A Hand Pulled Etching
Gary L. Temple and Marylee M. Moreland
Copyright October 26, 2000
"On any type of artwork one must verify everything and take nothing for granted."
Gary L. Temple and Marylee M. Moreland
For many years, we have been continually asked, "How do you tell the difference between a photogravure and a hand pulled etching?" Our answer: it is not that easy, nor is it all that simple. Sometimes the individual with the question appears to think that we are making it into a very "scientific" process, so that one will have to seek out an expert to get an evaluation, but that is not the case. This document provides some basic guidelines and examples for field evaluation, however you still need to depend upon your own logic and some common sense.
What is a hand pulled etching?
The artist creates a design in reverse on a zinc or copper plate that is covered with an emulsion. By drawing on the plate, the artist removes the emulsion. The plate is then placed in a diluted bath of nitric acid. All of the areas where the emulsion is removed, the acid "bites" into the plate. The artist may block an area from the acid bath in various methods to create different depths to the acid biting and also the effect of the appearance as to the biting of the acid.
When the acid biting is done, the artist may then pull some test prints to determine if there needs to be more texture. The artist also works with a stylus to "scratch" the plate in areas to create a softness which is known as drypoint. The bites from the technique of drypoint are not as deep and must be reworked by the artist during the edition of the printing.
The artist then cleans off all of the remaining emulsion from the plate and applies the ink "by hand" to the plate so that the ink is retained in the bitten areas. A moistened piece of paper is laid upon the plate and the two are literally pressed together using an etching press. After coming out of the etching press, the artist "pulls" or lifts the paper away from the plate. The artist may pull several impressions to decide on which ones that they want to pattern the edition after. These selected impressions become known as the artist's proofs. These are the images that the artist uses to compare each pulled print to them and to decide if it is worthy of being part of the edition.
What is a photogravure?
A photogravure is produced by basically using a light sensitive tissue on a plate or plates. Each plate is exposed the same way and placed in a diluted bath of nitric acid as with an etching. The difference being is the "bitten" areas are all exactly the same depth, appearing noticeably flat. Unlike a hand pulled etching, the ink on a photogravure plate is applied and cleaned with a mechanical squeegee. The mechanical squeegee applies the ink exactly the same way each time to the plate so thus the impression is the same each time. When a photogravure is printed, the paper is not wet like with a hand pulled etching but rather the plate is "stamped" against the paper. The ink then lays upon the paper and not into the paper as with a hand pulled etching.
Probably one of the most well known producers of photogravures was Brown and Bigelow. Over the years, Brown and Bigelow has done everything from reproductions of etchings for calendars, posters, and, or greeting cards.
The conceptual confusion of a photogravure versus a hand pulled etching is like the old saying, "I am not confused, I am just well mixed." Are there clear answers to determine whether an image is a photogravure or a hand pulled etching? The answer is "No." Just because it may have some factors of a hand pulled etching does not mean that it is one.
Question Of A Photogravure Versus A Hand Pulled Etching
THE ETCHING PROCESS
The following is from "The Etchings of Edward Borein, A Catalogue Of His Work" by John Galvin: "A plate of copper (or sometimes of zinc)is cleaned and polished, and a coating of varnish--the etching ground--is applied in preparation. The artist then draws his design through the ground with an etching needle, aware that in the print it will appear reversed. In a bath of diluted nitric acid, the lines traced by the needle are bitten into the plate, the rest of the plate being protected from the acid by the varnish. Lines can also be scratched onto the plate with a thin steel tipped needle if no varnish is applied, and the result is called a drypoint. However, drypoint lines wear out much faster than etching lines. Etching and drypoint are sometimes used in combination. Aquatint is an etching process in which tonal areas are created instead of lines. This is achieved by dusting powdered resin on the plate which when heated will cause the resin to contract and thus allow the acid to bite the plate in the small crevices of the grain. The finished plate is inked so that all furrows are filled, excess ink is wiped off, and a sheet of dampened paper is pressed against the plate in an etching press. The resulting impression, a sheet of paper which has absorbed the ink from the plate, is called a print. Generally, black ink is used, but some artists have preferred sepia or other colored inks."
"The Etchings Of Edward Borein, A Catalogue of his work" by John Galvin, Compiled with the assistance of Warren R. Howell, In collaboration with Harold G. Davidson; page vi; John Howell--Books, 1971.