Aquatint is an intaglio printmaking technique, a variant of etching. In intaglio printmaking, the artist makes marks on the plate (in the case of aquatint, a copper or zinc plate) that are capable of holding ink. The inked plate is passed through a printing press together with a sheet of paper, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the paper. This can be repeated a number of times, depending on the particular technique.

Aquatint, in other words, can be described as a variety of etching widely used by printmakers to achieve a broad range of tonal values. The process is called aquatint because finished prints often resemble watercolour drawings or wash drawings. The technique consists of exposing a copperplate to acid through a layer of melted granulated resin. The acid bites away the plate only in the interstices between the resin grains, leaving an evenly pitted surface that yields broad areas of tone when the grains are removed and the plate is printed. An infinite number of tones can be achieved by exposing various parts of the plate to acid baths of different strengths for different periods of time. Tones can also be altered by scraping and burnishing. Etched or engraved lines are often used with aquatint to achieve greater definition of form.

Jan van de Velde IV

The painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde IV invented the aquatint technique in Amsterdam, around 1650. The cartographer Peter Perez Burdett later introduced his ‘secret’ aquatint technique to England in the 1770s.

Peter Perez Burdett

As a means of etching tonal values, aquatint was named for the effects it creates, which look rather like ink or watercolour washes. The technique can be used to produce shaded areas in a printed etching that range from light to dark, and is useful in figure studies, portraits, or landscapes where modelling or atmospheric tones may impart realism and/or drama. The process involves biting with acid a fine network of lines around grains of resin; the tiny etched channels hold ink that prints as a veil of tone.


Description of the Technique

Aquatint may be used to create tones of differing gradations through the process of etching. Such tonal gradations may be added to a printing plate that has already been worked with engraved, etched, or drypoint lines. The plate is dusted with finely powdered resin and then heated until the resin melts in tiny mounds that harden as they cool. Acid (aqua fortis) is applied to the metal plate and bites channels around the resin droplets. The resulting microscopic reticulation will hold more or less ink, depending upon how long or how deeply the acid is allowed to penetrate the plate. Tones ranging from light gray to velvety black can thus be printed.

Enlarged detail of resin-grain aquatint. Aquatint tone is achieved by dusting a copper plate with resin before it is etched with acid. The resin granules resist the acid that flows and bites around them as if they were castles surrounded by moats. Printer’s ink catches in the etched moats, while the castles stay dry, a contrast that produces the flicker of light and dark we see as halftones. Where the acid bites briefly, the tone prints light; where a deeper bite catches more ink, the area prints darker.


Goya’s Aquatints

Although aquatint was employed most elaborately by English etchers, it became the medium of masterpieces in the hands of the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya. After starting his etchings with brittle but assertive lines, Goya proceeded to cloak them in haunting aquatint shadows. A graphic artist of astounding ingenuity and sensitivity, Goya created four great cycles of etchings to which aquatint contributed emotional depth: Los Caprichos (1799) (18.64.43); Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810–19); La Tauromaquia (1816); and Disparates (ca. 1816–23).

Goya – The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters

Los Desastres de la Guerra

 After Goya’s death, aquatint was largely ignored until Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Mary Cassatt together began to experiment with it. Sugar aquatint, sometimes called sugar lift, was another method that came into widespread use in the 20th century owing to the work of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Rouault. Many contemporary printmakers also use pressurized plastic sprays in place of resin.

Edgar Degas, Actresses in Their Dressing Rooms – c. 1879-1880, etching and aquatint

Camille Pissarro. etching-aquatint. 116x157mm. 1887


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