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Goya, No. 32 of Los Caprichos (1799, Por que fue sensible). This is a fairly rare example of a print entirely in aquatint. Museo del Prado - Goya - Caprichos - No. 32 - Por que fue sensible.jpg
Goya, No. 32 of Los Caprichos (1799, Por que fue sensible). This is a fairly rare example of a print entirely in aquatint.

Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching that only produces areas of tone rather than lines. For this reason it has mostly been used in conjunction with etching, to give outlines. [2] It has also been used historically to achieve prints in colour, both by printing with multiple plates in different colours, and by making monochrome prints that were then hand-coloured with watercolour.

Intaglio (printmaking) family of printing and printmaking techniques

Intaglio is the family of printing and printmaking techniques in which the image is incised into a surface and the incised line or sunken area holds the ink. It is the direct opposite of a relief print.

Printmaking process through which an artistic print is created

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is not considered a "copy" but rather is considered an "original". This is because typically each print varies to an extent due to variables intrinsic to the printmaking process, and also because the imagery of a print is typically not simply a reproduction of another work but rather is often a unique image designed from the start to be expressed in a particular printmaking technique. A print may be known as an impression. Printmaking is not chosen only for its ability to produce multiple impressions, but rather for the unique qualities that each of the printmaking processes lends itself to.

Etching intaglio printmaking technique

Etching is traditionally the process of using strong acid or mordant to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material. As a method of printmaking, it is, along with engraving, the most important technique for old master prints, and remains in wide use today. In a number of modern variants such as microfabrication etching and photochemical milling it is a crucial technique in much modern technology, including circuit boards.


Joseph Lycett, The residence of Edward Riley Esquire, Wooloomooloo, Near Sydney N. S. W., 1825, hand-coloured aquatint and etching printed in dark blue ink. Australian print in the tradition of British decorative production. The artist had been transported for forging bank notes. Joseph Lycett - The residence of Edward Riley Esquire, Wooloomooloo, Near Sydney N. S. W. - Google Art Project.jpg
Joseph Lycett, The residence of Edward Riley Esquire, Wooloomooloo, Near Sydney N. S. W., 1825, hand-coloured aquatint and etching printed in dark blue ink. Australian print in the tradition of British decorative production. The artist had been transported for forging bank notes.
Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing, drypoint and aquatint, from three plates, 1890-91 Mary Cassatt - The Bath.jpg
Mary Cassatt, Woman Bathing, drypoint and aquatint, from three plates, 1890-91

It has been in regular use since the later 18th century, and was most widely used between about 1770 and 1830, when it was used both for artistic prints and decorative ones. After about 1830 it lost ground to lithography and other techniques. [3] There have been periodic revivals among artists subsequently. [4] The aquatint plate wears out relatively quickly, and is less easily reworked than other intaglio plates; many of Goya's plates were reprinted too often posthumously, giving very poor impressions. [5]

Lithography printing process

Lithography is a method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water. The printing is from a stone or a metal plate with a smooth surface. It was invented in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder as a cheap method of publishing theatrical works. Lithography can be used to print text or artwork onto paper or other suitable material.

Among the most famous prints using the aquatint technique are the major series by Goya, many of The Birds of America by John James Audubon (with the colour added by hand), and prints by Mary Cassatt printed in colour using several plates.

<i>The Birds of America</i> book by naturalist and painter John James Audubon

The Birds of America is a book by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, containing illustrations of a wide variety of birds of the United States. It was first published as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838, in Edinburgh and London. Not all of the specimens illustrated in the work were collected by Audubon himself, some were sent to him by John Kirk Townsend who had collected them on Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth's 1834 expedition with Thomas Nuttall.

John James Audubon American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter

John James Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.

Mary Cassatt American painter and printmaker

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, but lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.


In intaglio printmaking techniques such as engraving and etching, the artist makes marks into the surface of the plate (in the case of aquatint, a copper or zinc plate) that are capable of holding ink. The plate is inked all over then wiped clean to leave ink only in the marks. The plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, and strong pressure applied pushing the paper into the marks, so that a transfer of the ink to the paper occurs. This is repeated many times.

Engraving practice of incising a design on to a hard, usually flat surface, by cutting grooves into it

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.

