Rembrandt: 'Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill', 1639. The unique qualities of traditional line etching can easily be obtained through contemporary methods and materials...without exposure to neurotoxic and carcinogenic fumes.
In line etching a thin coating is applied to a metal plate. Once dry, the image is drawn into this corrosion resistant surface with a variety of tools, revealing the bare metal beneath.
The Etching Process cuts into the plate through chemical action (increasingly electro-chemically, rather than through acid corrosion), so that the incised intaglio plate can then be inked and printed as a crisp line etching.
Line etching was Rembrandt's preferred form of printing, and the vibrancy of his gestural line work remains unsurpassed. Many of the 17th century etching grounds are toxic, but new grounds finally allow for the medium to be mastered without exposing the artist or student to the health risks of old.
Acrylic Hard Ground Solutions
After twenty years of development, testing, peer review and refinement, research into nontoxic etching ground substitutions and alternatives is now as good as complete. It is likely that within the next few years many more suppliers and manufacturers will offer their own range of less toxic products for the various applications in printmaking, due to the increasing interest in safer methods, as well as new VOC regulations.
Curiously, some of the most practicable solutions are still put forward by private individuals who succeed in finding a specific printmaking purpose in products from other fields, rather than by the industry. Perhaps, centuries of reliance on tar compositions for etching is hard to overcome? But there is little doubt that the old resists carry high risks, and many are incompatible with a health-aware ethos.
Keith Howard first pioneered nontoxic intaglio practice in the late 1980s when he started testing water based products from a hardware store as etching resists. Most recently, a nontoxic waterproofing product from Australia (see below) became popular amongst printmakers as a near perfect hard ground; without health risks and noxious fumes, giving perfectly etched lines, and plate sanding is not a necessity.
There are currently several custom developed acrylic hard grounds on the market, for instance: Z*ACRYL Hard Ground Solution (discontinued), and LASCAUX Hard Resist. The suppliers' websites provide detailed specifications and usage instructions. Both products can be regarded as safe to use, and deliver professional results on all metals. These innovative acrylic grounds are recommended as a replacement for the traditional tar-based products (solutions and ball grounds) with their dizzying odors and carcinogenic potential. Note: Acrylic emulsions made for domestic use as floor polish (KLEAR / SCJ Pledge / Future etc.) may not be fully 'nontoxic' and require some respiratory protection for safe use.
For many acrylic hard grounds, plates should be finely abraded with sandpaper or fine steel wool, either by hand or using an electric sander. The fine tooth on the plate then allows the acrylic to bond with the surface without chipping.
Note: highly polished plates can be prone to chipping with some acrylics. Keith Howard recommends using a kind of flow coating approach where the emulsion is poured rather than brushed onto the plate. See: BEGINNERS COMPENDIUM. A good ground may also be laid by brushing on a thin coating with a flat-headed sponge brush, or by airbrushing.
Zea Mays Printmaking is a studio, workshop, gallery, educational facility and research center
dedicated to sustainable printmaking practices.ï»¿ï»¿
For deep etching use the acrylic ground 'as is'. For very fine, detailed work dilute the acrylic with 5% to 10% water to achieve a thin coating. The Lascaux Hard Ground Resist may be substituted with the cheaper Lascaux 2060 clear gloss varnish as a hard ground base. 2060 dries to a hard and mirror-like surface that accepts line work with great clarity and does not chip. Koh-i-Noor black ink is one of the best colourants to use to get a black hard ground. It can be added to any clear acrylic to make a black hard ground, aquatint, or stop out varnish.
brushing on an acrylic hard ground onto an etched zinc plate and its print. A variety of traditional etching and engraving tools: etching needle, scraper, burnisher, burin. Today, artists also use wire wool, sandpaper, Dremel tools, and power tool attachments as drawing and engraving implements for etching. See Intaglio Manual for details.
'Big' Etching Ground a more 'traditional' feeling ground, now used by many printmakers
nontoxic if used with precautions, caution when heating the product
"Did you know that a traditional etching ground contains arsenic, lead, mercury to name but a few toxic elements which can not only be breathed in through your air ways but also absorbed through your skin."
Trefeglwys Print Studios
TIP: ACRYLIC HARD GROUND + KOH-NOOR 3080-4 BLACK INK = BLACK HARD GROUND
Cross hatching and loops drawn into an acrylic hard ground on copper, step-etched in Edinburgh Etch for 20 and 40 minutes, and printed using Charbonnel etching ink. Make sure you use a sharp etching tool to draw into the acrylic ground. Steel needles require frequent sharpening. Ideally use a hardened needle such as Blick's Carbide Point Scribe (left) or a diamond tip needle. For use in large printmaking classes a sharp chipboard screw with tape wrapped around the shank makes a surprisingly good etching and dry-pointing tool.
