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The Art Behind the Art
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One does not flippantly offer his or her thoughts on a master without taking, at the very least, a little time to understand the artistic process they hope to convey to their audience.

People like what they like. We all have opinions about art regardless of the antiquity of its creator or its novelty. My personal taste is simply that. Rather than impress you with my observations of the Rembrandt collection now on display at the Red Gallery on Broughton Street, I thought it more beneficial to learn a little about the etching technique. 

Fortunately, I had the luxury of a private crash course delving into the art, technique and chemistry of etching by SCAD’s gracious Professor of Printmaking, Robert Brown. It was to my great advantage that Robert took the time to carefully explain the medium to me before I viewed the gallery. A little enlightenment gave each piece more meaning and a deeper appreciation for Rembrandt’s signature style.

Webster’s dictionary defines etching, “to make a drawing, design, etc. on metal, glass, etc. by the action of acid; especially by coating the surface with wax and letting acid into the lines or areas laid bare with a special needle.” The word’s origin stems from the German word, “essen,” to eat or corrode. An etching can also be defined as a print created from an etched surface.

Robert explained that this wax, or “ball hard ground” as it is termed, is rubbed evenly over a warmed copper plate. After the coating dries, one draws a design through the removal of wax. A dry point needle, a sharp tool resembling a fine awl, scrapes into the copperplate displacing the metal creating a burr, or a furrow. 

A burin, on the other hand, is a tool that actually removes the metal by finely shaving it off. Acid is then applied to the plate. Where it is covered in wax, creating an acid-resist, the plate is protected.  Where marks have been made with the tools, the copper is exposed and “eaten” or etched, by the acid.

After the wax is cleaned off, ink is rubbed into the plate. The ink sinks into the etched depressions. It is then rubbed away and the depressions hold the ink.  Characteristic of Rembrandt, often times thin films of ink would be left on the plate in areas giving the resulting print an even greater sense of depth and contrast between light and shadow. A mark left with a burin creates a smooth line, whereas the burr left from the drypoint makes an almost smoky line.

Paper is then laid over the plate and rolled through the press. The pressure transfers the ink from the plate to the paper and you have an etching.

Robert suggested that a plate could be run an estimated twenty times or so before losing its integrity. Numerous runs mean more pressure on the copperplate, which, for lack of a better term, “squishes” out the image. 

Not to worry Robert! Those are my words. The resulting print becomes lighter and more vague as it is less apt to hold ink.

A plate that is only etched or engraved once is considered an “only state”. Though there are several of these in the exhibit, there are many examples of Rembrandt etching the same plate again. If he wanted to create deeper shadows, add additional details or make corrections, he would rework the plate.

Sometimes he would engrave using a drypoint and/or burin on top of an already etched plate. As depicted in the show, each time a plate was reworked, or re-etched, it is considered a new state and is duly noted.

Another reason for additional etching was that over time, a plate would lose its lines and would not be able to hold much ink. Therefore it would need to be re-etched. Rembrandt and, later in time, other collectors of his plates, would re-etch them.

 An amazing and very obvious example of this is seen in “The Hundred Guilder Print,” 1649. The earlier print is very light and vague and does not have tremendous contrast. This is attributed to the plate’s overprinting.

The second example, where the same plate was re-etched and quartered over a century later, shows a tremendous amount of contrast and detail, though obviously not rendered by Rembrandt’s hand.

Understanding the etching technique coupled with a brief overview of the history of printmaking during Rembrandt’s time, allowed me to better appreciate why an artist known for his Baroque realism as a painter would work with this different medium. In both art forms, Rembrandt used light and darkness to create, not just an image, but also an intimate mood.

His command of chiaroscuro, or, the gradations between light and dark, was tremendous both in his paintings and etchings. Rembrandt often combined both sacred and mundane subjects and themes thereby giving them an almost equal standing. He seemed to make the divine more human and real, while the common was given unusual dignity.

As the technique developed, etching became customary among artists in the seventeenth century. This was due to the medium’s ability to give an artist great freedom in designing.

Another main draw, quite frankly, was financial. Most painters were commissioned by the church or by those individuals of means. Etching allowed more people the luxury of owning art.

Plates could be reprinted and then after several runs, could be etched again, adding detail or allowing the artist to edit. At the same time, the way the ink was applied and rubbed off, could technically allow each print to be a unique piece of art.

As Professor Brown pointed out, a regular person could sit with his portfolio and entertain guests with his or her collection of etchings. Sitting for one’s portrait by a master artist was no longer a luxury claimed only by the nobility.

The appeal and ensuing demand proved to be a great source of income for Rembrandt. Unlike many artists who became famous posthumously, Rembrandt was celebrated in his lifetime and his prints were his bread and butter.

“Etchings of Rembrandt” is a collaborative effort of the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Titus Foundation. The collection can be viewed at the Red Gallery until September 25. And unlike many art exhibits, these prints are available for purchase. ƒç


SCAD celebrates the 400-year anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth by presenting “Etchings of Rembrandt” Aug. 31-Sept. 25 at the Red Gallery, 201 E. Broughton St. The exhibition includes 40 etchings by Rembrandt for sale. The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be featured on the Sept. 15 gallery hop, 5-7 p.m.