Intaglio Printmaking Techniques

The Intaglio medium will be broken down into four different techniques. These will include line etching, aquatint, drypoint, and softground. Each of these processes requires different procedures and varying supplies. Each area will be covered separately.

All the images will be created on zinc plates. The material of choice would be copper, but the cost of the material makes the use of copper prohibitive.


To prepare the ground:


  1. Asphaltum ground
  2. An inexpensive 1" brush
  3. Whiting or a substitute cleanser.


The plate must have its edges beveled before applying any grounds.

The plate must be cleaned of oil, grease and fingerprints that may keep the ground from adhering to the metal. Whiting or a cleanser is used for this purpose. When the plate will accept a smooth film of water we can assume that all contaminates have been removed.

After the plate has been dried with paper towels, brush a thin even coat of asphaltum on the plate. You can either allow the plate to dry on its own or you can place it on the hot plate at a low heat (150 - 200) to speed up the drying.

Transfer the drawing to the plate:


  1. Carbon or graphite paper
  2. pencil and eraser
  3. white chalk
  4. white crayon
  5. tracing paper
  6. Asphaltum grounded plate
  7. Etching press

Procedure: There are a several ways to get your image to the coated plate.

Here are four options:

Place a piece of carbon paper on top of your coated plate and on top of this place your drawing. Trace over your drawing thus transferring your image to the plate.

Instead of carbon paper another option would be to coat the back of your drawing with graphite and use the carbon paper method.

Using Tracing paper and a soft pencil trace your drawing in outline and contour. Plate the tracing face down on your coated plate. Cover the plate and tracing paper with newsprint and run it through the etching press.

The final method is the most adventurous. You could draw the image directly on the plate with chalk, white crayon, pencil, or a combination of these.

Needling the image:


  1. Etching needle
  2. Asphaltum and brush
  3. Asphaltum-coated plate


The etching needle that you use should have a good clean point but, it should be slightly rounded to permit better movement on the plate surface. Too sharp a point will scratch the plate, create a burr, or remove metal.

Just enough pressure should be employed to penetrate the ground and expose the metal. Insufficient pressure will not completely break through the ground and this will result in uneven etching. Keep in mind that you are dealing with a drawing surface. Treat the experience as drawing. You should be able to use a reasonable variety of line, crosshatching, stipple dot, and unique mark making to draw the image. Think in terms of pen and ink during the process. The light lines that you draw through the ground in the final image will be black.

Do not draw the lines so close together that the evidence of line is removed. Leave some evidence of ground between the lines.

Etching the plate:


  1. Asphaltum ground
  2. Brushes for asphaltum
  3. Nitric Acid bath
  4. Brushes for acid
  5. Grounded plate with drawing


The etch times will be covered by the instructor. Make note of these times for reference. Make sure that the edges of your plate are covered with asphaltum before using the acid bath.

The longer the plate is left in the acid bath the darker the lines will print. There is a direct relationship between the time the exposed plate is placed in the acid and the range of values that you can create. The nitric acid will bite laterally as well as downward. Your lines will not only get deeper as time passes in the acid bath but also wider.

The plate should be lowered slowly into the acid bath to avoid any spills or splashes.

The bubbles created by the action of the nitric acid on the zinc plate should be gently swept away with either a soft brush or a good size feather. Bubbles allowed to remain on the plate will cause an uneven etch. Do not use a brush that has any metal near the hairs of the brush. Nitric acid will eat away at any metal that crosses its path.

Stop-out procedures during the etching process:


  1. Asphaltum
  2. Brushes


To establish a range of values, the plate must be etched in stages. After the first etch, remove the plate from the acid bath.

Rinse the plate with Water. Rinse your hands to remove any acid residue. Dry the plate with clean paper towels or newsprint.

With brush and the asphaltum ground paint over the areas of the plate where you want to stop the etching action. Keep in mind that the less time that lines are exposed to the acid the lighter the values will be.

Allow the asphaltum to dry, thoroughly. To speed up the process you could employ a hair drier or low heat from the hot plate.

Continue to etch the plate. Repeat the steps above as often as possible to arrive at the desired range of values.

Plate preparation prior to printing:


  1. Mineral spirits
  2. Rags


Remove all the asphaltum from the plate using the solvent.


To prepare the plate:

Materials: Cleanser


Remove grease, oil, fingerprints and any other contaminates with either whiting or cleanser.

Dry the plate with paper towels or newsprint

Transfer the drawing to the plate:

The first three methods, employed in line etching, will work in transferring your image to the surface of the zinc plate.

Needling the plate:

Materials: Etching needle


The etching needle now referred to as the drypoint needle should be round with no flat sides. Flat sides will angle the needle and will also remove metal during the drawing process.

The drawing should be built up slowly. Gradually increase the pressure as the drawing develops. Greater pressure causes a darker line. the angle of the needle will also help create a darker / different line. A needle used at an angle will create a definite burr on the opposite side of the line and a vertical needle produces a slight burr on both sides of the line.

The lines in you drawing should be built up gradually working from light to dark values. Tonal areas can be created by employing cross-hatching and stippling.

Lines can be removed or lightened with the scraper and burnisher.


Apply the aquatint ground:


  1. Aquatint box
  2. Aquatint shaker bag
  3. Hot plate
  4. Zinc plate
  5. Asphaltum
  6. Brushes
  7. Alcohol (Denatured)


Clean the plate of oil, grease, and other foreign matter. Make sure the edges of the plate have been beveled before applying the rosin ground.

