Fine Art Photo Etching Process

Written by cece evans
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Fine Art Photo Etching Process
Photo-etching makes black and white prints of a photograph. (Black and White Crushed Fence image by John Walsh from

Etching is a printmaking process in which an artist digs thin lines into a metal surface. The lines capture printing ink, and when an artist runs the plate and paper through a printing press, the paper is pressed into the incised grooves and picks up the ink lines. Historically, printmakers have used etching to create highly detailed images.

Photo-etching is the combination of the etching process with photography. In fact, the first type of "photograph" (Nicéphore Niépce's "View from the Window at Le Gras") was a photo-etch. Niépce treated a metal plate with a photosensitive emulsion and exposed the plate to light. Light etches the treated plate, which can then be inked and printed like other etched plates.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Mylar
  • Copying machine
  • Photograph
  • Toray plate
  • Enlarger
  • Printing ink
  • Glass surface
  • Palette knife
  • Brayer
  • Cheesecloth
  • Printing press
  • Paper

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  1. 1

    Place a sheet of Mylar in the paper feed of a copying machine. Place the photograph face down and copy it onto the Mylar. Take the Mylar into the darkroom.

  2. 2

    Lay the toray plate on the enlarger and place the Mylar on top of the plate. Toray plates are a type of printmaking plate which manufacturers have prepared with emulsion that hardens in response to light. You can order toray plates online, if your local art supply store doesn't have them.

    Expose the plate to light. The light will penetrate the clear parts of the Mylar and harden the photosensitive emulsion on the toray plate. When you rinse the plate, the parts left unexposed will rinse away, sunken into the surface of the plate.

  3. 3

    Lay a strip of printing ink on top of a glass surface. Work the ink with a palette knife by spreading it around and gathering it back together. Roll the brayer in the ink and then up and down on the glass until ink covers the brayer smoothly.

  4. 4

    Roll ink on the surface of the toray plate until ink fills the grooves. Rub the surface of the plate with cheesecloth to remove ink from the raised areas, which you don't want to print.

  5. 5

    Place the plate on top of the printing press. Make sure that the plate is straight and lay the paper on top of the plate carefully. Cover with the printer's blanket (a standard part of the printing press). Run the plate and paper through the press at high pressure. It may take several tries to find the right pressure for your image, depending on the thickness of the toray plate, how deep the bite into the image and the thickness of the paper.

    Most printmakers use Aquarelle or Rives BFK paper, which can be found at most art supply stores. Make sure to get paper with a smooth, rather than textured, surface.

Tips and warnings

  • "Toray plates" is how many printmakers refer to etching plates prepared with a photosensitive emulsion. However, it is a brand name, and many companies offer the same thing under different names. Other manufacturers offer the emulsion for you to lay on to a metal plate (zinc or copper, usually). An online search for "photo-etching plates" will help you find the option best suited for your purposes.

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