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HERE can be no doubt about the quiet, but steady, increase of interest in etching. This does not mean, however, that all people who look at etchings without being awed or bored, and with an appreciable amount of pleasure, can give an intelligent answer to the question, "What is an etching?" In fact, an attitude frequently encountered even among admirers of the art is that of diffidence before the mysteries of processes technical.
And yet, when these processes are explained in simple, straightforward manner, the public shows an interest. The exhibition illustrating the making of an etching, held in the print gallery of the New York Public Library, drew thousands of visitors, many of whom had ap
parently had little or no previous knowledge of the subject.
This interest in methods is not only natural, but necessary. Appreciation of etching must be based in part on knowledge of the manner of production. In an art of any kind the medium-that is, the tool with which and the material from which a work of art is produced-must inevitably leave its impress on the result. Every medium has its limits and its possibilities; the artist must respect the one and avail himself to the full extent of his power of the other. Bracquemond once said that a work of graphic art must bear on its face, undisguised, the characteristics of the technic by which it was produced.
What wide diversity of expression can be given to one and the same medium may be seen in the case of etching by comparing the work of such men as Rembrandt and Jacque, Whistler and Bracquemond, Haden and Ostade, Meryon and Buhot, Breenberg and Brangwyn, Lalanne and Jongkind, Lepère and Zorn. Each of the two here coupled represent strong, sometimes antipodal, differences in method, in
An aquatint from Goya's "Caprichos"
fluences, point of view, and subject; yet all of them understood and expressed the nature of the medium, and all worked fundamentally with the same materials, copperplate, etching-needle, and acidmaterials that have been essentially the same for three centuries.
On one side of a polished copperplate the etcher lays a thin coat of so-called etching-ground, which may consist of white wax, mastic, and asphaltum. This is smoked over, and the design is drawn on the plate thus prepared with a steel point-the etching-needle. As this needle pierces the ground and lays bare the copper, the lines that it traces stand out
brightly against the solid black of the smoked surface, which, of course, was smoked with that purpose in view. Thus far the copper has simply been laid bare wherever the point has passed, and nothing has been done to create a printing surface. That is the work of acid. The plate, its back protected by a coat of var nish, is placed in an acid bath, and wher ever the copper is exposed the acid makes its attack. Furthermore, since some portions of the picture are to appear darker and stronger than others, the plate is taken from the acid when the lightest lines of the picture have been bitten into the copperplate by the acid, and these parts are
view. en laid
Printing acid. I
then covered with "stopping-out varnish," which prevents further action of the acid. at that point. The plate is then again immersed in the acid, which continues to
An etcher's studio
act on such portions as are still unprotected. The process can be repeated until the last biting, which adds the finishing touch to the portions which are to appear darkest, and which have been subjected to
the action of the acid during all the consecutive bitings.
When the work of the acid is finished, the ground is cleaned off, ink is applied,
and the plate, with a sheet of paper laid over it, is made to travel between the two rollers of a copperplate press. The great pressure draws the ink out of the lines bitten into the copper and transfers it to
"Nocturne Salute," by Whistler
the paper. The ink thus lies on the surface of the paper in ridges that, where the lines have been very deeply bitten, -as in Haden's "Calais Pier" or in some plates of Turner's "Liber Studiorum,"-are of a very appreciable thickness.
Now, in the process itself are to be found the reasons why etching has served preeminently as a means for original expression as a painter art. We speak of "painter" or "original" etching, the direct product of the artist's intent, as distinguished from reproductive etching, in which the works of other artists are reproduced by the etcher. The needle in
the hand of the etcher plays freely over the plate, and to the resultant freedom and spontaneity is added the effect of the irregular action of the acid, which adds a further quivering vivacity to the line. But the artist's possibilities extend even to the inking. Before attempting to print, the ink that has been applied to a plate must obviously be removed from the surface, leaving only that which has lodged in the bitten lines that form the printing medium. There is a difference, however, in the manner of removing the ink. It may be taken off cleanly, so that the lines print almost as sharply as those of a name