Aquatint

9 October 2010 § 2 Comments

Aquatint (dust ground) by F. Goya

Aquatint (aquatinta, gravure au lavis, Dutch: aquatint, watertoon) is an illustration technique that belongs to the intaglio-etching printmaking family. It is called aquatint because it resembles the wash drawings made by water colourists. The technique’s main function was to reproduce these colour wash drawings.

Technique description
In short, an aquatint is the result of acid affecting a copper plate which is covered with a not fully closed ground. The covered parts result in small white dots, which are hardly visible when taking a glance look. The aquatint is recognizable by its granular structure and its variation in grey tones with clearly visible transitions; there is no fluency.
There are two different techniques for producing this not fully closed ground: the dust ground technique (stuifgrein) and the spirit ground technique (gietgrein). When producing an aquatint with the former technique, the copper plate first gets powdered with resin or asphalt. There are several ways how this can be achieved; one can use a paintbrush, a jar covered with gauze or – which is mostly used – a so-called dust box (Dutch: stuifkist). The copper plate is then placed inside the powder box, which contains a ventilator to spread the resin. When the plate is sufficiently covered with resin, it is being warmed so that the resin gets fixed to the plate. Producing a ground by means of the spirit ground technique entails that one pours a mixture of resin, water and alcohol over the copper plate. When the liquid has evaporated, only the resin remains. The result is a network of lines exposing the copper. The difference between the dust and the spirit ground technique is that the latter has a much brighter result which in addition lasts longer in printing.
Now the ground has been created on the copper plate, one uses so-called stopping out varnish to cover the parts of the aquatint that should remain white. The next step is to make a drawing on the ground, which is normally done with iron chloride or Dutch bath. Afterwards the copper plate is placed in an acid bath. The acid affects the uncovered parts of the ground, and the longer the plate gets exposed to the acid, the darker the tones. It is fairly common to apply stopping out on certain areas after exposure to the acid bath, in order to obtain different gradations of tone – an aquatint usually has four or five different gradations.
After this acid bath, the plate is rinsed and dried and the darkest surfaces are treated with a “touching stuff” mixture. Then the plate is treated again with the stopping out varnish and put in cold water, where the touching stuff lets off again. Now the plate is again placed in the acid bath, and this varnishing and exposing to the acid bath gets repeated until the desired tonal gradation is reached. From one copper plate one can make about 30 prints in high quality, and between 75 and 150 in medium quality.
Besides exposure to the acid bath, there are also other ways of adding tone gradations to the aquatint; to get darker surfaces one can use a feather or a brush to add the acid direct to the plate, lighter shades can be obtained by scraping and burnishing. An aquatint can also be combined with etching. The etching usually happens before applying the ground, so that the etched lines can mark where to apply the stopping out. It is however also possible to etch the lines after the aquatint has been treated with acid.

Description of the instruments, machines and chemicals used for aquatint
Dust ground technique: copper plate, stopping out varnish, touching stuff, Dutch bath / iron chloride, powdered resin or asphalt, brush / jar and gauze, dust box, acid bath.
– Spirit ground technique: copper plate, stopping out varnish, touching stuff, Dutch bath / iron chloride, powdered resin, pure alcohol, acid bath.

Inventor
Usually, Jean-Baptiste Le Prince is mentioned as the inventor of the dust ground aquatint. Le Prince made his first aquatint prints in 1768. In the same period, however, Ploos van Amstel from Holland and Floding from Sweden were also using the aquatint dust ground based technique. The spirit ground technique was first introduced in England in 1775, by Paul Sandby.

History of the use of aquatint
Dust ground aquatint was already used in 17th century etches by Jan van de Velde and Claude Lorraine, but it was not until the late 18th century, when tonal techniques and watercolour painting became fashionable, that this aquatint technique was written down and it was used more frequently. The method first got artistic value when the famous painter and engraver F. Goya (1746 – 1828) used it in his works. In the early 19th century aquatint became a wide spread illustration technique because of its reproductive qualities. Especially in England the aquatint was widely spread. The aquatint lost ground around 1830 because of the lithography and the photography (van der Linden, Prideaux). After 1935, the aquatint experienced a survival because of S. Hayer and his famous Atelier 17. Well-known artists using the aquatint: T.H.A. Fielding, Paul Sandby, F. Goya, Le Prince, J.S. Stadler, the Daniells, F.C. Lewis, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.

Related techniques
Related to the aquatint are etching, mezzotint, stipple engraving, “zwarte kunst” and other tone techniques.

Literature
Gascoigne, B. How to identify prints: a complete guide to manual and mechanical processes from woodcut to inkjet. Londen: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Krüger, O. Die Illustrationsverfahren: eine vergleichende Behandlung der verschiedenen Reproduktionsarten, ihrer Vorteile, Nachteile und Kosten. Leizpig: Brockhaus: 1929.Van der Linden, F. De grafische technieken. De Bilt, 1979.
Poortenaar, J. Van prenten en platen: de grafische technieken in voorbeelden, afbeeldingen en beschrijving. Deventer: Klüwer, 1966.
Prideaux, S.T. Aquatint engraving: a chapter in the history of book illustration. Londen: Foyle, 1968.

Salaman, M. The graphic arts of Great Britain: drawing, line-engraving, etching, mezzotint, aquatint, lithography, wood-engraving, colour-printing. Londen: The Studio, 1917.

Door: Eva Veenendaal

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