Printing press device for evenly printing ink onto a print medium

A printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium, thereby transferring the ink. It marked a dramatic improvement on earlier printing methods in which the cloth, paper or other medium was brushed or rubbed repeatedly to achieve the transfer of ink, and accelerated the process. Typically used for texts, the invention and global spread of the printing press was one of the most influential events in the second millennium.

Like etching, aquatint uses the application of a mordant (acid) to etch into the metal plate. Where etching uses a needle to scratch through an acid-proof resist and make lines, aquatint uses powdered rosin (resin) to create a tonal effect. The rosin is acid resistant and typically adhered to the plate by controlled heating; where the grains are will print white, with black areas around. The tonal variation is controlled by the level of mordant exposure over large areas, and thus the image is shaped by large sections at a time. The rosin is then washed off the plate before printing. [6]

Rosin organic substance

Rosin, also called colophony or Greek pitch, is a solid form of resin obtained from pines and some other plants, mostly conifers, produced by heating fresh liquid resin to vaporize the volatile liquid terpene components. It is semi-transparent and varies in color from yellow to black. At room temperature rosin is brittle, but it melts at stove-top temperature. It chiefly consists of various resin acids, especially abietic acid. The term "colophony" comes from colophonia resina, Latin for "resin from Colophon", an ancient Ionic city.

Another tonal technique, mezzotint, begins with a plate surface that is evenly indented and roughened so that it will print as an even and fairly dark tone of ink. The mezzotint plate is then smoothed and polished to make areas carry less ink and thus print a lighter shade. Alternatively, beginning with a smooth plate, areas are roughened to make them darker. Occasionally the two techniques of aquatint and mezzotint are combined.

Mezzotint printmaking process

Mezzotint is a printmaking process of the intaglio family, technically a drypoint method. It was the first tonal method to be used, enabling half-tones to be produced without using line- or dot-based techniques like hatching, cross-hatching or stipple. Mezzotint achieves tonality by roughening a metal plate with thousands of little dots made by a metal tool with small teeth, called a "rocker". In printing, the tiny pits in the plate hold the ink when the face of the plate is wiped clean. A high level of quality and richness in the print can be achieved.


Philibert-Louis Debucourt, The Public Promenade, 1792. Printed in colour from various plates, using etching, engraving, and aquatint. One of the leading achievements of the French 18th-century colour-print. The Public Promenade MET DT4549.jpg
Philibert-Louis Debucourt, The Public Promenade, 1792. Printed in colour from various plates, using etching, engraving, and aquatint. One of the leading achievements of the French 18th-century colour-print.

To 1830

A variety of early experiments aimed to add tonal effects to etching included the first use of a resin dust ground by the painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde IV in Amsterdam, around 1650. However none of these developed a technique that caught on with other printmakers. [7] Experimentation by several artists with somewhat different techniques reached a peak after about 1750, and as they were initially very secretive, the history of the emergence of the standard technique remains unclear. [8]

Various claimants include the Swede Per Floding working with the Frenchman François-Philippe Charpentier in 1761, J. B. Delafosse in 1766, working with the amateur Jean-Claude Richard (often rather misleadingly known as the Abbé de Saint-Non) in 1766, and Jean-Baptiste Le Prince in 1768-69. Le Prince was more effective than the others in publicizing his technique, publishing Découverte du procédé de graver au lavis in 1780, though he failed to sell his secret in his lifetime. It was bought posthumously by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1782, who released it on an open basis. [9]

Though England was to become one of the countries using the technique most, the earliest English aquatints were not exhibited until 1772, by the cartographer Peter Perez Burdett. It was taken up by the watercolourist Paul Sandby, who also seems to have introduced technical refinements as well as inventing the name "aquatint". [10] In England artists such as Sandby and Thomas Gainsborough were attracted by the suitability of etched outlines with aquatint for reproducing the popular English landscape watercolours, which at this period usually also had been given an initial outline drawing in ink. Publishers of prints and illustrations for expensive books, both important British markets at the time, also adopted the technique. In all these areas, a print with etching and aquatint gave very satisfactory results when watercolour was added by relatively low-skilled painters copying a model, with a flat wash of colour on top of the varied tones of the aquatint. [11] After the French Revolution, one of the most successful publishers in London, the German Rudolf Ackermann, had numbers of French refugees working on the floor above his shop in The Strand in London, each brushing a single colour and then passing the sheet down a long table. [12]