Coat the plate with asphaltum. Use the line etching procedure to put a light line etching (outline and contour) on the plate. This provides you with a guide for the development of your aquatint.

Move the particles of rosin near the air valve located in the lower portion of the aquatint box. Close the door and depress the air release button for 10 to 20 seconds.(This will circulate the rosin inside the box.)

Wait for 10 to 15 seconds so the larger particles can settle to the bottom of the box. Open the door and carefully lay your plate on the wire mesh shelf. Do not slide it or you will pick up rosin from the wire shelf.

Close the door and allow the plate to remain in the aquatint box for approximately 30 to 45 seconds. Lift the plate out of the box and check the rosin coverage. Do not tilt, breath on, touch, or place the plate in a drafty area after taking it out of the aquatint box.

There should be at least a 50/50% coverage of rosin particles on the surface of the plate . A magnification glass would be a good aid at this stage in the process.

If the coverage is light, place the plate in the aquatint box a second time. If the rosin is too heavy, clean the plate off and repeat the preceding steps in the procedure.

The hot plate should be set somewhere between 300 and 400 . Place the rosin-coated plate on a sheet of newsprint and then place it on the hot plate. The rosin will become shiny and transparent as it reaches its melting point. To examine this event you should be at eye level with the surface of the plate.

As soon as the particles melt remove the plate from the hot plate and allow the plate to cool. When the plate is cool cover the edges with asphaltum ground.

Etching the plate:

The proper etching times will be given to you by the instructor. Follow the procedure described in the section on line etching. The major difference is that you will be etching tonal areas rather than lines. The time the exposed areas of the plate are in the acid bath will determine the range of values that can be achieved.

After a total of 2 minutes of etching, the plate should be put back into the aquatint box for about 15 seconds. This step is necessary to replace any particles of rosin that may have been removed by the etching action. This step should be repeated every minute to minute and a half from this point on.

Stop-out procedures during the etching process:

With brush and asphaltum begin the drawing process by stopping out those areas that will remain white. Allow the asphaltum to dry.

Place the plate in the acid bath. To gain the greatest range of values the etch time should run somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds. The plate should be removed from the acid at each stage. The plate should be rinsed and blotted dry. At each stage in the etch process the plate is stopped out with asphaltum. This will allow you to save the value at any given point in the etching procedure.

Repeat this step as often as is necessary to achieve the desired range of values.

Plate preparation prior to printing:


  1. Mineral spirits
  2. Alcohol
  3. Rags / paper towels
  4. Cleanser


Remove the asphaltum from the plate as you did in the line etching procedure. To clean the rosin from the plate use denatured alcohol. The Plate is now ready to be printed.


To prepare the ground:


  1. Soft ground
  2. Brayer
  3. Hot plate
  4. Zinc plate


Softground is just what the name implies. The acid resistant ground is composed of bees wax, grease, asphaltum, and a small amount of ball hardground. This mixture is heated and blended.

The hot plate should be set at a low setting (150 ). Place a sheet of newsprint or brown paper under your zinc plate when you place it on the hot plate.

Apply the softground to the plate. When the plate has warmed to the point where the softground has melted remove the plate from the hot plate. As the plate begins to cool, roll the softground with a brayer to a light thin coating. The most successful ground will be thin enough to respond to any texture that is applied, regardless of the delicate quality of the texture. Reheat the plate at this point to even out the ground.

Drawing transfer process:


  1. Grounded plate
  2. Pen and/or pencil
  3. The drawing
  4. A thin textured paper


The first task is to transfer the image of the drawing to the thin textured paper that you intend to use for the softground drawing.

Place the thin textured paper, with the drawing transfer, on the grounded plate. Be sure not to touch the soft ground that is on the plate, for the ground will respond to any applied pressure.

With drawing tools at hand ( pen and Pencil) develop your image on the thin paper that is on top of your grounded plate. The pressure of the drawing tool will be reflected in the amount of softground that is removed or displaced by the plate. This ground will attach itself to the back of the drawing surface. The texture of the paper, hardness of the pencil, the amount of pressure will all influence the amount of ground that picked up.

When you are finished with your drawing, remove the paper from the grounded plate. Block out the edges and any spots on the surface with a brush and asphaltum ground. Allow the asphaltum to air dry, do not apply any heat.

Etching the drawing:


  1. Grounded plate (drawn upon)
  2. Acid bath


Lower the plate into the acid bath, carefully. To remove bubbles lift the plate out of the acid bath and let it drain. If you place a loop of string around the plate before you put it in the acid bath, you can use the string to lift the pale periodically to exhaust the bubbles.

Any stop-out procedures are the same as in the line etch procedure. You are cautioned never to touch the surface of the plate. You can repeat the stop-out procedure as often as necessary.

After the etching procedure clean the plate with either kerosene or mineral spirits.

Applying textures:


  1. Fabric, paper, thin plastics,
  2. small natural objects
  3. The grounded plate
  4. Etching press
  5. Wax paper
  6. Brown paper or newsprint


Apply the softground as previously described.

Place brown paper or newsprint on the press bed, follow with the grounded plate, the textured material(s), a sheet of wax paper and cap with another sheet of brown paper or newsprint.

Engage the press, the felt blankets and run the total through the press rollers. Remove the paper and the materials.

Block out the edges of the plate and any sections that are not to be etched. Etch and stop-out the plate as required to create the desired textures and values.

Clean the plate with mineral spirits before proofing.


Sexauer, Donald. Print Survey Hand-out, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. 1979.

Grabowski, Beth. A Printshop Handbook, University of NC, Chapel Hill, NC. Brown & Benchmark, 1994.