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Soft-ground etching

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

John Sell Cotman, Capel-Carrig, Caenarvonshire, soft-ground etching

John Sell Cotman, Capel-Carrig, Caenarvonshire, soft-ground etching, executed 1817

(published later in Liber Studiorum).

Soft-ground etchings can look similar to both stipple engravings and lithographs. Soft-ground etchings usually have a much less formal appearance than stipple engravings and look more like freehand sketching. A soft-ground etching will have a plate mark whereas a lithograph will not.

To make a soft-ground etching a pencil sketch will be made first on thin paper. This will then be placed on top of a copper plate which has been evenly covered with a thin layer of wax called tallow. The addition of tallow to the ground makes the ground much more soft than that used for etching. The sketch is then traced over and the etcher will put more pressure on the darker lines. The paper directly under the pencil strokes sticks to the tallow ground on the underside of the paper. Once all the lines have been traced over, the paper is carefully removed by peeling up from one end. It lifts the ground with it and therefore exposed the parts of the copper plate where the marks have been made.

The next stage is to immerse the copper plate in an acid bath and the acid will bite into the exposed copper parts. The result is almost an exact reproduction of the pencil line. Not all of the ground will adhere to the paper, so the effect on the print is to create broken or dotted, rather than solid lines. It is quite difference in appearance from etching or engraving which has clearly demarcated lines. The technique creates a soft but rich burr where the copper is eroded that give the appearance of soft pencil drawings and freehand sketching. This very quality though had a disadvantage; the plates would wear relatively quickly and so the number of etchings that could be made from a single plate was limited. The paper used to print the image also affected the way the image looked; if the paper is smooth the lines look like pencil, but if rough, they are more like chalk.

The introduction of lithography into England by Rudolph Ackermann in 1817, an easier and safer process which produced a similar effect to soft-ground etchings, largely supplanted soft-ground etching though

Soft ground etching was a process used by John Sell Cotman amongst others including Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Girtin. Cotman produced his soft-ground etchings early on, the first one is recorded in 1801 and his last in 1818.

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