Etching Explained

Etching and lithography are two distinct methods of producing multiple examples of a work of art, each one of which can qualify as an original work.


The Creation of an Etching

Etching is an example of a process called intaglio which was developed as an artistic medium in the early 16th century.  It has been used by the world's greatest artists ranging from the old masters such as Durer, Rembrandt, and Rubens to the modern day works of Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall.

In the etching process, the artist draws an image on a copper metal plate which has been coated with a thin layer of acid-resistant wax.  Using an etching needle, the artist cuts through the wax, exposing bare metal beneath it.  When the image is completed, the plate is immersed in an acid bath which bites out or "etches" the exposed image.  The wax is then removed and the plate is covered with ink.   When the plate is wiped, the ink remains only in the etched lines below the surface of the plate.  Using a special etching press, the ink is transferred from the plate to a sheet of paper.  The copper plate is coated with fresh ink for each individual impression.  


What is Lithograph?

Lithography is an example of planographic or "surface" printing which was developed in the late 18th century.  It is based on the principle that water and grease don't mix.  To create a lithograph, the artist draws an image on a very smooth treated stone slab using a special grease crayon.  The stone is then dampened with water.  Because grease repels water, the crayon image area remains dry while the rest of the stone absorbs the water and becomes wet.  A greasy ink is then rolled on the entire stone.  The wet areas of the stone will not absorb any of the ink, but the crayon image does.  When the stone is wiped, the wet areas come clean while the crayon area retains the ink.  The inked image is then transferred to a sheet of paper by running the stone slab and paper through a special press to create a lithograph. In more recent times, sheets of properly grained zinc or aluminum have also been used instead of stone.

New printing methods raise concerns

Modern methods of printing make it possible today to reproduce a work of art in unlimited numbers that are often represented to be "original, limited edition" prints.  Often they are nothing more than large press runs using the very same printing presses used to print magazines.  It is common today to simply print full-color reproductions of an original oil painting or watercolor on a printing press.  These reproductions are then signed by the artist and sold as limited edition prints.  We recently saw an advertisement for a new print by a nationally famous living artist.  The ad proclaimed, "...produced in an edition strictly limited to 43,500."  (No, that's not a misprint.  It really said 43,500 was a limited edition.)

Experts respond

To deal with a concern about what distinguishes true, original prints from these mass-produced prints, the Print Council of America, Inc. has published the following definition.

"An original print is a work of art, the general requirements of which are:

  1. The artist alone has created the master image in or upon the plate, stone, wood block or other material, for the purpose of creating a print.
  2. The print is made from the said material by the artist himself or pursuant to his directions.
  3. Each finished print is approved by the artist."

What's the value of an original print?

As with any work of art, the value of an original print is chiefly determined by the importance of the artist who created the work. Other factors could include the physical condition of the particular impression, size of the image, richness of the impression, desirability of the image, size of the edition and the supply available.

Museums and discriminating collectors have always sought the best examples available of original prints, from those by the old masters of the 16th century all the way to works of the great artists of the present. It is not uncommon for major, original prints by important artists to sell at prices in excess of $100,000 each.

What about MacGilchrist?

The works of John MacGilchrist fully meet all three requirements of the Print Council's definition.  He personally drew the images and then hand-pulled each impression.  His signature certified his approval of each individual impression.  MacGilchrist followed the custom of the old masters by limiting the number of impressions of each image to just 100.  That small number is almost unheard of in today's art marketplace.

The important aviation museums who own examples of MacGilchrist's original prints - institutions such as the Royal Air Force Museum in London, the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Flight in Seattle - provide some expert indication of the desirability of MacGilchrist's works as pieces of aviation history.


By Patrick Coffey, AAA
Certified Life Member
Appraisers Association of America, Inc.