Acrylic hard grounds give crisp line reproduction and, unlike traditional grounds, are not prone to foul-biting or pitting. The tough acrylic surface can also act as the actual printing surface, allowing a white plate tone to be printed with ease.
The Lascaux Hard Resist can also be used on a previously etched plate for re-etching. For best results start by de-greasing and slightly roughening the plate surface - this helps the acrylic bond with the metal and actually aids the etching process. Previously etched copper plates require treatment with a salt and vinegar de-oxidizing solution. For fine detail to etch faithfully, apply the ground thinly and then dry the plate in warm air. Once dry, use a sharp etching needle or other 'improvised' implements such as wire brushes or coarse sand paper strips for drawing into the ground.
For more on drawing into a hard ground see Section 4 of the INTAGLIO MANUAL
The world's oldest makers of etching ink Charbonnel / Lefranc have recently introduced their own line of water-miscible oil based etching inks (comparable to 'Caligo Safe Wash') which they call 'Aqua Wash'. Great news for lovers of traditional etching, using oil based inks. These inks and mediums promise the same aesthetic quality and richness of tone and line as the existing oil based products. Many art school print programs use both oil based inks and water based inks such as Akua Intaglio; both offer certain benefits and unique aesthetic qualities. There no longer is the need for solvent use other than water and detergents.
Acrylic Hard Ground made from
Acrylic Floor Finish
Many Printmakers and Studios use acrylic floor finish as a hard ground solution (Howard Ground). The product made by Johnson sells as SC Johnson 'Future/ now Pledge' in the US, 'Super Shine' in Australia, and 'Pronto Wax', 'Carefree', 'Klir', or 'KLEAR' in Europe. It is also very popular with model makers as a durable clear varnish, and I use it as a finishing coat on metal sculptures.
If 'KLEAR (SCJ) is locally unavailable (Europe), use alternative acrylic floor finish products, such as Diversey 'Carefree', or 'Bona Tech' gloss polish
‘Bona Tech’ - Parkett Polish Glänzend
"nicht als gefährlich eingestuft"
The Contemporary Printmaker Keith Howard
This widely available acrylic makes a very effective hard ground using a flow-coating approach. We would suggest also adding Koh-i-Noor drawing ink to get a good black, unless a clear ground is required. Donna Adams explains the application of this ground in her Beginners Compendium - click here for details. Like many domestic products that are sold in supermarkets and hardware stores floor varnish may contain glycol ether, sometimes in significant quantities. Although the industry downplays this hidden solvent, it would seem sensible to always check the product's msds sheet and usage instructions before use. Long term exposure to glycol ether may lead to kidney damage and there is new evidence of reproductive toxicity, see: The Toxicity of Solvents. To be on the safe side, ensure good local ventilation and wear a mask during the use of these cheap and popular acrylic emulsions. Recent research carried out in the UK (house painter study) confirms that the kind of low-level glycol ether exposure produced by drying domestic floor polish carries significant health risks, and reproductive hazards.
this comparison showed that only the Z Acryl product was free from any harmful glycol ether additions, the other products contained up to 5%.
|Protection against low level VOC exposure|
Today there are many paint products that are marketed as ‘safe’, yet there may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether. Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists.
Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a day’s work we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a day’s work (about $ 5 per mask).
3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief
Safe Stripping with Orange Zest Solvents - sample
An acrylic hard ground can be stripped off in a strong soda ash solution (1 part crystals to 3 parts warm water). Or use one of the excellent citrus-based safe solvents now on the market (such as 'D*Solve', 'CitraSolv', or 'De-Solv-it') which remove acrylics, etching grounds and hardened ink and paint with great ease.
'This truly revolutionary solvent was formulated as an alternative to petroleum-based turpentines and thinners. It is made from 100% renewable agricultural resources of soy, corn, and citrus, and is non-polluting, non-carcinogenic, and bio-degradable. Less than a teaspoon will thoroughly clean a large plate. DSolve will even strip dried ink from etched lines.'
Image: Z*Acryl Product D*Solve (discontinued)
There is a growing number of such citrus-based solvents on the market. The key ingredient, D-Limonene, also known as orange oil, the safe and innovative solvent extracted from orange peel, can be purchased directly from the citrus industry. For example, see www.citrusdepot.net. This solvent is more powerful than mineral spirits, strong enough to dissolve hardened acrylics, oil paint, printing ink, (and even some plastics) with ease, yet medical studies have found no carcinogenic or neurotoxin hazards comparable to the petrochemical solvents. Users should, nevertheless, still handle the solvent with care: ensure good ventilation and take fire precautions when using the new orange oil solvents. Unlike oil-based products, orange oil is considered biodegradable.
