Howarth's Technique

When we see a finished picture, be it a painting or an etching, most of us would give little thought to the work that goes into it, preferring to concentrate on the emotional impact we get from the end result. I wanted to include a section looking at both Howarth's techniques and his technical ability, as it vividly brings home the amount of time and effort that goes into producing a great picture. What better way to do this, than to hear it from Howarth himself? I have reproduced below two essays he contributed to a book entitled 'The Art of Making Fine Prints', printed by Alexander Passmore and Sons, Printers of London and Maidstone. This useful little booklet can still be found in its original format, as well as now being available in modern reproduction form. Further information on this can be found in the 'links' section of the site. 

In addition to the two essays written by Howarth, it includes; 'The Art of Engraving "in Aquatint" by F.Marriot, The Art of Mezzotint Engraving by Will Henderson, The Art of Engraving "In Stipple" by L.Dupont, The Art of Printing "In Colour" by Arthur L. Cox and finally The Art of Photo-Mechanical Reproductive Processes by J.R.Riddell. The 28 page booklet appears to have been produced as a complimentary item for gallery owners to give their clients, and is a useful read in terms of filling in the techniques and processes in use at the time. I have reproduced the articles exactly as they appear in the booklet, so over to Howarth to explain his preferred methods of working, and to make you glad that you live in the age of digital print technology. 

 The Art of Making Fine Etchings by Albany E. Howarth,  A.R.E.

Etching is 'In the Air'. In the whole history of the world there were never so many beautiful plates made as there are today. Fine impressions of plates by the 'old masters' fetch a higher price in the market today than they ever did before - fine impressions of plates by modern, even living, masters fetch what would have been considered fantastic prices fifty years ago. Yet how many people who buy and - amongst the shrewd- collect them, know how and by what process they come into existence?

I propose, In the following notes, to tell those who care to read them, how I make an Etching. I say how I make an etching - because, although all etchings have a common basis, yet each etcher has something peculiar to himself which helps to make his work characteristic and personal.

What is an etching? An etching is not drawn with a pen and ink, and a pen-and-ink drawing is not called an etching - an etching must be printed from a metal plate. There are various kinds of metals that an etching may be made upon, namely copper, zinc, steel or aluminium.

Copper is the one generally chosen, and it is difficult to imagine a better metal; it can be prepared to any degree of hardness or softness, and, lastly, owing to its beautiful colour, is a delight to work upon. Zinc is also a good metal, because lines worked upon this print with a peculiar richness of quality; it is, however, much softer than copper, and as a rule wears out sooner in the process of printing.

The method: I will briefly explain the method for the production of an etching. A polished copper or zinc plate is covered with a wax preparation which resists acid, a steel point is used in drawing upon the plate, this point cutting through the wax and leaving the copper lines bare; an acid is applied to the plate, and it attacks or bites only where the steel point has cut through the wax. When the biting is completed the resisting wax coating is removed.

A print is then obtained by dabbing a thick oily ink over the plate, and it is then wiped with stiff muslin to remove the superfluous ink; the plate is then placed face upward on the bed of the etching press-the whole being passed between the rollers of the press under pressure. By this means the paper is pressed into the etched or bitten lines and draws out the ink deposited therein.

What you have to face: This appears to be a comparatively simple process-but it is not, and I may say that from taking up your polished copper plate, at the beginning, to the production of your proof at the end, there are a hundred and one technical difficulties, pitfalls and disappointments; on the other hand, the art exercises a tremendous fascination upon the worker.

I begin an etching by being careful that my copper plate is finely polished, and before laying the wax ground, satisfying myself that it is perfectly clean and free from any trace of grease.

Polishing the metal: This is done by thoroughly washing with fine whiting and water, dried with new tissue paper and finally a rub over with chloroform. I then place the plate upon a heater, under which is a Bunsen burner and it is brought to such a heat that the wax ground (which is a hard ball) melts freely. A few dabs of the ground is sufficient; it is then evenly spread all over the surface with a dabber (a pad of cotton wool, covered with fine silk or kid), great care being taken that no specks of dust appear, and when properly dabbed, the copper appears as though it had been varnished with an even coat of transparent varnish.

Laying the ground: It would be almost impossible to see your design upon the plate in this condition, therefore the waxed surface must now be blackened. This is done by smoking. Whilst the plate is still hot it is held at the edge or the corner by a hand vice, and turned face downwards; the flame from a bunch of wax tapers is then passed over the wax surface, particularly avoiding the flame from resting on any part. This may burn the ground, and is fatal; the ground, when properly smoked, should present a jet black, glossy appearance.

If it should in any way be burned, there will be patches of dull black, which will break away in the acid; therefore clean it off with turpentine and begin again.  I will assume that my ground is good. It is, therefore, ready for me to begin to draw my design upon it.

