Explaining the Drypoint Etching

November 26, 2016

A certain amount of mystery is always present in the printer’s studio. Working with some of the oldest etching methods, such as drypoint etching, engraving, mezzotint, or aquatint, the printmakers are closely linked to the traditional idea of a craftsman. As much as each technique demands skill and asks of the author to respect the materials and the actual process, an element of chance always exists. It is only once the paper is turned that the printmaker sees the fruits of their efforts and understands the necessity of their ink-stained fingers.

Unlike the process of engraving and aquatint, the drypoint etching is, in a sense, safer. Without the use of an acid, the printmaker is able to create images which are fairly similar in style to images created by engraving. With direct ingraving on the plate, the finished line is not as sharp yet for various printmakers the softer look was just what they were after. For many, the advantage of drypoint etching lies in the result of the direct imprinting and the metal scrapings produced on each side of the carved line, known as a burr, which prints as a rich and velvety black.

do you like the drypoint ink lines on the paper created by the print press?
Left: Stanislaw Maslowski - Portrait of Artist's Wife / Right: Lesser Ury - Dame im Kaffee. Images via wikipedia.com

Drypoint Etching Technique – What Does It Mean?

A member of the etching family, drypoint etching is one of the oldest printmaking methods. Believed to have been invented by 15th-century south German authorHousebook Master, through the various centuries, the process has remained the same. Without the use of an acid, which as mentioned above defines the process as more safe, the image is carved into a plate, or a matrix, with a hard-pointed needle of a sharp metal or diamond point. Traditionally the plate was copper, but presently printmakers use zinc, plexiglass or acetate[1]. Authors which prefer drawing would decide to create their print editions with the help of this method since the use of a needle is closer to using a pencil then the traditional etching burin employed to create woodcut, linocut, or dry relief images.

explore the drypoint lines, plates and paper. see the magic created by the press and comment if you like the ink lines
Ugo Gattoni Sybille - Bath Etching. Image via digitalartsonline.co.uk

The Step by Step Method of Drypoint Etching

Similarly, to etching, one needs to bare in mind that the original sketch, drawing, or even a photograph used as a reference needs to be transformed onto a plate as a mirror reflection. If we copy the original just as it is once it is printed it will appear as reversed. This for many, in the beginning, is a challenge especially if one adds text to its artwork. When choosing what to create with the help of this method, images with large and flat surfaces would not be a way to go. These images would best fit the screen printing or the aquatint methods.

Once the decision is made whether or not a model is used or an image is a result of instant inspiration with the help of the needle image is carved onto a plate. A larger burr, formed by a steep angle of the tool, would hold more ink producing the characteristic soft line the method is famous for[2] . The size and the characteristic of the line depend not so much on the pressure of the printmaker’s hand but on the angle of the needle. A perpendicular angle will leave little to no burr, while the smaller the angle gets to either side, the larger the burr pileup. To create a larger area on the images, repetition of various lines is a way to go but one should keep in mind not to overdo it.

After the image is created one needs to apply the ink and to cover the entire plate with it. The cleaning of the plate is more demanding than in other methods. Less pressure must be applied since the burr is more sensitive and it is recommended to wipe perpendicularly to the line as in this direction the pile of the ink is increased and the produced image would be richer. After the cleaning of the plate is finished it is ready to go through the press[3].

make your own drypoint plates with the use of a home made press
Left: Mary Cassatt - Maternal Caress / Right: Mary Cassatt - The Bath. Images via wikipedia.com

The Authors Which Adored This Method

Dutch 17th-century painter Rembrandt was the first author to fully exploit the potential of drypoint etching, both alone and together with other etching processes. Among old masters Albrecht Durer produced 3 drypoints before he abandoned the technique and we also have examples of this method employed by Goya for the creation of his print editions, and Pablo Picasso as well. During the 19th-century and as a form of rebellion against the mass production characteristic of the age, painters such the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, preferred to produce handmade images than hundreds of identical artworks used drypoint both with aquatint to produce color prints and the traditional black and white[4].Major German artist Max Beckmann was also famous for its prints, along with Milton Avery and Hermann-Paul.

Regardless of the period print edition went hand in hand with painting and sculpture and were an important discipline for the creative expression. With such an array of methods to choice, and the ability to use one or two methods simultaneously, the quality and variety of art editions is growing every day.

 Editors’ Tip: A Guide to Traditional Techniques

With its roots lying with alchemists and armorers, etching is considered as an old man of printing. Evolving through the centuries, it has helped to produce some of the most famous print images but has also dipped into the photography discipline as well. Under this umbrella, a variety of methods are defined including the drypoint etching, aquatint, engraving, and mezzotint. This book is an excellent guide to its versatility, methods, materials, and equipment. Guiding its reader through the basics, some of the most demanding processes, such as a sugar lift or the transfer of images using photo etching are also described. For anyone that desires to learn more about the magic of traditional printmaking, then this book is just the right choice.


  1. Leaf, R., Etching, Engraving, and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques, Ruth Leaf and Art Instruction, 1984
  2. Manly, B., Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques, Dover Publications, 1986
  3. Adam, R., Robertson, C., Intaglio: Acrylic-resist Etching, Collagraphy, Engraving, Drypoint, Mezzotint : the Complete Safety-first System for Creative Printmaking,Thames & Hudson, 2007
  4. Hughes, A., Vernon-Morris, V.,Printmaking: Traditional and Contemporary Techniques,RotoVision, 2008

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Pablo Picasso - Vollard Suite. Image via periodpaper.com;Francisco Goya – Etching from the print series Los Caprichos. Image via wikiart.org;Francisco de Goya - Los Disparates, plate 10, Caballo. Image via www.pomona.edu; Pablo Picasso - Minotaur Kneeling over Sleeping Girl. Image via gallery.ca

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