The Aquatint Process- A Step By Step Breakdown by Joseph P. Gerges

Creating an Aquatint is an inherently complex process due to the fact that you are more or less creating an image blindly. The term “Aquatint” refers to an intaglio technique that utilizes a myriad of materials from rosin to spray paint in order to create a tonal range on a plate. This etching technique allows a printmaker to create large areas of value (from black to white) on a surface without the need to etch line-work or make direct marks on a surface, allowing for subtle tonal ranges.


The images below will walk you through only one of the many ways to approach a complex aquatint. Keep in mind that anytime you embark on a new piece, it’s always a good idea to create a small test plate so you have timing set aside and you can “guestimate” how things might turn out. Hopefully it will help you minimize any surprises during the final etching process. Though I have created my fair share of tests, you’ll see how I work through the process of clean up and correction as things don’t turn up exactly how I expect. Trial and error and scratching and burnishing are all part of the printmaking process, so be prepared for the unexpected and allow the rigor of the medium to play a role in the creation of your image. I hope you enjoy the post and please let me know your thoughts. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments!

Step 1:

Since this write-up is about the aquatint process and not about etching, my plate has already been etched (lines should always be created first) and is ready to go. I’ve proofed the line work to make sure I am happy with the “look” of it thus far.

Once your image is ready to go, the most important first step is to clean and degrease the plate. I use mineral spirits to first clean the plate. After it is cleaned, I use a copper cleaning compound to remove any tarnishing and discoloration (Wright’s Copper Cream works well), or a combination of whiting and vinegar mixed into a paste. Afterward, I’ll spritz the plate with a salt and vinegar mix and rinse with water. The last step is to clean it up with 70% or 80% alcohol to make sure it has no remaining grease or fingerprints. The key is to make sure you have a clean surface so that the aquatint adheres evenly!

Step 2:

The basic concept behind an aquatint is to stop out the areas you don’t want the acid to etch. In order to stop out an area, you cover that area of the plate with a barrier so that the acid can’t touch the surface of the metal. For an image with this much detail, I’ll use industrial strength black Sharpie markers to obtain maximum control. Using my image reference as a guide, I’ll build a visual roadmap breaking down the values from lightest to darkest guiding me along which value shapes to stop out first, and leaving blacks for the end. In this manner I map out my image starting with my white highlights first, moving through my grays, and ending finally with blacks. I always start my first stop out at a pure white before I aquatint to minimize my time handling the aquatinted plate because they are so sensitive at this stage. Here you’ll notice I begin with just the highlights first.

Step 3:

Now I apply the aquatint. I am using an airbrush to lightly apply an acrylic ink aquatint. I have used rosin and spray paint aquatints in the past as well. Ultimately, the etching process is basically the same in any of those methods. I set the airbrush up so that the mist is fine but not too fine. I spray from about 12-24” away from the plate moving across the image one way, then crisscrossing the other both horizontally and vertically. I don’t want it to get too heavy on any one side so I use the newsprint I placed under the image to gauge “evenness” across the surface.  The key is not to paint the surface but to lay an even blanket of “dots” so that the copper is still visible through the ink. I picked horrible color ink for this plate unfortunately. Normally I would stick with blue, green, or metallic color as they show up more clearly!

Step 4:

It’s finally time to etch! Every stage of the aquatint ranges in etching times. The first etch is usually just a dip, about 3-5 seconds total. You have to drop it in and pull it out and wash it off pretty quickly.  Once I pull it out of the water rinse, I lay paper towels on top and do not pat it dry! I just let the water soak into the paper towels for a bit then throw it under a fan for 10-20 seconds to dry it completely. Afterwards, I add some more marks with the sharpie and begin to “widen” the areas I am stopping out. Remember, I am working from light to dark so my next step is the lightest gray only. I use my reference to guide my choices. You can see how the plate changes in color a little as well. The acid creates a shift in the color and hue of the copper as it patinas or tarnishes the copper. Don’t worry; it’s normal ;)

Step 5:

In the next series of images you’ll see me repeat the above step. For the double self-portrait I created 8 stops. The times are listed below, each time drawing a little bit more onto the plate with the sharpie as I moved along the aquatint process. I pay close attention to how my times and my values coordinate, referencing my test plate grayscale continually. Keep in mind that this plate took about 8 hours to complete this 8-step aquatint.  The total aquatint time was about a minute and a half. A lot of the work is simply drawing! I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have strong drawing and painting fundamentals. Deliberate practice, consistent repetition, and learning your foundational skills are notions I always stress with my college students. It’s that whole 10,000 hours thing… it’s so true!

The Aquatint times I used are as follows:
1-    5 seconds
2-    5 seconds
3-    5 seconds
4-    5 seconds
5-    10 seconds
6-    15 seconds
7-    25 seconds
8-    20 seconds

Step 6:

Just a quick note here, you’ll notice on some of the images how the sharpie “accumulates”. Since I am drawing in layers, I always go over any areas that I feel may have been scratched off and I always try to redraw over areas that have previously been etched so it starts looking like a cool hilly-rocky surface of sharpie marks. So hypothetically you’ve accumulated sharpie marks so that you’ve covered the whole plate except for the darkest darks. Once you’ve dipped the last etch, you’re done!

So here comes the cleaning. Use gloves at this step. I start with mineral spirits and a very SOFT toddler toothbrush. Try to clean in a soft circular motion. After I wipe off all the surface material, it looks like my plate is totally ruined. Don’t panic! It’s time to pull out the big guns. I degrease the plate using copper cleaner and finally some salt and vinegar and alcohol. Voila’, a beautiful copper plate back to its beautiful coppery self. I’m ready to ink and proof!

Step 7:

Ink and proof it… (This is a long tutorial in and of itself).

Step 8:

My aquatint unfortunately came out extremely dark. There are many hours invested into the image thus far, many more than the 8 hours of one aquatint day mind you. And this is my love hate relationship with printmaking… I have no idea how it’s ever “really” going to turn out, I just prepare myself and hope for the best. So ultimately my times ran a little long. But after many, many, many mistakes under my belt… there is a solution, 1000 grit sandpaper and my trusted burnisher.

After lightly sanding back and forth and burnishing areas out in a controlled manner, I got it to where I needed to be and went home with a half-smile on my face and another day feeling like I conquered the print gods and averted catastrophe once again. Quick note, I sanded and burnished the plate while it was inked after the proof. It provides me the ability to see the coverage of areas that way I am able to keep track of where I am on the plate.

And finally, after proofing and putting on the last touches, I pull my final print.

I hope you all enjoyed this post. If you have any questions feel free to hit me up. Make sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter @josephpgerges, and Facebook @josephgergesart. Also, please sign up to my email list on my site where you’ll get updates on the going’s on with my work and future projects, shows, etc.