Drypoint

6 October 2010 § Leave a comment

Drypoint by F. W. Benson

Drypoint (Dutch:droge naald, French: gravure à la pointe sèche, German: Kaldnadelradierung, kalte nadel) is a form of intaglio printing. This is one of the easiest techniques one can use since it does not require knowledge of complex processes. All one needs is a talent for drawing (you even hold the needle the same way), a needlepoint and a metal plate. The plates are usually copper or zink. Zink is softer and therefore easier to draw on, but fewer prints can be made with it.

The first step is to gently draw your picture onto the plate, leaving only superficial lines. The important aspect of this technique is the burr. By varying the pressure you put on the plate and by working from different angles, you can control the depth of the line. The way you get the most burr up is by holding the needle vertically or at an angle. If you want, you can use a scraper to push the burr back into the line.

Say you have used the burr ability to absorb a lot of ink. The result will be dark areas on your print. But each time you use your plate to make a print, the  print will be slightly lighter. This happens because the burr is flattened with each print. If you go on long enough, you’ll end up with a print of the actual lines you made. These will resemble quick strokes made with a hard pencil. Since the burr absorbs more ink than the superficial lines, a rich, velvetlike image is the result. If you place lines close together you’ll get darker areas, and deeper lines will create darker prints.

Because if its convenience, it was often used for adding the final touches to engravings and etchings. Among etchers to breathe new life into the technique by tweeking it a bit, was our very own Rembrandt.  He was one of the artists who did not scrape away the burr. Have a look at his drypoint called The Three Crosses. What’s important to remember is that, the way in which the ink transferred onto the paper, is different from the way it’s transferred by the grooves. Gascoigne calls it a “warm blur” as opposed to the “precise lines and dots of true intaglio.”

The technique was most likely invented in the last part of the 15th century (1480) by an engraver in South Germany. Famous users of the technique are Rembrandt, who I’ve already mentioned in the previous paragraph, Picasso and Kirchner. Only in the late 19th century, people started using drypoint for its own sake. You could create an entire print without the use of acid needed for etching (hence the name drypoint). But a major disadvantage was the fact you could only produce a few prints because of the vulnerable burr.

M. Bones's "Demolition of St. James's Hall" Clear example of the contrast created by leaving and scraping off the burr

If you want to know if you’re looking at a drypoint, look for scratched/slashed lines. They will be short and straight (or perhaps have a simple curve). You can almost see the force used when pushing the needle into the metal. Something else to look for are lines with a white centre. This is caused by a very prominent burr beside the line which holds so much ink that it prints as a separate line. But what makes identifying difficult is the fact that the technique is often used in combination with others.

To finish up this entry, it might be interesting to know that, aside from steel point you could also use ruby and diamond points. And in place of the ordinary steel point, one can also use gelatin sheets. This technique is then referred to as gelatin drypoint.

As far as literature goes, any self-respecting handbook on printing techniques will have an entry on drypoint. Below are some that were used for this explanation of the technique:

Clement, P. et al., eds. Gaade’s handboek voor de grafische technieken. Amerongen: Gaade, 1983.

Hubbard, H. ed. How to distinguish prints. Woodgreen Common, 1926.

Gascoigne, B. How to identify prints: a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Linden, Fons van der. De Grafische Technieken. De Bilt: Cantecleer, 1979.

Lumsden, E.S. The art of etching: a complete and fully illustrated description of etching, drypoint etc. London: Seeley, Service & Co Ltd., 1924.

Martin, J. Grafische technieken. Kerkdriel: Librero, 1996.

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