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Introduction to Etching

James McNeill Whistler is considered is one of the finest and most revolutionary printmakers of the 19th-Century. He conceived of series, or “sets”, of prints throughout his career as a printmaker, following a strikingly original theme in each. He etched at four distinct periods in his life, and in each period he applied the advancements he had made in painting and in his prior etchings to the current work.

At its simplest, the process of etching consists of rolling a resin-type “ground” on the surface of a copper plate, “smoking” the ground to darken it, then with the sharp end of tools of the artist’s choosing, drawing on the plate. The plate is then set into a bath of acid, which will eat into the plate where the lines were cut. When the lines have been deepened to the artist’s satisfaction, the plate is carefully rinsed, the ground rubbed away. Ink is then layered on with a roller and the plate is put through a press onto a sheet of paper and printed. Work on the copper plate can be repeated and changed to alter the image and create a different “state.”

The Process of Etching from Karen Thomas on Vimeo.

Etching requires knowledge of this process but most important, excellent skills as a draftsman. Whistler’s development as an etcher began with his love and talent for drawing. Young Jemie Whistler was given private art lessons as a child in St. Petersburg and later enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. By all accounts, he was a prodigy.

Whistler continued to excel at drawing in classes during his time at West Point but his notable lack of discipline in his other coursework led to his dismissal from the Academy in June 1854. After a short apprenticeship at Thomas Winan’s locomotive works in Baltimore, he arrived in Washington with an appointment to the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. He remained there for less than two months, making it just into the New Year before being dismissed for bad work habits and lack of attendance. Though his period at the Geodetic Survey was brief, it proved crucial to his later development, as the Survey’s mapmakers taught Whistler to etch. Bored by mapmaking itself, Whistler quickly demonstrated his aptitude for drawing on copper by etching “the little views of entrances to harbors that were then engraved on the lower part of coast-maps”. When he moved to Paris in 1855, he discovered that etching was enjoying a renaissance among the young artists of the city. Whistler quickly embraced this newly revived medium as his own.

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