Over the same period in France there was sustained interest in techniques for true colour printing using multiple plates, which used multiple printmaking techniques which often included aquatint (or mezzotint) for tone. Artists included Jean-François Janinet and Philibert-Louis Debucourt, whose La Promenade Publique is often thought the masterpiece of the style. [13] Another branch of this French movement mostly used mezzotint for tone and came to specialize in illustrating medical textbooks. This was at first led by Jacob Christoph Le Blon (1667–1741), who very nearly anticipated modern CMYK colour separation and then carried on by his pupil Jacques Fabien Gautier d'Agoty and later members of the d'Agoty family until around 1800. [14]

Goya, maker of incontestably the greatest prints using aquatint, probably learned of the technique though Giovanni David from Genoa, the first significant Italian to use it. Goya used it, normally with etching and often burnishing and other techniques, in his great print series Los Caprichos (1799), Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810–19), La Tauromaquia (1816) and Los disparates (ca. 1816–23). [15]


After a period of several decades in the central 19th century when the technique was little used, and definitively superseded for commercial uses, [16] it was revived near the end of the century in France, by Édouard Manet, Félicien Rops, Degas, Pissarro, Jacques Villon and other artists. [17] In 1891, Mary Cassatt, based in Paris, exhibited a series of highly original coloured drypoint and aquatint prints, including Woman Bathing and The Coiffure, inspired by an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints shown there the year before. These used multiple blocks for the different colours. Cassatt was attracted to the simplicity and clarity of Japanese design, and the skillful use of blocks of colour. In her interpretation, she used primarily light, delicate pastel colours and avoided black (a "forbidden" colour among the Impressionists).

It continued to be used in the 20th century, with the Czech T. F. Šimon and the German Johnny Friedlaender notably frequent users. In the United States the printmaker Pedro Joseph de Lemos popularized aquatints in art schools with his publications (1919–40), which simplified the cumbersome techniques, and with traveling exhibitions of his award-winning prints. [18]

Modern process

Demonstration sections of printed aquatint, magnified. Acquatinta ingrandita otto volte.jpg
Demonstration sections of printed aquatint, magnified.
aquatint box, used to apply resin powder on the plate. Boite a aquatinte.jpg
aquatint box, used to apply resin powder on the plate.

An aquatint requires a metal plate, an acid, and something to resist the acid. Traditionally copper or zinc plates were used. The artist applies a ground that will resist acid. Ground is applied by either dissolving powdered resin in spirits, applying the powder directly to the surface of the plate, or by using a liquid acrylic resist. In all forms of etching the acid resist is commonly referred to as "the ground."

An aquatint box is used to apply resin powder. The powder is at the bottom of the box, a crank or a bellows is used to blow the powder up into the air of the box. A window allows the engraver to see the density of flowing powder and to place his plate in the box using a drawer. When the powder covers the plate, it can be extracted from the box for the next operations.

The plate is then heated; if the plate is covered with powder, the resin melts forming a fine and even coat; if it is in spirits, the spirits evaporate and the result is essentially the same. Now the plate is dipped in acid, producing an even and fine level of corrosion (the "bite") sufficient to hold ink. At this point, the plate is said to carry about a 50% halftone. This means that, were the plate printed with no further biting, the paper would display a gray color more or less directly in between white (no ink) and black (full ink).

Zinc plate with powder resin. Plaque et resine.JPG
Zinc plate with powder resin.

At some point the artist will then etch an outline of any aspects of the drawing they wish to establish with line; this provides the basis and guide for the later tone work. They may also have applied (at the very start, before any biting occurs) an acid-resistant "stop out" (also called an asphaltum or hard ground) if they intend to keep any areas totally white and free of ink, such as highlights.

The artist then begins immersing the plate in the acid bath, progressively stopping out (protecting from acid) any areas that have achieved the designed tonality. These tones, combined with the limited line elements, give aquatints a distinctive, watery look. Also, aquatints, like mezzotints, provide ease in creating large areas of tone without laborious cross-hatching; but aquatint plates, it is noted, are generally more durable than mezzotint plates.

The first etch should be for a short period (30 seconds to 1 minute, with a wide variation depending on how light the lightest tones are meant to be). A test piece may be made with etching times noted, as the strength of the etchant will vary. More than thirty minutes should produce a very dark area. Etching for many hours (up to 24) will be as dark as etching for one hour, but the deep etch would produce raised ink on the paper.

