The medium of etching is perhaps one of the most underappreciated and yet emotionally expressive forms of image-making, and sits quietly on its noble perch much like the way great film music helps to hold a film together while working unobtrusively in the background.
Under the umbrella of etching, wherein the artist scratches through an acid-resisting waxy coating on a metal plate, there are a number of ways to achieve intricate textures and tones with processes like aquatint or sugar lift, amongst others. An artist can scratch decisive lines by hand, which is why form and shadow are often built up with many hashmarks, or the artist can use the more involved process of alternating coatings and acid baths to create subtle gradations of light and dark. It is an incomparable method, full of nuance and beauty, and the results are often so silently stunning that they have the power to envelop the viewer.
Vignette (Wishing Well) by Kerry James Marshall is an absolutely luminous and expansive piece. Marshall has created a physical space with depth and structure that is dancing with a dreamlike quality. Careful color choices, smoky layers of plate tones, soft textures and meandering line work inspire an almost indescribable sense of awe, and tangibly transport you into the actual scene itself.
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette (Wishing Well) close-up, 2010,Color aquatint, spitbite aquatint and sugarlift aquatint with softground and hardground etching, scrape and burnish, drypoint and collage.
Will Barnet’s The Young Couple has a contemplative resonance to it— more than simply a portrait of two people, it feels like it communicates the sensation of existing, its forms described with numerous feathery lines and even the dots of texture left behind by process.
Will Barnet, The Young Couple, 1971, Etching
"It is an incomparable method, full of nuance and beauty, and the results are often so silently stunning that they have the power to envelop the viewer."
Miro’s piece Le Miroir de l'Homme par les Betes has a real tactile presence on close inspection, and Miro’s hand on the actual page can almost be felt. The layers of information that wash over you are nearly vibrating, and with such a prolific hand at work it makes for a truly unbeatable team.
Untitled V by Bertrand Dorny is part of a portfolio of 5 abstract etchings where each color is done with its own plate that is smaller than the whole image. This is an uncommon method and serves to use the embossed edge which presses into the paper as a design element, producing an almost sculptural effect. The lush paper, the beautiful inks, the effect of the printed tones and the three-dimensional nature of these pieces practically assemble into a symphony.
Helium Indicum Maximum is a pristine museum quality scientific illustration by an unknown artist that comes to us from the MET, and up close you see exactly what makes etching so ecstatic. Both the planned and unplanned textural markings unleash the raw natural beauty that is worthy of a sunflower’s true description.
And in a sweeping 36-plate visual story titled The Epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu that artist Ben-Zion created from 1965-66 in New York City, a wonderful juxtaposition of casual immediacy and distinguished depth can be found. His lines are relaxed and emotive with a freedom akin to automatic writing, yet the prints retain the full spectrum of human experience described by this ancient archetypal narrative. This is a true testament that this medium can speak worlds. Ben-Zion was a founding member of a group of expressionist painters in the 1930’s known as “The Ten,” making work meant to contrast the conservative and academic painting then prevalent in New York. It seems he was able to deftly use the age-old methods of etching to ground his fresh, uninhibited style to delightful and meaningful ends.