, 1638. Francisco Goya. Courtesy of Park West Gallery

The Etching Process

Etching is a traditional printing process characterised through use of strong acid or mordant. This acid cuts into the unprotected parts of a metal surface. Subsequently, creating a design in intaglio on the surface of the metal. Nowadays, different chemicals may be used on other types of material and still considered etching. The earliest examples of etches are on suits of armour, originally engraved by hand as a form of decoration. In this case, armourers discovered that they could etch the designs onto metal instead, which eventually took less time.

All in all, the process became more cost effective and far less time consuming. The earliest ever engraved prints on paper were made around 1445 in Germany. The Swiss Renaissance goldsmith, painter and printmaker Urs Graf made the earliest known etching in 1513. In particular, the process involved etching onto a steel plate with one line weight. Over time, the etching process progressed to a refined art form.

Francisco Goya
‘Caridad de una muger (A Woman’s Charity)’, 1810-1820, Francisco Goya. Courtesy of Park West Gallery

At this time, the etching process had become a highly regarded technique involving drawing the whole image, etching the plate in acid for short periods and then stopping out the various depths of line with an acid varnish, etching the darker areas. Most often, they used steel and copper plates, producing prints with a finer line. Etching was a process refined over centuries and only eventually considered a fine art form.

Rembrandt Etching
‘Woman with the Arrow’, 1661. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Courtesy of Britannica

Goya & Rembrandt

The vast collection of etchings by Francisco de Goya hold a significant place in printmaking history. Furthermore, he created his work between 1778 to 1825 and is considered a revolutionary in the printmaking world. In his etchings, Goya subsequently gives insight into the social and political state of Spain at the time. He provided a critical take on his personal views on poverty, and additionally war, violence, corruption and morality. In a similar way to the engravings of William Hogarth, in this case Goya documented figures from all walks of life.

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.” Francisco Goya

Art was no longer being seen to portray religious iconography and mythological figures, which was typical of the Renaissance and Baroque period. Important to note, art-making soon became expressive and a vessel for debate. When we look at Goya’s etchings, it is important to place the work within a context of several social, religious and cultural conflicts in Spain at the time.

Rembrandt Etches
‘The rest on the flight into Egypt’, 1626. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Courtesy of Wiki Art

“Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

As well as Goya, we look at the etchings of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn who abandoned all links with engraving, exclusively creating etchings. Rembrandt saw a freedom in printmaking, using etching to render light, space and air. Rembrandt etched to capture atmospheric effects as well as drawing fantasy and dream-like compositions. Many regard Rembrandt’s etchings as pushing the medium to its most expressive limits. At the time, artists began to coax more out of their etchings through altering their processes, new tools and experimental surfaces. However, Rembrandt remains one of the most famous printmakers because of focus on the simple etching style and passion for texture.

Freud Etching
‘Self Portrait: Reflection’, 1996. Lucien Freud. Courtesy of the Guardian

Lucien Freud & Contemporary Etching

Renaissance and Baroque artists were not the only masters to capture living humanity through etching. British artist Lucien Freud created contemporary etchings known for their focus on the beauty in fleshy and realistic tones. Much like the etching work of Goya and Rembrandt, Freud used his etching plate like you would a canvas. Many critics say he used an easel in the making of his etches, standing it upright to draw from life. In this way, painting and etching hold many similar technical traits.

Lucien Freud Woman Etching
‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’, 1996. Lucien Freud. Courtesy of the Guardian

However, Freud did not create etches in a traditional sense. Freud used the realms of etching to create honest and considered portraiture as well as scenic compositions. Typically, Freud created his print works by working directly from models and warping their forms through meticulous patterns of finely etched lines.

“Full, saturated colours have an emotional significance I want to avoid.” Lucien Freud

A number of different printmaking techniques have evolved over time. As a medium, etching and printmaking remains one of the earliest forms of expression within art-making. The year of 1477 saw Flemish artists producing the first ever intaglio printing, printing made from ink that is below the surface of the plate. Afterwards, artists in Germany went on to invent mezzotint, the first tonal method, enabling techniques like cross-hatching. The creation of aquatint and lithograph methods were introduced in the late 1700s through to the 1800s, when the artist creates the work of art on a stone plate. During the 20th century, artists created screen printing, championed by Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Blake.

For thousands of years, the art of etching and printing-making has been more and more refined. Many contemporary artists today use the revered skill in their practice, including the work of Peter Green, Kara Walker, Damien Hirst and Dóra Maurer, to name just a few.

Caro Halford Mill Street Etching Studio
‘Mill Street Etching Studio’, Caro Halford. Courtesy of the artist

Caro Halford & Mill Street Etching Studio

In other news, we are thrilled to announce the re-opening of artist Caro Halford’s Mill Street Etching Studio in Suffolk. The bespoke studio is for artists as well as printmakers and students to use the press in a dedicated space, solely for one use. This Summer, there will be two brilliant print workshops on Thursday 19th August and Friday 20th August 2021. In this case, they will be run by artist and printmaker Catherine Greenwood who has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in printmaking.

Additionally, the workshop on Thursday 19th August named ‘Looking through the eyes of Whistler’, involves exploring contemporary and traditional techniques. In particular, for ‘Sketch book to plate’ on Friday 20th August, this workshop is inspired by a circular walk around Darsham Marshes. Numbers are limited to three places on each day. 

Book a workshop at Mill Street Etching Studio.