Contemporary printmakers often use spraypaint instead of a powder, particularly when using the technique known as sugar-lift. To produce a printing surface using sugar-lift, the artist makes a solution of India ink and sugar by melting sugar into heated ink. This mixture is then applied to a prepared plate with a brush, allowing for a bold expression not possible with the most etching techniques. When the ink/sugar mixture is dry the plate is coated with asphaltum (liquid ground); the plate is then submerged in warm water which dissolves the sugar so that the image "lifts off" the plate. The exposed areas are then aquatinted to hold ink and the plate is ready to be printed from.

Famous examples


  1. Griffiths, 150
  2. Griffiths, 89-90
  3. Mayor, 612-614
  4. Gascoigne, 17d; Griffiths, 94-96
  5. Griffiths, 150-151
  6. Griffiths, 89-90
  7. Griffiths, 92; Hind, AM (1963) A History of Engraving and Etching. Dover Publications, New York.
  8. Griffiths, 93-94
  9. Griffiths, 94; Ives (MMA)
  10. Griffiths, 94; Ives; Ann V. Gunn, "Sandby, Greville and Burdett, and the 'Secret' of Aquatint," Print Quarterly, XXIX, no. 2, 2012, pp. 178-180.
  11. Griffiths, 94
  12. Mayor, 374-376
  13. Griffiths, 119
  14. Griffiths, 118-119
  15. Ives (MMA); Griffiths, 94
  16. Mayor, 612-614
  17. Griffiths, 94
  18. Edwards, Robert W. (2015). Pedro de Lemos, Lasting Impressions: Works on Paper. Worcester, Mass.: Davis Publications Inc. pp. 67, 91 notes 355–357. ISBN   9781615284054.
  19. "David Hockney : Graphics / Blue Guitar". Retrieved 12 February 2012.

Related Research Articles

Linocut is a printmaking technique, a variant of woodcut in which a sheet of linoleum is used for a relief surface. A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, V-shaped chisel or gouge, with the raised (uncarved) areas representing a reversal of the parts to show printed. The linoleum sheet is inked with a roller, and then impressed onto paper or fabric. The actual printing can be done by hand or with a printing press.

Monotyping planographic artistic printing process

Monotyping is a type of printmaking made by drawing or painting on a smooth, non-absorbent surface. The surface, or matrix, was historically a copper etching plate, but in contemporary work it can vary from zinc or glass to acrylic glass. The image is then transferred onto a sheet of paper by pressing the two together, usually using a printing-press. Monotypes can also be created by inking an entire surface and then, using brushes or rags, removing ink to create a subtractive image, e.g. creating lights from a field of opaque colour. The inks used may be oil based or water based. With oil based inks, the paper may be dry, in which case the image has more contrast, or the paper may be damp, in which case the image has a 10 percent greater range of tones.

Drypoint intaglio printmaking technique

Drypoint is a printmaking technique of the intaglio family, in which an image is incised into a plate with a hard-pointed "needle" of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle, the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Like etching, drypoint is easier to master than engraving for an artist trained in drawing because the technique of using the needle is closer to using a pencil than the engraver's burin.

Photogravure printmaking technique

Photogravure is an intaglio printmaking or photo-mechanical process whereby a copper plate is grained and then coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue which had been exposed to a film positive, and then etched, resulting in a high quality intaglio plate that can reproduce detailed continuous tones of a photograph.

Sir Francis Job "Frank" Short PPRE was a British printmaker and teacher of printmaking. He revived the practices of mezzotint and pure aquatint, while expanding the expressive power of line in drypoint etching and engraving. Short also wrote about printmaking to educate a wider public and was President of the Royal Society of Painter Etcher & Engavers from 1910 to 1938.

Monoprinting is a form of printmaking that has lines or images that can only be made once, unlike most printmaking, which allows for multiple originals. There are many techniques of mono-printing. Examples of standard printmaking techniques which can be used to make monoprints include lithography, woodcut, and etching.

Ernest Stephen Lumsden, was a distinguished painter, noted etcher and authority on etching.