For more information click on our Safe Solvents page
Traditional Etching Grounds and their Health Hazards
'Breathing high vapor concentrations of this product may result in mild depression, convulsions, loss of consciousness, or lung damage.' (extract from MSDS). Traditional hard ground solutions often contain Naptha and Asphaltum. Such products may also contain PAH, known carcinogens. Solid hard and soft ground compositions ('ball ground') for roll-on contain asphaltum and coal tar pitch. The cancer risk is exacerbated by heating on hot plates, by smoking with 'tapers' and by the use of mineral spirits for clean up.
(Left) A typical hard ground solution containing Naphtha and Asphaltum. (Right) A hard ground roller.
Involuntary exposure to the vapors of a naphta based hard ground solution gave me a headache, dizzyness, and asthma. Amongst German etchers such solutions are known as Abdecklack; the British Brunswick Black is similar. The inhalation risk of traditional stop-out is often underestimated. Direct and indirect exposure to toxic vapors is of serious concern in art schools, especially when spray aerosols and solvent fumes are emitted in the studios. Extraction systems are often insufficient, and often there is a reluctance to use safer products as an alternative.
For more information on solvent hazards click on the page The Toxicity of Solvents
Tar Products, Cancer, and Safeguards
There is overwhelming evidence that tar products cause cancer. See the following pdf fact sheet by the US National Toxicology Program.
'As a pollutant tar compounds have been identified as carcinogenic (causing cancer), mutagenic and teratogenic (causing birth defects)' Wikipedia.
Perhaps the prevalence of solvent based tar products represents the largest individual cause of cancer in the traditional print studio. This might go some way towards explaining why so many traditional print professionals contract cancer at some stage in their careers.
Can Tar or Bitumen be nontoxic?
Tar products are traditionally utilized for their excellent water proofing (and etching resistant) properties. Through clever research, the Australian company Gripset recently developed a nontoxic kind of bitumen that may have many applications in printmaking, as a substitute for traditional grounds in etching or as a lithotine substitute in stone lithography. It is virtually free from harmful VOC's.
GRIPSET BITUMEN as an etching ground (click).
Soft Ground Etching
soft ground etching: Keith Howard 'The Contemporary Printmaker' (left). Anne VanOppen (right)
Lascaux Soft Ground Solution
Lascaux Soft Resist developed by Carol Robertson and Barbara Diethelm, soft ground impressions
Lascaux Hard resist
'A ready-to-use clear hard resist (or ground) which is applied to the etching plate by brush. When it is dry it is highly acid-resistant. Lascaux Hard Resist can be drawn into with an etching needle, roulette, scraper, steel wool etc. It has a soft, waxy feel, allowing the needle to glide. It can be used on copper, zinc, and steel.'
Lascaux Soft resist
'This slower drying resist is designed to offset easily and is used to make soft crayon- or pencil-like drawings, textures from collages and direct broad line drawings'. Available in the US from Graphic Chemical Co, in Europe from Joop and other suppliers. The ground is applied thinly by brush. For detailed usage instructions see:
Using a Soft Ground: Donna Adams -
BEGINNERS COMPENDIUM (click)
Justin Staller: detail of soft ground etching (RIT). Donna Adams preparing soft ground impressions (University of Indianapolis). Note: if using the 'Orono Ground' recipe substitute Graphic Chemical water based relief ink with the comparable product from Daniel Smith.
The print on the left was made by painting with Crisco Lift and etching into copper using the Edinburgh Etch process. The textures at the top of the print are the result of thin Crisco smears acting as a permeable resist. | (right) The Three Trees, Rembrandt, Etching, engraving, and drypoint, 1634, Grace J. Hitchcock Collection. The Three Trees is Rembrandtï¿½s largest landscape print. The delicate and varied line effects were achieved by drawing into a traditional wax-based hard ground (step-etching on copper). This is accompanied by more vigorous work in drypoint.
Acrylic Soft and Hard Ground: New Solutions 2012
Over the past two years several printmakers worked on developing
improved recipes for water based hard and soft ground solutions.
These are similar in approach to the 'Orono Ground',
but are using materials that are all currently available,
and both give excellent and reliable results.
