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Updated: Jan 13, 2021

What is an aquatint?

An aquatint is a form of etching that uses acid to incise the metal plate. Like mezzotint it produces areas of tone rather than lines and so can be used to produce an effect similar to a watercolour wash.

How is an aquatint made?

A metal plate (usually copper) is covered in a layer of a porous material known as a ground. The ground is made up of tiny particles of resin and fused onto the plate. There are several ways to lay the resin ground onto the plate but the two are briefly described here. The first uses a dust-box. Here the resin ground is blown into a cloud and allowed to settle in an even layer on the plate.

In the second method alcohol is used to dissolve the resin which is then spread evenly over the surface of the plate. This method was used by the artist Paul Sandby who may well been the one to discover this technique. When the alcohol evaporates the resin is left as a grain on the surface.

The next stage is to apply the etching acid. When this is done it bites into the plate. The grains of resin offer some resistance to the acid and the acid forms in tiny pools around each particle. Next, when the ink is applied to the whole plate and then wiped, ink is retained in these pools and when printed given a soft grainy appearance rather like a watercolour wash. Aquatints only produce areas of tone and not lines. Because of this the technique is often using in conjunction with etching. It is common for the plate to be etched first and then the aquatint ground would be laid on top. The effect can be varied by allowing the acid to bite to different levels, which will alter the depth of tone, by using grains of different sizes or by using a stopping out varnish.

Aquatints were widely produced between 1775 and 1830 when they were largely superseded by lithography. The laying of aquatint ground was often done by a specialist. The lavish topographical colour-plate books that were produced between about 1790 and 1830 such as those by Rudolph Ackermann were illustrated with aquatint engravings.

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