Carborundum printmaking

Carborundum Mezzotint is a printmaking technique in which the image is created by adding light passages to a dark field. It is a relatively new process invented in the US during the 1930s by Hubert Mesibov, Michael J. Gallagher, and Dox Thrash, an artist working in Philadelphia with the WPA). "Carborundum Collagraph" collagraph is a different printmaking technique, invented in 1952 by Henri Goetz, an American abstract artist living in Paris. The carborundum mezzotint uses the grits to create pits below the surface of the metal that then hold ink, like traditional mezzotint. The carborundum collagraph creates the image above the surface of the matrix, which does not have to be metal. In one method, the grits are mixed into a paste using an acrylic base that is painted onto the matrix, creating the image much like painting. Once dried, this holds the ink; the wiping and printing are done the same as etching. The techniques described following and below are alternatives to the paste mixture technique, yet all are creating the image above the surface of the matrix. Carbordundum collagraph allows artists to work on a large scale. Normally, cardboard or wood plates are coated in a layer of carborundum or screen, and the lights are created by filling in the texture with screen filler or glue. Carborundum prints may be printed as intaglio plates.

Viscosity printing is a multi-color printmaking technique that incorporates principles of relief printing and intaglio printing. It was pioneered by Stanley William Hayter.

Steel engraving

Steel engraving is a technique for printing illustrations based on steel instead of copper. It has been rarely used in artistic printmaking, although it was much used for reproductions in the 19th century. Steel engraving was introduced in 1792 by Jacob Perkins (1766–1849), an American inventor, for banknote printing. When Perkins moved to London in 1818, the technique was adapted in 1820 by Charles Warren and especially by Charles Heath (1785–1848) for Thomas Campbell's Pleasures of Hope, which contained the first published plates engraved on steel. The new technique only partially replaced the other commercial techniques of that time such as woodcut, wood engraving, copper engraving and later lithography. All the illustrations in the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1911 are steel engravings.

Old master print paper illustration by woodcut, engraving or etching

An old master print is a work of art produced by a printing process within the Western tradition. The term remains current in the art trade, and there is no easy alternative in English to distinguish the works of "fine art" produced in printmaking from the vast range of decorative, utilitarian and popular prints that grew rapidly alongside the artistic print from the 15th century onwards. Fifteenth-century prints are sufficiently rare that they are classed as old master prints even if they are of crude or merely workmanlike artistic quality. A date of about 1830 is usually taken as marking the end of the period whose prints are covered by this term.


Vitreography is a fine art printmaking technique that uses a 38-inch-thick (9.5 mm) float glass matrix instead of the traditional matrices of metal, wood or stone. A print created using the technique is called a vitreograph. Unlike a monotype, in which ink is painted onto a smooth glass plate and transferred to paper to produce a unique work, the vitreograph technique involves fixing the imagery in, or on, the glass plate. This allows the production of an edition of prints.

Francis Jukes British engraver

Francis Jukes (1745–1812) was a prolific engraver and publisher, chiefly known for his topographical and shipping prints, the majority in aquatint. He worked alongside the great illustrators of the late eighteenth century. He contributed numerous plates to various publications of rural scenes. His early prints were published in collaboration with Valentine Green, and later worked in collaboration with the engraver and publisher Robert Pollard.

<i>Unfortunate events in the front seats of the ring of Madrid, and the death of the mayor of Torrejón</i> etching by Francisco de Goya

Unfortunate Events in the Front Seats of the Ring of Madrid, and the Death of the Mayor of Torrejón is the name given to an etching with burnished aquatint, drypoint and burin on paper by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya.

Maurice R. Bebb (1891–1986) was a notable etcher and printmaker of the American Midwest, whose best-known subjects were birds native to Oklahoma and Minnesota, where he spent his time. Etching involves using copper plates on which an artist has etched or “bitten” his picture with acid. Color etchings like Bebb's require two to four copper plates, each is inked with one or more different colors and printed one over the other to produce the finished picture. Technically, the process is called multi-plate soft-ground and aquatint etching.

Stipple engraving technique used to create tone in a print

Stipple engraving is a technique used to create tone in an intaglio print by distributing a pattern of dots of various sizes and densities across the image. The pattern is created on the printing plate either in engraving by gouging out the dots with a burin, or through an etching process. Stippling was used as an adjunct to conventional line engraving and etching for over two centuries, before being developed as a distinct technique in the mid-18th century.


Further reading