Insofar as the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) is at all popularly known, it is generally for his paintings - the Embarkation for Cythera in the Louvre (below) and the so-called fêtes galantes, many of which are in London's Wallace Collection. However, in the course of my PhD research into his career, I've also come to know him as an engraver. Some of the very few examples surviving include include Recruits Going Off to Join the Regiment (c.1715), which I like to think Goya had seen when he created his own etched Disasters of War series. There are also a few fashion plates from his first years in Paris (this typically ambiguous figure is showing off the latest trends of 1710).
As I'm currently working on a PhD on Watteau and his thematic connections to one of the eighteenth century's most famous engravers, William Hogarth (1697-1764), I wanted to finally understand how classic printing techniques actually work. I've read so many accounts of etching, but as someone without much of a technical brain, I've never been able to truly get my head around it. So I went on a three-day etching course at East London Printmakers, a great co-operative near London Fields, to learn more.
As I understand it now, the core difference between etching and engraving is that in etching you are drawing onto a dark waxy ground, whereas in engraving, you are cutting straight into the metal plate.
Engraving ultimately stems back to traditional metalwork decoration directly onto objects such as plates and tankards. In fact, William Hogarth's original teenage apprenticeship was with a silverplate engraver, rather than an artist per se - Ellis Gamble. And despite branching out into painting and narrative engraving after he left Gamble's workshop, Hogarth stuck to that tradition of rococo decoration throughout much of his engraving career - it can still be seen in the subscription ticket he created for the 1750 March of the Guards to Finchley, when he was in his fifties.
By contrast to engraving, the addition of a ground to the plate makes the process of etching freer, and more gestural. It allows the artist to create lines in a manner closer to traditional drawing techniques, and is therefore much more associated with fine art work. (...As I understand it, anyway...)
One thing that really struck me when doing my own rather haphazard constructions was how physical the whole process is - a natural consequence of using metal as a support, of course. There are many different types of (usually repetitive) action throughout, but most of them involve elbow grease: you file the plate, clean it, cut into it, put it in the acid, wash it again, work ink into it, polish the ink off and, finally, press the plate.
Presumably the print shops of eighteenth-century Paris and London would have had apprentices or junior printmakers (like Hogarth) whose whole role was to prepare or ink up the plates for an etcher, so the individual artists would have had less bodily engagement with the process as a coherent whole.
However, even taking the preparation out of the process altogether, when I came to draw into the ground, I realised that etching itself is a very physically laborious process. It is fundamentally about building up an essentially binary image, made up of hundreds of individual marks, each of which needs to be actively cut into the ground.
There is, then, consideration (and physical effort) of one kind or another behind every mark. This made me think of seventeenth- a eighteenth-century satirical printmaking, created with political intent; another important tradition behind Hogarth's work. In this context, technical etching or engraving terms such as 'cutting' and 'biting' might apply equally to the printmaker's process and to their ultimate purpose.
The experience of drawing into a ground did, however, give me a bit more of an insight into why Watteau might have made so few etchings compared to the rest of his output. He seems not to have enjoyed the process, since most of his engraved works were reworked by professional engravers after he had laid down the design (the Recruits GoingOff to Join the Regiment is a rare autograph work).
As an artist who was famously impatient with his paintings, and fond of sweeping, gestural marks and washes in his drawings, I can see that he might have found the process a bit constricting. It's a bit ironic, though, since the idea of repetition was equally key for him - many of his paintings involve duplications of whole figures, as well as individual motifs.
It was also interesting to see what options there were for treating plates after they had been in the acid. I did a bit of a failed experiment with a soft ground. This is a softer (!) ground that allows far more expressive mark-making, because you can use textures to create interesting effects. (Someone who does this actually well was another French artist, Jean Dubuffet.) In this instance, we applied a soft ground and then applied a hard ground over the top.
When I decided I didn't like part of my soft ground on the final plate, I was able to burnish it out - in the image below, the engraving on the bottom left was pre-burnish, and the one in the middle was the same plate after burnishing. In the early eighteenth century, engravers working on fashion plates, such as the ones Watteau did, used burnishing like this to remove faces from figures, allowing them to be almost endlessly reused for different scenarios. Pity the poor apprentice who spent all day burnishing out heads of yesterday's man.