Etchings, Engravings, and Lithographs – Oh My!

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A lithograph of Salvador Dali's Peccatum

Have you ever walked into a gallery or museum and seen ‘etching’ under a piece of artwork and wondered what exactly that term means? You probably have a good idea, but you might not know exactly what goes into an etching, or other printmaking techniques, that make them valuable and unique from each other.

Image of Salvador Dalí's Le Demon Aile Etching

Le Demon Aile, Salvador Dalí, 1969 (Etching)

Etching is one of the most common printmaking techniques that has been used by artists for centuries; largely because the process is almost as easy as drawing with a pencil. They start out with a metal plate (originally iron, now usually copper) covered with a layer of wax known as the “ground”.  The artist uses the tool of their choice and creates a design through the ground. Once it is complete, the entire plate is submerged into an acid bath that “bites” away the metal that has been exposed through the design. The ground is removed, and the plate is covered with ink to begin the transfer of the image onto a sheet of damp paper with force from a press. The result is a raised impression of the design with blunt lines.

Image of Pierre Bonnard's Fourth Chapter - The Necessity engraving

Fourth Chapter – The Necessity, Pierre Bonnard, 1922 (Engraving)

Engravings are very similar to etchings; however, the process is much more slow and tedious and creates more tapered lines. The artist begins with a copper plate that is then marked with a tool known as a burin. As the burin moves through the copper, shavings of copper (called burr), are forced to either side of the line and then cleared away before inking and printing.

Image of Henri Matisse's Danseuse Creole lithograph Danseuse Creole, Henri Matisse, 1950 (Lithograph)

Lithographs vary greatly from both etchings and engravings. The process is much more concerned with the transfer of color instead of lines. Lithography relies on the aversion of water and oil in order for it to work properly. The artist begins by drawing a design using an oily liquid wash, such as a crayon or tusche, onto a flat, ground stone. The entire surface is covered in water, which is pushed away by the oily design. The artist uses a roller to cover the stone in an oily ink that is only absorbed by the greasy areas. A sheet of paper is placed on the stone and run through a press to transfer the design.

The value of this type of work ranges by the processes used to create them; but also by how many were made, if they were signed by the artist, and if they have hand-embellished elements that were added after the printmaking process. The more hand-done features on the work of art, the more expensive, thus valuable, it will be.

Baterbys Art Gallery has a wide-range of artworks that were created using these popular printmaking processes, and many others. Come by the gallery today to see works similar to the ones above by well-known artists, or maybe some artists you are not yet familiar with. Our gallery consultants would love to help you learn about our featured artists and the processes that went into each piece of art that makes it so incredible and unique!