Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Printed Image in the West: Aquatint

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A means of etching tonal values, aquatint was named for the effects it creates, which look rather like ink or watercolor 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 modeling 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.


The medium’s lively pictorial effects suited it perfectly to the growing market for popular prints such as caricatures and fashion plates.

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  • enlarged detail of resin-grain aquatint

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Invention and Earliest Uses
Aquatint was invented by the printmaker Jan van de Velde (30.54.72) around 1650 in Amsterdam, where mezzotint, another tonal printing process, was also being developed. But unlike mezzotint, which found immediate use, the technique of aquatint seems to have been forgotten until the eighteenth century, when recipes for its use were published in Stapart’s Art de graver au pinceau (1773) and Jean-Baptiste Le Prince’s more popular Découverte du procédé de graver au lavis (1780). Le Prince (22.64.1) and Jean-Claude-Richard de Saint-Non were the earliest practitioners in France. In England, Paul Sandby (36.8.30) refined Le Prince’s dry powder technique (dusting the etching plate with resin powder) by suspending the resin grains in "spirits of wine" which could be brushed on to the printing plate. Sandby coined the term aquatint to recognize the medium’s capacity to create the effects of ink and color washes. He and other British artists (68.589A; 49.95.59) used aquatint to recreate the tonal complexities of watercolor and painting, particularly where contrasts of dark and light were dramatic elements. The medium’s lively pictorial effects suited it perfectly to the growing market for popular prints such as caricatures and fashion plates (59.533.975; 61.531).


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 (see a detail). Tones ranging from light gray to velvety black can thus be printed.


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).

Colta Ives
Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.