A Simple Approach to Galvanic Etching
(Anne Van Oppen)
a basic power source for eletro-etching can be purchased online (shown: 'TekPower', Amazon)
The prints shown above were created using a simple electro etching method using a copper sulfate electrolyte solution and a variable electric power source. This new approach to etching is very safe and creates hardly any polluting residues. The method is currently becoming a popular alternative to chemical etching. Electro Etching
Supplies: Copper Sulfate: available online, the solution mixture is 1 Cup Copper Sulfate to 1 Liter of Water | Variable Power Source with Alligator Cables (I got mine from Amazon.com). Container with Lid (I use a plastic oval shaped Pitcher by Sterilite) | Copper Plates (22 Gauge is fine) | Clear Packing Tape | Sandpaper | Whiteout | Soft/Hard-Ground (see other article) | Brayer (used to apply the Soft/Hard-Ground) | Copper Flashing (23 Gauge, to make hooks for tank, can be found at scrap metal sites) | Vinegar | Salt | Timer | Green Scrubby (like Scotch Brite) | Clear Contact Paper (optional)
Setup: If using a 'Sterilite' Pitcher, slowly dissolve 3 Cups of Copper Sulfate into 3 Liters of water. This solution will never weaken. Keep covered with a lid to minimize evaporation. If water does evaporate just add more up to the 3-liter level. Plug in your variable power source, turn it on and set it to five volts. Then turn it off. Form two hooks with the 23 Gauge copper. I made the hook that will be attracting the copper off the plate larger and longer than the second hook. The second hook must be long enough to ensure that the plate will be completely submerged into the copper sulfate and that there is enough area to connect with the plate.
Preparing the Plate: Rough up the surface of the plate with the sandpaper so that the face of the plate is covered with fine lines. This gives a surface for the soft/hard-ground to hang onto. Then degrease the plate in a solution of vinegar and salt. I pour some vinegar into a glass dish and add a teaspoon or so of salt. Rinse the plate with water and do not touch the surface with your fingers.
Applying the Ground: See the Soft/Hard-Ground article for the recipe. Roll out the ground with a brayer and apply to the plate. Proceed as you would for traditional Soft-Ground. If the ground is allowed to dry onto the plate, proceed as you would with Hard-Ground
***The Ground can also be painted onto the plate to protect or block areas from etching.
***I use Whiteout along the edges to protect them from the etch.
make sure contact surfaces between the cathode / anode hooks and the back of the plate are well sanded and de-greased. Do not exceed the recommended current setting of 5V.
Etching the Plate: When you are ready to etch the plate place the larger hook into the tank holding the Copper Sulfate solution and attach the Cathode-Black-Negative wire to the hook. Attach the plate to the second hook using the clear package tape and cover the back completely. I always sandpaper the hook to clear off any oxidation that may interfere with the connection. The connection must be clean and tight for good etching. If the connection is not so great you may get a halo effect that is uneven. Sometimes it works out well but it is difficult to control. Place the second hook opposite the first larger hook and attach the Anode-Red-Positive wire. Set the timer, turn on the power and start timing.
I have found that about 20 Minutes at 5 volts gives a good result. It is a good idea to do some tests at this point to get the results you are looking to achieve. The action of the electricity may loosen the ground, so it is not easy to pull the plate out of the etch and block out areas for lighter and darker effects. At the end of 20 minutes the ground may be loose on the plate and may fall off under running water. I have carefully pulled the plate out at 5 minute intervals and blocked areas so it is possible. You will have to try this on your own.
Once the plate has been etched the appropriate time, turn off the power and lift it out of the solution. Remove the plate from the solution and clean under water with green scrubby. All of the ground comes off easily. The whiteout comes off as well with a bit more work. I put Clear Contact Paper on the list as an optional supply. This serves as a great block to protect already etched areas if you want to continue working on the plate. Just cut away any areas to be etched with an Exacto blade. For more information see: http://www.nontoxicprint.com/electroetching.htm
Caution: Do not breath the dust of the copper sulfate; wear a mask when mixing up the solution.
Contact email: Anne Van Oppen, email@example.com
The new company D&S offer nontoxic lithography and etching products
'BioLaq: Superior Replacement for Asphaltum and Plate Lacquers.
Excellent hard ground for etching' ('no hazmat': Graphic Chemical Co)
Superior Etching Grounds
Gerald Ferstman, University of Kentucky
'As an artist I expect that all new safer etching grounds should be just as good or better as the old traditional more toxic grounds. There is no good reason to except inferior results at the expense of safety. The old renaissance materials can be replaced with better and safer modern ingredients.'
Warringah Printmakers already make extensive use of the method: 'With the right consistency of the medium, beautifully fine lines may be etched into aluminium, zinc or copper. Also nice for painting a positive directly onto the plate for white lines.'
Quote: 'Not classified as hazardous according to criteria of Worksafe Australia.
The product has a very low VOC content of 0.065grams per litre, 'an extremely low rating for any coating'.
GRIPSET BITUMEN RUBBER msds.pdf
Warringah Printmakers, Sidney
SAFETY NOTE: a small number of acrylics now carry a note warning of a possible cancer hazard
this may be related to a formaldehyde content