Adoring Aquatint

by Colleen Yarger, George L. Ohrstrom Jr., Curator of Library Collections



  1. A print resembling a watercolor, produced from a metal (usually copper) plate etched with nitric acid.


  1. Create (a print) using the aquatint process

I’ll admit, ever since I learned about this printmaking method a few years ago, I have become head-over-heels enamored with this medium.

What, you may ask, makes it worthy of my affection? Well, it’s an art. It’s a science. It’s tremendously intricate, requiring serious dedication from practitioners to gain proficiency. It produces astonishingly beautiful prints. And it has a lengthy history of use.

George Reid, printed by Annan and Swan, Twilight on the River, c. 1888. Aquatint.

In the late 18th century, aquatint had been quite popular and utilized to great effect in England as the preferred printmaking method to sympathetically interpret the washes of tone found in watercolor paintings. However, over the course of the 19th century, faster and cheaper methods of reproduction were invented. These newer reproductive methods ultimately caused aquatint to languish. It only began to reclaim prominence after 1885, when it was resurrected and championed by Etching Revival artists such as, Sir Frank Short (English, 1857–1945).

So how is it done?

Similar to other forms of etching, aquatint relies upon the biting of a copper plate with acid to different depths that will ultimately correspond to the production of lighter and darker areas of tone. However, unlike straight etching the coating (ground) laid atop the plate is porous.  There are two main types of porous grounds, dust or spirit.

George Reid, printed by Annan and Swan, Title Page, c. 1888. Aquatint.

A dust ground is applied by allowing a dusting of powdered resin to settle evenly over the surface of the plate, which is then warmed, allowing for the specks to bond to the plate.

A spirit ground is made by dissolving resin into a liquid ‘spirit’ such as wine. That mixture is then poured over the plate, with the excess liquid allowed to run off the edges. When the remaining liquid evaporates, only the resin remains. The plate is then warmed, allowing the resin to adhere to the plate. 

Frontispiece and Title Page in Dean Sage’s, The Ristigouche and Its Salmon Fishing (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1888). The John H. and Martha Daniels Collection.

After a porous ground is selected and applied, the method of stopping out areas with resin and biting exposed areas with acid follow, just as in etching. Truly talented artists of the aquatint method can achieve a gamut of subtle tones in their plates. Once realizing that each tone relates to a separate trip in the acid bath, these images for me became even more spectacular to behold

Since starting at NSLM in July, I have been on the lookout for aquatint illustrations in our rare book collection. I am thrilled to report that I have found several. Currently on display for your viewing pleasure in the Library lobby is a first edition from the John H. and Martha Daniels Collection,  Dean Sage’s rare (only 105 copies were made) and beautiful masterpiece from 1888, The Risitgouche and Its Salmon Fishing.

National Sporting Library Lobby

Currently, Sage’s text is opened so that everyone may delight in the frontispiece, entitled Twilight on the River, and the Title Page. Designed by Scottish artist George Reid (1841–1913) and printed by Annan and Swan, each large aquatint was expertly executed. Together they form a stunning greeting for readers opening The Ristigouche and Its Salmon Fishing.

Colleen Yarger joined the NSLM in July 2022 as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Library Collections. In this post she oversees the Library’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room, Archives, and Reading Rooms, as well as interpreting and generating exhibitions based upon these rich holdings.

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