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Studio Views: The Sculptural Quality

Etching in a nutshell: a polished copper plate is coated with a thin layer of wax (a ground). A sharp metal stylus (an etching needle) is used to scratch lines through the ground exposing the copper. Acid eats (etches) the lines down into the plate. The etched lines are filled with ink, and, under tremendous pressure, damp paper is pressed onto the plate. The resulting print (etching) is a mold of the plate with the lines in slight relief.

Tools--Etch“While there is copper there is hope.” — an old French proverb

As an etcher, I think etching, of all graphic media, is the most beautiful way of putting ink on paper. The lines are both freely drawn and sculptural. I love etching.

I’ve tried other graphic techniques but had difficulty getting the desired expressiveness from the techniques that require manually manipulated tools to form images in hard surfaces—woodcuts, wood engraving, and metal engraving. Other techniques that I’ve tried are lithography and serigraphy. And, although both allow ease of movement when making lines, the resulting prints look flat to me when compared to the sculptural quality of etchings.

All graphic media have special qualities difficult to achieve in another media: crisp whites — woodcut and wood engraving; clean precise lines that swell and taper — metal engraving; subtle tonal gradations — lithography; large solid shapes with precise edges — serigraphy.

My work is almost entirely line, and I rely on the ease of execution that moving an etching needle through wax allows. The sculptural quality is just an added benefit. Run your finger gently over the surface of an etching and you can feel the relief.

If you could see an etching at its most beautiful — when it is first pulled off the plate with the paper still damp and soft, the ink shiny and glistening, and the relief of the lines at its highest — you would see exactly what I mean.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books. Click on the tag Studio Views for more illustrators.

About Arthur Geisert

Author/illustrator Arthur Geisert has received the New York Times Best Illustrated Award three times. His books include Hogwash, Ice, Country Road ABC, and Nursery Crimes.

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