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Rembrandt made around three hundred etchings. Etchings are prints on paper. The composition is etched in a metal plate and then printed. Rembrandt preferred to use thin copper plates.
Click here for an animation of the etching process.
The etching process involves several stages. First the plate is covered with etching ground. This is a soft mixture of wax, resin and bitumen. The artist uses an etching needle to draw the design into this etching ground. As he draws each line, the etching ground is removed and the metal is exposed.
When the drawing is finished, the plate is immersed in a bath of corrosive acid. The etching ground can withstand this, but in the areas that are exposed—in other words the lines of the drawing—the acid bites out part of the metal plate. The longer the plate remains in the acid, the deeper the lines are etched or bitten out into grooves.
The plate is then taken out of the acid and the etching ground is removed. After this the artist covers the plate with printing ink. The plate is then cleaned again, so that ink remains only in the grooves. Now it is ready for printing.
The plate, with a damp sheet of paper on top of it, is passed through a printing press. The press forces the paper into the grooves, so that it picks up the ink from them and the composition appears on it in reverse.
This impression is called the first state. If changes are then made in the etching plate, for instance if lines are added, the next impression is called the second state and so on. Most of Rembrandt’s etchings exist in a number of states.
If Rembrandt made alterations in a plate, he often did so not with acid, but with a heavy needle, with which he scratched directly into the copper. This drypoint technique produces very dark, velvety lines, thanks to the burr, a little irregular ridge of metal that curls up as the line is incised. Rembrandt also used the burin, the engraver’s tool. The burin has a V-shaped point with which sharp lines can be gouged out of the metal. By combining these techniques Rembrandt achieved an unrivalled range and subtlety.