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What is an Aquatint?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 August 2014
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An aquatint is a type of etching which produces a distinctive variance of tones which looks almost like a watercolor painting. The technique for making aquatints was developed in the 1600s, and this technique was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. One notable producer of aquatints was Francisco Goya, a noted Spanish engraver who was famous for being able to make very delicate, detailed, nuanced aquatints.

The term “aquatint” comes from the Latin aqua, which means “water,” and tinta, for “dyed.” The finely detailed, flowing nature of a well-made aquatint does indeed resemble a fine watercolor, although there are a variety of techniques which can be used to create an assortment of styles. In all cases, an aquatint is composed of very finely grained tones, rather than the lines of etchings and engravings.

To make an aquatint, an artist covers a plate in a granular substance known as a ground, which provides the speckled look of the finished product. Then, he or she “stops out” any sections of the plate which will be white, before dipping the plate in acid to establish a baseline pale tone. Working progressively, the artist stops out more and more of the plate and dips it repeatedly, creating layers of shaded regions which will vary, depending on how long each region was exposed to acid.

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Once the plate has been produced, the artist can use it to print as many aquatints as he or she wishes. Classically, aquatints have been produced with black ink, although other colors may certainly be used, and some artists hand-ink their plates to create split fountains of multiple colors. After use, the plate may be rubbed with oil and wrapped to ensure that it will resist corrosion for use on another day, or the artist may choose to destroy the plate, turning the prints into limited editions.

Artists who play with aquatint techniques at some point in their careers can produce a broad range of looks and styles. For example, a high level of detail can be used to make aquatints which look almost like photographs, or artists may choose to use larger grained grounds for a more splotchy, blocky effect. Aquatinting can also be combined with other etching techniques, for artists who like to blend multiple styles into a single piece.

Many art schools offer instruction in aquatinting, and people who are interested in learning the technique can also study at art centers and community studios. Because aquatinting involves the use of chemicals, including acid, instruction is advised before striking out on one's own, to ensure that the technique and proper safety precautions are thoroughly learned.

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