In its ongoing goal to research and promote works on paper and the art of printmaking, Gilden’s Arts Gallery is glad to present its new exhibition Aquatint: Printing in Shades.

Aquatint was first invented in 1650 by the printmaker Jan van de Velde (1593-1641) in Amsterdam. The technique was soon forgotten until the 18th century, when a French artist, Jean Baptiste Le Prince (1734-1781), rediscovers a way of achieving tone on a copper plate without the hard labour involved in mezzotint. It was however not in France but in England where this technique spread and flourished. Paul Sandby (1731 - 1809) refined the technique and coined the term Aquatint to describe the medium’s capacity to create the effects of ink and colour washes. He and other British artists used Aquatint to capture the pictorial quality and tonal complexities of watercolour and painting.

Description of the technique

The main purpose of the Aquatint technique is to create a gradation of tonal values which add depth of expression to a print. The first step is to cover the metal plate with a uniform layer of resin or bitumen powder. Using heat or alcohol, this powder is made to adhere to the plate. After protecting with varnish the areas of the matrix that are to remain white, the plate is immersed in acid (known as aqua fortis). This part of the process, known as “biting” the plate, is the most delicate, as it is by controlling the immersion times that the acid carves more or less into the metal around the grains of resin. The first immersion creates an overall soft bite, which results in the lighter tones. The areas that are to maintain this tone are protected by a coat of varnish before the subsequent plunges in acid, each resulting in a darker tonal area when printed. These tonal gradations made by Aquatint may be added to a printing plate that has already been worked with engraved, etched, or drypoint lines.

Aquatint in the 20th century

Like with many of the other printing techniques, the artists in the 20th Century embraced Aquatint and looked to shape it to suit their particular creative needs.

Picasso became a master of a technique known as Sugar-lift Aquatint which allowed him a more direct approach when creating the plate which better suited his temperament.

Miro used Aquatint to exploit bold colour in conjunction to his intense and important experimentation of the Carborundum etching technique, which added a rich texture to the surface of the paper.

Matisse also utilised the intensity of the black that could be achieved by Aquatint. He applied this process to mirror the effects he achieved using thick strokes of Indian ink in his minimalist and poetic portraits of his later years.

Mastering a new technique such as Aquatint, understanding its limitations and moving beyond them becomes an exciting challenge to these great Modern Masters.