Introduction: Copper Plate Etching

About: I am a Sydney based artist who works with traditional printmaking as well as ink drawing and watercolour methods. I find much inspiration for my work in the natural world and have a particular interest in trad…

Copper plate etching is a traditional form of printmaking that delivers beautifully crisp line work and a wonderfully unique aesthetic. First invented simply as a method of replicating an image, intaglio printmaking has evolved over centuries into an art form in it's own right. The image is drawn on a copper plate then transferred onto paper using a printing press.

This Instructable and accompanying video demonstrate the various stages of creating a hand-coloured copper plate etching. The etching depicts ‘The Pied Cormorant’ and is part of a folio of etchings titled ‘The Birds of New Holland’.

The video is divided up into several stages, starting with ‘Initial sketches’ and concluding with ‘Hand colouring the Print’.

To learn more and download my comprehensive Etching Handbook please visit my website:

This Etching Handbook is a comprehensive and practical outline of the etching process, designed for anyone interested in working with the medium. The guide delivers a complete set of information for absolute beginners through to advanced practitioners and provides a full set of step-by-step processes, techniques, tools, recipes, troubleshooting practices, technical diagrams and a guide for labelling original prints, all over 45 + pages.

Step 1: Initial Sketches

In this first stage the sketches for the etching are created. The sketches are fairly detailed but do not contain anywhere near the amount of information seen in the final etching. The sketches are just a guide to work for and are primarily limited to line work. The final sketch will be transferred to the etching plate using transfer paper in a later stage.

Step 2: Preparing the Plate

Preparing the copper plate for etching is very important. To start with the copper plate must be in good condition and without scratches.

- Firstly the copper is polished with ‘brasso’ and a soft cotton cloth. When the plate is highly polished the surface is wiped clean and is ready to be degreased.

- Degreasing the plate is done by mixing a solution of vinegar and whiting together and rubbing it all over the surface. Once this is done comprehensively the plate is rinsed and dried.

- Ground is applied to the plate in this instructable using liquid hard ground from a can in the form of asphaltum. The ground is spread evenly and thinly over the surface of the plate using a foam brush and allowed to dry.

- In this final stage of preparing the plate the surface of the copper is ‘smoked’ using a candle. Using a multi-wicked candle the plate is suspended upside-down and exposed to the flame, but not the wick, of the lit candle. This technique hardens and darkens the surface of the plate for etching.

Step 3: Transferring the Image

Using carbon paper the initial sketch can be easily transferred onto the plate’s surface by tracing it across. The sketch is placed on top of the copper with the carbon paper face down in-between. The image is redrawn over the sketch and then the papers are removed to show the transferred image.

Step 4: Marking the Plate

Marking the plate is done with a simple pointed metal instrument called a ‘scribe’. There are several other, more complicated, techniques that can also be used to create an image on a plate but they are not seen in this image. The scribe is used to create marks by removing the thin layer of ground from the plate’s surface. The image is drawn entirely with line-work as well as stippling (dots) to build up tone in some areas. This stage is the most time consuming and where most effort is exerted. Mistakes can be mended by painting over the area with ground and a small brush.

Step 5: Etching the Plate

Once the drawing is completed and ready to be made permanent on the plate it can be submerged in an etching solution. The copper plate is submerged in a ‘ferric chloride’ solution, which dissolves and removes the sections of copper exposed to the solution where the ground has been removed. This particular copper plate took approximately 35minutes submerged in the ferric solution to etch. The longer a plate is etched the deeper the lines will be and generally darker the image will appear. Safety is very important during this stage of the process, good ventilation as well as gloves and goggles are a requirement.

Step 6: Removing the Asphaltum Ground

Once the plate has been submerged in the etching solution for a suitable amount of time the ground can be removed. The ground is removed with turpentine and a soft cotton cloth. Taking care not to scratch the plate, all the ground must be removed and the surface should be polished clean before proceeding to the printing stage.

Step 7: Inking the Plate

In this print the plate is inked in once colour which is black. The principal behind inking an intaglio, or etching plate is that the ink will sit in the groves of the plate but be polished and removed from the smooth surface of the plate.

- Firstly the ink is placed on a glass plate and manipulated with a spatula to loosen it and make it softer and easier to work with.

- The ink is applied to the copper plate using small squares of cardboard. Once all the line-work has been completely covered by the ink it can start to be rubbed in with a tarlatan cloth.

- The use of the tarlatan cloth firstly helps push the ink into the line work. As the cloth is rubbed over the surface of the plate the ink is slowly removed. Occasionally changing to a fresh piece of tarlatan when the current one is dirty, the plate is rubbed until most of the ink has been removed from the surface.

- Once the plate has been rubbed substantially with the tarlatan, paper sheets are used to remove the remainder of the ink left on the plate’s surface. The more the plate is polished with paper the white the blank areas of the print will be.

Step 8: Printing the Plate

Etchings and intaglio prints have to be printed on an etching press. Etching presses come in various sizes; the press used to print this image is a large ‘Enjay’ machine.

- When printing an etching the paper must be pre wet in a water bath for a period of time then patted dry with a towel.

- A registration or ‘rego’ sheet is used to ensure that the print is printed with the correct placement on the paper. The rego sheet has an outline of the etching plate and the paper to be printed on. It lies on the press bed under where the plate and paper are positioned.

- Over the rego sheet, the plate is placed face up on the press bed then the paper is carefully laid on top. The felt blankets sit on top to distribute the pressure as the plate moves through the rollers. The pressure applied by an etching press is immense and great care should be taken throughout this process. The plate is moved under the rollers once and then the print can be removed from the other side. Prints are ideally left to dry between two boards. To print another image, the plate must be re-inked and the printing process completed all over again.

Step 9: Hand Colouring the Print

Once the finished prints are left to dry, ideally for at least one week, they can be hand-coloured if desired. Hand colouring prints with watercolours is a traditional method that is quite time consuming. Watercolour paints should be diluted with water until they are not too opaque. It is best to apply paint one colour at a time in thin, translucent layers. If colouring an edition of prints it is a good idea to mix colours for all prints and work colour by colour on all prints at the same time.

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