The Screen: I first of all adopt a screen to work behind. This is usually a frame covered with tissue paper and placed at an angle over the work bench, through which the light penetrates; this softens the glint of the copper. It must be understood that the subject (if it is to be a portrait of a place or object) must be drawn in reverse upon the metal.

Drawing the design: This can be done by placing the drawing in front of a mirror and working from the reflection. Presuming I have made a pencil drawing of my subject, and I do not mind, in a way, spoiling this drawing, I transfer it completely to the blackened wax surface of the plate, by slightly damping the drawing, and passing it under very slight pressure through the printing press (the drawing being laid face down upon the grounded plate), the result being that I have a silvery grey drawing upon my wax ground, and this is now in reverse.

The needle: I now begin to draw my design with the etching needle. This is usually a piece of steel sharpened to a point; it is very important in the manner it is sharpened. It must be just sharp enough to draw a beautiful  fine line, without in any way cutting or scratching the copper; it must just be so, that, with a certain amount of pressure, you get through the ground to the metal surface.

Drawing through the wax: Here I must carefully consider my process and feel sure that every line I make upon the waxed plate is laying the copper bare. If I do not use sufficient pressure and do not completely get through the ground, I am producing what is known as “rotten lines,” or broken lines.

A correctly drawn line should be uniform from its beginning to its end. Every etcher who puts a needle to a plate must, in his mind, realise for the moment the technical process, and at the same time keep his objective in view; every line must be so placed and drawn upon the plate that it will produce a beautiful rich line when printed. 

As I suggested in my introduction, that each etcher has something peculiar to himself, I must here remark that I do not in any way complete the drawing of my design upon the plate before passing it to the acid bath for the first time.

My method of drawing on the plate: My method is this, and from many points of view I find it reliable: I begin to draw in my deepest passages and add my intermediate tones from dark to light during the process of biting. This practically dispenses with “stopping out” varnish ( a varnish used for painting over lines which are sufficiently bitten), and, not the least important, I have my complete design before me to the end.

Now that I have drawn my design upon the metal as far as I wish, for the time being, it is ready to be etched or bitten in the acid. Before this is begun the back and edges of the plate must be protected; this is done by painting with ordinary Brunswick black (a strong resistant to the acid). I have, with very few exceptions used nitric acid as my mordant, and find it very reliable.

When the plate is immersed in the bath, it should be watched very carefully, and it will be noticed that the acid sets up a bubbling in the lines, which is clear proof that the action has started.  These bubbles of air must be removed with either a feather or a piece of cotton wool. In cases where this action or bubbling occurs only in places or in patches, it is usually proof that in drawing upon the ground, the needle has not completely penetrated it, and the result will be very unsatisfactory.

Duration of biting: There is really no fixed rule for the duration of biting. As the acid acts quicker under higher temperatures, I take my plate frequently from the bath, wash and dry it and examine it. If the plate is held on a level with the eye and looked at against a diffused light so that the gloss of the black ground appears white, the bitten lines will appear black, and I can forma fair idea of its strength and depth; but to a very large extent it is gained by experience.

It must be remembered that when the acid has bitten down below the surface of the wax it will begin to under bite. Care must, therefore, be taken to avoid over biting passages which are closely drawn or cross hatched; the trouble arising from this will be that the surface between the lines will be bitten away, and the printed impression, instead of being a rich black, will appear grey.

Should the complete design be drawn upon the plate before biting, the most delicate passages, or finest lines, are stopped out with varnish and so on until the strongest lines remain to the end. The wax ground is now cleaned off with turpentine, and you see for the first time upon the polished copper what you have been doing, up to now, practically in the dark.

The result may give you immense pleasure, or it may be a terrible disappointment; there may be lines which are insufficiently bitten, and others which are bitten too deeply. To rectify those in the first case, the plate must  be thoroughly cleaned, as in the first instance of the laying of the ground, and the bitten lines filled in with a paste made of whiting and ammonia, the surface wiped clean, and a re-biting ground must be laid.

Re-biting: I have seldom had to resort to this, but it is done by having an extra clean copper plate by you on the heater, and a fine leather covered roller. A little wax etching ground is spread upon the extra copper plate (which is hot and melts the wax), the leather roller is rolled from side to side upon it until charged with a thin, even coating of the wax ground, it is then passed very lightly over the etched plate, until the surface is evenly coated with the ground, carefully avoiding that none of the ground is rolled into lines which are already charged with whiting.

A slight dip in the acid bath will quickly remove all the whiting and leave the lines clean and ready for re-biting. The plate is taken out and washed, and all the parts that are sufficiently bitten are painted out with stopping varnish. In the case of over bitten lines these may be reduced by means of the burnisher. This is a highly polished steel tool with ends of various shapes. By rubbing the over bitten lines with a certain amount of pressure the burnisher will gradually close them up, and, if necessary, eventually remove them entirely.

Erasions are more easily made upon metal than they are on, say, paper; removing anything from paper always destroys the surface, and this cannot be repaired, whereas upon copper, by means of a scraper, and burnisher, you can entirely remove any number of lines, and, should an indentation have been made on the surface of the metal, it is knocked up from the back, and the surface re-polished. As long as there is copper there is hope.

