Etching Grounds and the Marks they Make

Etching is a form of intaglio printing. Intagliare means “to cut” in Italian. Many people use the term “etching” to describe any intaglio method, but that is very inaccurate because etchings are the only form of intaglio printing that use acid and, most of the time, a variety of grounds. The printed marks the etching plate makes depend on the type of ground used.  The purpose of this post is to show the marks made by some of the more common grounds used with etching.


The sample above, Leaves, is a soft ground etching.  Soft ground etchings produce texture. The ground, which is a thick greasy consistency, never dries on the plate so you have to be careful how you handle the plate or your fingerprints will become part of the final image! The leaves were placed in the greasy ground then lifted up,  leaving behind their fine details and texture. Some of the greasy ground lifted away when the leaves were removed exposing those areas of the plate to the acid for an image to be “burned” into the plate.  This plate also uses an aquatint ground which will be discussed below.

Garden Friend


The example Garden Friend, is a basic hard ground etching. The ground dries to a thin black film then fine lines can be scraped out with an etching needle (or thick lines can be made with a scraper).  Now I will confess that many of my plates utilize several types of grounds and techniques but I am trying to show you the best example of the ground being discussed.  The mottled area in “Garden Friend” is a happy accident as I spilled a chemical on the ground and it removed some of it in an haphazard way, but with wonderful results.  Anytime ground is removed, such as with the etching needle to make lines or my happy accident described above, that area of the plate is then exposed to the acid.


I am showing Birds as an specific example of two types of ground: Aquatint, which produced the tone in the background of the etching and Sugar Lift, which produced the large grayish-white patches at the bottom of the etching.  My aquatint ground above was done with spray paint but there are other methods as well to produce an aquatint tone. Sugar lift is a solution you can mix and apply with some control to remove ground from specific area (this is in great contrast to my happy accident described above). Another technique that can be shown on this piece is the use of stop-our varnish, which was applied to the one bird whose wing has very white spots as well as some of the very white areas on the bricks in the background. The stop out prevents the acid from touching these areas of the plate so they will remain white after the ink is wiped during the inking process.

In addition to the types of grounds used, the marks are also altered by further

How Science Happens
How Science happens

manipulation of the plate with a variety of tools such as scrapers and burnishers. How the plate is inked also plays a major role in how the final etching looks.  How Science Happens is an example of a plate where a scraper was used to make deep gouges in the ground.  This plate uses a viscosity inking process which is a way to alter the thickness of the ink. Inking etching plates is another whole topic and perhaps I will cover that in a future post.

So as you can see, etching grounds can give you an endless number of results which is why the medium is so satisfying and surprising.



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