My research into electro-etching is based on the following testable assumptions that:
- Intaglio etching remains popular today with artists because of the creativity of its line, tonal range and gravitas of expression.
- Traditional acid based printmaking studio is considered to be an unhealthy and hazardous work environment.
- In response, to the increased cost of providing the required safety equipment, many universities art departments have removed intaglio etching from the curriculum.
- The lack of exposure to intaglio etching during secondary education and the potential health and environmental hazards of traditional etching will alienate students from the art form (Howard).
- The vitality of etching depends on young people being offered the opportunity to become familiar with, and practice intaglio etching.
- Electro-etching in the form of “same metal and metal salt etching” is the safest, most economic alternative to other methods of fine art etching.
The objectives are to:
- Fully explore the use of electrolysis as an artistic medium;
- Provide a portfolio of work using electrolysis as an artistic medium
- Carry out a programme of participant observer research, in collaboration with the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham into the uses of electrolysis in printmaking; (To continue the collaborative research relationship with the Leinster Print Centre in the Irish Republic)
- Identify the effects of the operating variables relating to voltage, and current of the power supply; the size of plates and types and concentrations of electrolytes;
- To establish practical guidelines for the practice of electro-etching.
The aim is to:
- Bring together the dispersed scientific and technical information on electrolysis, electro-etching, electroforming and electrotyping to make it available in an accessible form for artists and educators.
- To showcase the process through developing a portfolio of work, running workshops, publications and an active online blog.
In earlier scoping research for this project research saline sulphate was identified as a possible alternative mordant to nitric acid for etching. It is widely used and recommended as a safe mordant for etching zinc and aluminium (Wray). Ferric chloride was also considered, but rejected in the early part of the programme, owing to the difficulty of using it in a domestic environment. The benchmark that had been set for assessing an alternative mordent was that it should be inexpensive, safe and convenient for use in a home-based studio.
The conclusion of the research project was that saline sulphate could be considered as an alternative to, but not necessarily a replacement for acid etching or ferric chloride etching.
The major advantage saline sulphate has over nitric acid is that it does not require as many safety precautions. It does however share some of the disadvantages of both nitric acid and ferric chloride:
- It tires over time requiring bite times to be constantly readjusted.
- It is unstable; it re-acts to changes in temperature.
- There are problems of disposal in a domestic environment.
- The need to refresh the bath fairly frequently makes it expensive.
- It is not particularly good for fine line work.
In 1991, Nik Semenoff at a conference, at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, both described and encouraged artists to use electro-etching as a safe process to etch intaglio plates. It is a matter of surprise, that despite the fact that Nik made this claim twenty-five years ago, and the work of Marion and Omri Behr, Cedric Green, Alfonso Crujera, Bob Perkin and others have shown that his claims are valid, electro-etching is not in mainstream practice.
Current writing on electro-etching
Marion and Omri Behr (1993) published their research into the etching and tone creation in copper and zinc by means of a low voltage electrolytic process using the salts of the same metal as the electrolyte.
Cedric Green, working in France on an electrolytic process for etching copper and zinc he published his paper on galvanic etching in 1998, he has an active web site on which he publishes his and others artwork and researches into electro-etching and electrotyping. Cedric has recently added papers to his web site describing his concerns about the use of sodium chloride as an electrolyte because of its potential to release chlorine gas.
Alfonso Crujera an internationally respected Spanish painter, sculptor and printmaker began electro-etching in 2001 and opened the first electro-etching workshop in Spain in 2002. He published his ‘Electro-Etching Handbook’ in Spanish that has now been translated and published in English. Alfonso has an active website and runs residential workshops. He also has an easy to read, accessible paper on electro-etching on the non-toxic print website. Most recently Alfonso, in collaboration with Bob Perkin a U.K. based scientist, has been writing of their research into the science of electro-etching.
In 2010 Francisco Hernandez-Chevarria and Alberto Murillo published their paper “Metal Sacrifice: The use of saline (sodium chloride or table salt) to etch aluminium, steel and iron/mild steel.
Where am I at with this Project?
I guess the flip answer to that question is I wish I knew. I’ve probably learned more about myself than I have about the subject matter so far.
I am surrounded by a load of data; notes on experiments and ideas to explore further, but at a time in the PhD. Programme where I need to start pulling it all together into a coherent form and making some work. The making of work has been somewhat on hold over the past two years, so that is beginning to look like a priority. Using the making of art as a research tool.
 Howard, K. (1993). ‘Safe Etching and Photo Etching: The next generation’. Print Making Today, Vol. 2 No 3. pp. 19-21
 Same metal same metal salt describes the use of the same metal for both the anode electrode and cathode and the electrolyte being an aqueous solution of the metal salt i.e. an electrolyte of copper sulphate for copper electrodes and zinc sulphate for zinc electrodes.
 Wray, P. (2007) ‘Etching Made Easy’, Printmaking Today Vol 16, No 1 Spring, pp 25-25
 Semenoff, N and Christos, C. (1991) Using Dry Copier Toners and Electro-Etching on Intaglio Plates Leonardo, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1991), pp. 389-394.
 Electro-etching handbook: Alfonso Crujera: 9788493510091
 Printmaking Revolution – Amazon.com
The masks above are examples of electro-forming with mandrels made from candle wax and the ones below are electrotype casts. The electro-formend mandrels were made by taking wax casts from the mould and painting them with electro conductive paint. They were then attached to the negative terminal (cathode) surrounded by several copper anodes that were attached to the positive terminal (anode) suspended in a copper sulphate electrolyte. The same mould used to cast the mandrels was made electro conductive and used to electrotype more masks. The whole process takes around 24hrs. for each mask.