I have now arrived at the most exciting moment, that of taking a proof from my plate. The process of obtaining a proof is as follows: I must first “get ready” my paper. This means it must be damped some time before printing. It is better if it is done the night before, and kept from the air until ready for use. It should be in a limp, not too wet, and not too dry state.

Printing: Then I prepare or grind my ink; this I do upon an ordinary lithographic stone with a heavy muller. The ink is in dry powder form, usually Frankfort or French black, which may be warmed by the addition of a little umber or Japan red, according to what my plate demands. The ink is finely ground up with burnt oil. The plate is now placed upon the heater and brought to a gentle heat, to enable the ink to liquefy slightly and to be dabbed well into the bitten lines. The dabber that is used for this is fairly large, and is usually covered with felt. A piece of coarse muslin is used to wipe off the superfluous ink, and the wiping to follow it is a very delicate, careful operation, and requires a great amount of experience.

Much skill is needed in leaving just sufficient tone, where tone is required. When I say tone, I mean that a certain amount of ink will always cling to the metal, and more or less can be left as the subject requires. If it is necessary to entirely remove this tone, it is done by charging the palm of the hand with ink, and further charging it with whiting; and by lightly passing the palm over the plate, the tone is lessened and by further doing so it is entirely removed.

Individual passages are treated in the same way by picking out highlights, etc. with the finger. The plate is then reheated to again liquefy the ink which is now cool, and a piece of very fine, soft muslin is lightly drawn over the work, which causes the ink to be drawn up to the surface of the lines and slightly over the edges; this “fattens” or enriches the work considerably. It is not always advisable to adopt this operation, as there are so many plates which do not demand it. The edges of the plate are now wiped, and it is ready for the press.

The Copperplate Press: A copperplate press consists of a frame supporting two solid steel rollers, between which a solid steel plank or bed travels to and fro when the press is brought into motion (all copper plate presses are worked by hand). The plate is laid upon the bed, face up, and the damped paper upon the plate; several layers of blanketing are placed over these, and the whole is passed between the rollers under pressure.

I am particularly fond of printing myself, and I think a proof looks its best immediately it is lifted from the press. It is only natural that, later, the ink becomes dry and loses some of that brilliancy it possesses whilst the paper and ink are wet. When dry – owing to the great pressure brought to bear upon the paper- the actual plate surface stretches, and as soon as the proof is dry it cockles. It must, therefore, undergo a process of flattening.

Flattening Proofs: There are different ways of doing this. The one I prefer is straining. This can be done immediately the proof is lifted from the press or at any other time. I do it in this way: whilst the proof is still damp, I lay it upon a drawing board or a piece of plywood and bind the edges of the proof to the board with gummed brown paper tape; as it gradually dries it contracts and strains like a drum. When dry it is cut off close to the brown tape; there has been no pressure on the proof and no crushing of the relief of the lines. This method is not practicable where there is a large edition of large proofs. They must then be placed between boards under pressure after the ink has been allowed to dry.

Handling of Proofs: Proofs should always be shown in a side or top light. This casts a shadow from the relief of the lines, and gives a much richer appearance to them; and they should always be carefully mounted before shown, and a correctly mounted proof should always have the lower margin of the mount greater than the top and sides.

Unmounted proofs should not be lifted with one hand; this is usually fatal. The proof is liable to be “cracked”, and this in many cases is irreparable, especially if it occurs over the printed surface. Here the paper is compressed to a very great degree, and is brittle. Proofs are best lifted by the top left and bottom right hand corners.

The Art of Making Fine Drypoints by Albany E. Howarth A.R.E.

The technique of drypoint is very simple. It consists of making a scratch upon a smoothly polished metal plate with a sharp-pointed piece of steel or a diamond; and that scratch, when printed, will be a surprisingly rich and beautiful line. Drypoint is a form of engraving, that is to say, it is worked upon metal without the aid of a wax ground or an acid bath.

Drypoint and engraving are sometimes confused, but the difference is radical - a drypoint line cut upon metal dispenses with no metal, it only displaces it. It is similar to ploughing a field: the sharp pointed needle cuts a furrow into the metal and at the same time raises a ridge (which is called the burr).

In engraving the line cut with the engraver’s tool (called the burin) the metal displaced by the tool is entirely removed, except for a very slight burr at the edges, and the gradation of tones is produced by how deep or shallow the  lines are cut.

Drypoint stands alone as a wonderful medium of expression; the line scratched or cut raises the ridge or burr, and it is the accumulation of ink against this burr that gives an extraordinary richness and throws a veil of mystery over the whole.  On account of this it is frequently amalgamated with etched work. For those who do not readily distinguish the difference between an etching and a drypoint, this is easily observed in proofs by the aid of a magnifying glass.


The Art of Making Fine Prints