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Intaglio printmaking with copper plates.

Printmaking is generally divided into four categories;

Relief, Intaglio, Planographic and Stencil.

In this guide I will focus on “Intaglio” printing using a copper plate. (In italian intaglio means “engraved work,” from intagliare, “to cut in.”)

The basics of copper printing

When printing from a copper plate, the printmaker incides the motive into the surface of the printing plate, the incised line or sunken area holds the ink and is then transfered to the printing paper trough compression (from a printing press).

The different tools and methods used to create these sunken areas each have very unique charateristics, advantages and drawbacks.


Engraving is a direct method which means that you cut lines into the plate using a “burin”. This is probably the oldest method within copper printing and can be traced back to the 15th century. Initially it was used for small illustrations with high levels of detail upon the introduction of book printing. Engravings existed before this but in different materials than copper.

Characteristics of copper engravings;

  • Thin clean lines
  • Time consuming


This is also a direct method very similiar to engraving but with a key difference, when you engrave, you cut away the copper to create a thin clean line, when dry-needling you use a sharp object to “scratch” the plate.

Sharp object, burnisher and ink covered nail folds

By scratching the plate you create burrs around the lines, these burrs collect ink as well and this result in a look that is very characteristic, the lines you make when drypoint needling could almost be described as “fuzzy”, there are a couple of ways to control the look of a line created with a dry needle;

  • The deepest lines create a big enough pileup of burr to prevent the paper from reaching the center of the line, resulting in a fuzzy line with a thin white center.
  • You can also reduce (even remove) the fuzzyness by using a burnisher which creates cleaner lines.
  • When wiping the plate, the direction you wipe affects the line, if you wipe with the line, you remove ink from the burrs, if you wipe perpendicularly to the line you can increase the ammount of ink on that side of the line.
  • Keep the needle vertical to evenly divide the burrs, also, if you come in at an angle, the printing press might also push the burrs back into the plate.

Things to remember when using a dry needle;

  • The more you cross lines, the more burr you lose
  • Lines made trough this method wears down faster than other techniques, so you cant print as many
  • Work in straight lines

A small abstract print to show the various looks of drypoint lines


The technique of the masters of old (along with engraving) and still a popular technique among printmakers. There are numerous ways to etch but today we will limit ourselves to “Soft ground”. When etching a printing plate, you use acid to “bite” into the exposed areas of the plate and a ground to protect the areas that you dont want etched.

Soft ground etching.

  1. You start with protecting the backside of the plate by taping it, otherwise the acid will bite at the backside of the plate as well. (For the love of god, remember to protect the backside of the plate!)
  2. Clean the front (Unless you want to include your fingerprints in the print)
  3. Put it on a hot plate.
  4. Apply the softground by rubbing it over the entire plate
  5. Even out the softground with a roll.
  6. Remove the plate from the hotplate
  7. Draw the design (remember to draw it in reverse)
  8. Put the plate in Acid
  9. Rinse the plate with water
  10. Clean away the ground
  11. Print (or start again from step 3.)

When drawing the design, there are a couple of options available, you either draw with a stick directly into the ground or you can cover the plate (carefully) with a piece of paper and draw on the paper with a pen (This gives the line a softer look). You can control the look of the line with the pressure you draw in the ground with and the time you let the acid etch.

Etching made with different etching times, various pressure, with and without a paper.

Adding texture to the soft ground

You can add texture to the ground by putting materials against the plate and running it through the printing press, remember to work with thin and soft materials that does not damage the press.

Good examples;

  • Fabric (Cloth)
  • Leafs
  • Flowers

Bad examples:

  • Coins
  • Glass
  • Anything hard or with sharp edges
  • Liquids

Leaf texture

Texture from leaves imprinted in the soft ground


An etched camel where I have added texture to act as background