What was the First Etching, and Why Does it Matter?

September 19, 2020

What's the Rush is a hand colored etching by award winning artist, David Hunter

By Chelsea Reed

Published content is everywhere. It’s in our phones, our computers, and all over the internet. Did you know that the average American citizen spends more than 6½ hours online each day? That’s a lot of digital reading!

All that content being shared on the internet wouldn’t be made possible without the idea of etched prints. Long before the dawn of electronic publishing, printed paper was the dominant method of communication for centuries. Much printed material is still distributed today, like newspapers, magazines and books.

But you may be wondering, “What does etching have to do with what we read today?”

Well...the answer is, a lot. 

You see, etching is unique in the fact that it was an art genre and a communication method at the same time! Let’s step back in time to learn how etching has changed the world then and now.

From Armor to Paper: Etching’s Journey
Little Arthur is an original etching by James Abbott McNeill WhistlerEtching is an old art technique that uses an acid to “bite” away metal and create a certain design. It was first used to decorate metal armor, a process that dates back to Ancient Greece and even Egypt. After a time of being “lost” in the Dark Ages, armor etching was rediscovered in Medieval Europe. It soared in popularity by the 13th century. Customers flocked to exclusive armor etchers in southern Germany and northern Italy, who were revered like today’s famous fashion designers. These skilled artisans made the etchings by coating metal armor in a protective wax. Then they drew the design into the wax with a tool and dipped the armor into a weak acid. The acid “bites” the exposed metal and creates the design.

By the 15th century, European artists discovered that the same etching process for armor could create prints on paper with an etched metal plate. Daniel Hopfer of Augsburg is credited for this groundbreaking discovery. The first dated etching was made by the Swiss artist Urs Graf. Before etching, books in the West were woodblock printed or painted by hand. They were more costly to produce, and only royalty and wealthy nobles could afford to read them. Thanks to the invention of etchings books were much easier to print. By the 18th century, printed material became accessible to everyone. New information and ideas could be shared faster across different countries, which made way for the Enlightenment period...and much later, the American Revolution. 

Etching: A Print that’s Original Art
Etchings from the 1500s onward gave rise to producing original art prints. With a little know-how, any artist with drawing skills could try their hand at the new genre. Chemically cutting the material was easier than physically cutting it, like with a woodblock print. Similar to armor, an artist would draw on a waxed-over metal plate and dip it into the acid to reveal the art. The plate itself is not the art, but rather the paper prints. The metal plate would be inked and set to the paper to press the image in a roller press machine operated by hand. The plate wears a little each time it is pressed, so there would always be a limited number of prints for each series. Every printed etching is considered original art.

Albrecht Durer, RembrandtWhistler, and other artists became famous Masters for the fine detail and sense of light in their etchings. These etchings are highly sought after to this day. Over time, more artists have specialized in etchings too. David Hunter and Carolyn Cohen are some modern etching artists. Their pieces are frequently featured at Seaside Art Gallery, for example. 

Etching in the Digital Age
Even though much information is shared online today, etchings continue to be a popular art genre for collectors. The desire for the simple and handmade is at an all-time high in the latest home dècor fashion trends. Etchings are an affordable way to decorate the modern home with original art. They’re also a very fun hobby for art collectors of all ages! Collecting etchings is easy. They can be gathered in a binder with scrapbook quality clear page sleeves. How many etching editions of a favorite artist can you find? Browse through Seaside Art Gallery’s etching collection and see for yourself!

Chelsea Reed is a copywriter who writes online content, articles, blogs, and websites from her base in North Carolina  

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