The actual copied plate looks much better than the photograph. This method is clearly not for the impatient as the process took 48 hours to get a 0.75mm plate. the electrotype process was originally used in the 19th. century to make copies of valuable silver ware for museums as well making copies of printing plates. Has a lot of potential for making innovative collagraph plates and making more robust copies of delicate plates.
Looking forward to seeing how the copy compares to the original when printed. Also looking forward to making some more sculptural forms using the electrotyping process.
This is an electrotype cast made from a ceramic model of the face of Buddha. The model is a Raku fired ceramic piece made by my father. I made the mould from general purpose RTV silicone rubber. The inside of the mold was given several coat of copper conductive paint and then placed in an electrolytic tank containing a copper sulphate electrolyte and a copper anode. The electrolytic process ran for 48hrs. at 0.5v and 1.30 amps. The casting is between 1.5 and 2mm thick. The head dress presented a casting problem in that the shape produced an air pocket that prevented the copper plating out. I have reversed the hanging fixture to get around this problem in the next casting.
Yesterday evening I ran a workshop at the Regional Print Centre on monoprinting as serendipity, would have it, as part of my PhD. research into electro-etching I had come across this series of lectures given by Hubert von Herkomer. In one of the lectures he describes the process of making an electrotype copy of a monoprint plate. The illustrated examples are very striking and look more like drawings than etched plates.
Excerpt From: Hubert von Herkomer. “Etching and Mezzotint Engraving: Lectures Delivered at Oxford (1892).”
“You take a polished copper plate, and cover it with printer’s ink—cover it completely with the dabber, as if there were something to print Now, with brushes, hard and soft, and with rags, or your finger, or all combined, you wipe out the forms you require from the black ground. You will soon find that you can get the most delicate tones; the most artistic manipulation with your brushes is possible, and brilliant high light can be got out with a bit of wood pointed at the end. Here is a toy for a painter,—for it is painting pure and simple, the only difference being that the lights are taken away and the blacks are left. When your painting on the plate is done you put it through the press like an ordinary engraving; nearly all the ink will come off the plate, and you will find on the paper a splendid proof of your work. I know no method of drawing in pencil or colour that can approach the beauty of these printed blacks. The artistic mystery that can be given, the finesse, the depth of tone and the variety of texture, make this manner an almost intoxicating delight to the painter.
Now it seemed a pity that such rapid artistic work should be limited to one print only, and I started with my assistant, Mr. H. T. Cox, to invent a method for multiplying impressions from the work done on the plate, and he completed the invention.
I have patented the process, merely in order to prevent anyone else from securing a monopoly of its use, but give it freely for all to use and improve upon.
Mix in equal parts graphite with German printing black and oil, and cover the copper plate with this by means of a lithographic roller. Then do your wiping away of the forms as before described.
Take equal parts of bath-stone scraped to powder, bronze powder, and asphaltum (also in powder): soak the two first in turpentine, and when quite dry mix them with the asphaltum, and place the whole in a little bag of fine muslin.
When your drawing is done, dust it over with this mixture through the bag, until the plate is covered. Then brush it off very carefully and gently with a soft camel-hair brush, and you will see your work again, but filled in different degrees with the powder Let this dry for three days, and then send it to an ordinary electrotyper, and tell him to deposit copper upon that surface, but with the strict injunction not to touch the face of the work; for the plate is perfectly ready for him to commence his depositing, the plate having been made into a proper matrix.
When you receive the deposited copper, which will be of the thickness of an ordinary plate for etching or engraving, you will see the reverse of what you did. You lowered the lights by wiping away the ink, and left the ink standing up for the blacks. Here you will see the lights high and the tones lower, in a sort of granulated surface.
This process, which is eminently suited for original work, opens up endless possibilities to the painter, who, in using it,
is hampered with none of the technical difficulties of an engraving process. He can get his result without having in any way departed from the mitier with which he is naturally familiar. And it is conceivable that by working on the electro-typed plate with dry-point and scraper results may be arrived at which will surpass in artistic quality anything that can be obtained by methods of reproduction hitherto practised.”
“If two plates of copper be connected with the opposite ends of a voltaic battery, in a vesessel containing very dilute sulphuric acid, the plate connected with the copper of the battery will be attacked by the anion oxygen which is released during the decomposition of the acid”.
“By alternately exposing the plates to the action of the decomposing fluid and stopping out parts of the work, the required gradation in tints is obtained.”
“Electro-etching has the advantage of being free from the exhalation of any deleterious gas, but the apparatus required involving a battery and an extra copper plate, is more cumbrous, and the process itself more complicated, and does not appear to have been adopted for artistic work to any considerable extent.”
Chattock, R. S. (1883) Practical Notes on Etching. (2nd. edition) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Seale, & Rivington.
Although; the equipment we now have at our disposal is more effective, efficient and certainly can’t be described as cumbrous; the myth of complexity still sticks to electro-etching. Colin Gale and Megan Fishpool offer a key to demythologise the process in their excellent book ‘The Printmakers Bible’. They describe electro-etching as being “A reasonably complicated process and there are very few printmaking workshops with the equipment and ability to host it”. We are currently exploring the possibility of providing the equipment, training, and support fro electro-etching at The Regional Print Centre in Wrexham. If we can make this happen, it will help other artists to explore the mark making potential of electro-etch.