Intaglio Printmaking – Etching, Engraving and Gravure

Posted on June 8, 2011

Any printmaking process, including engraving, etching and gravure, that involves scoring a mark onto a metal plate is known as an intaglio. Engraving requires the artist to make a mark straight onto copper with an engraving tool, a graver. Etching is a process whereby marks are made by scratching through a hard waxy surface laid onto the copper plate with a needle, so that when immersed in acid, the copper is incised along the lines made by the needle. The artistic advantage of etching over engraving is that, because it is easier to make an incision in wax with a needle than it is to cut straight into copper with a graver, it allows much freer and ‘painterly’ expression. A close relative of etching is gravure – a photo-etching process dating from the 1860s that enables a photographed image to be transferred onto copper, and for the printmaking process thereafter to proceed as with an etching.

In making the plate for the College series of etchings, Ingamells used a combination of gravure and traditional etching. First he made a detailed drawing (at a rate of approximately a square inch a day). This drawing was then photographed and a positive image of it placed over a copper plate which was itself covered with a light-sensitive gelatin. In a light-box the exposed gelatin hardened to form a protective ground over the copper plate, while the gelatin under the dark lines of the drawing could be washed away. The plate was then immersed in acid, and so etched along the lines of the drawing. Not all of the lines from the drawing appeared on the plate, however, so the plate was completed by traditional etching methods of covering it with wax (known as a ground) and then cut into with an needle as and where necessary. The plate was then etched in acid as before and the waxy ground cleaned off. When cleaned and inked up, the plate was then place on the bed of a hand-operated etching press and paper passed over it under the weight of a heavy roller to make each individual print.