Aquatint Printmaking: Definition, Process, Artwork

Painting with ink is an art form that has been around for centuries, since the end of the 14th century. In the past, it involved layering inks and pigments on wood or paper to create beautiful works of art. However, the modern-day version of the painting with ink has evolved to bring in easier and more precise methods of art creation.

Aquatint printmaking is one such method that has made it easier for artists to create stunning prints with intricate details. The printmaking technique is an etching variant that produces tone areas rather than lines. It can create prints with subtle transitions between light and dark areas.

Keep reading to discover all about aquatint printmaking and explore some beautiful artwork created using this technique.

Definition: What Is Aquatint Printmaking?

Aquatint is a printmaking technique that creates tonal images by etching small dots into the printing surface. It creates delicate details on a printing surface since the finer and more delicate the dots are, the softer and subtler the tonal transition will be.

You can also use aquatint printmaking to create images in monochrome and color and a range of textures. Artists often use the technique to produce prints resembling watercolors. You can also use it to create highly detailed or textured prints that would be difficult with other techniques.

For instance, if an artist wishes to create prints of a specific surface such as woodgrain, aquatint is ideal as it can create a realistic surface representation. On the other hand, other etching techniques can not produce the same kind of detail and texture as they are limited to incised lines and shapes.

The History of Aquatint Art

The invention of the aquatint technique dates back to the eighteenth century. Different individuals played different roles in getting to its success, as they had numerous failed trials that gathered important information for the first successful aquatint artwork.

Here is a comprehensive analysis of the invention and modern-day history of aquatint printmaking.

Past History: Invention of Aquatint Printmaking

According to historical records, a French artist, Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non, invented aquatint printmaking. He passed over the technique to a painter and etcher, Jean Baptiste Le Prince, in the mid-1700s.

In the 1650s, numerous trials to actualize the technique were tried, mostly by Jan van de Velde IV in Amsterdam, Johann Jacob Biedermann, a German painter, and John Faber, who even wrote a book on printmaking. However, all these efforts failed.

It was not until the late 1700s that Le Prince perfected the technique and produced the first aquatint prints. He adopted a heated resinous varnish on a metal plate to fuse the granules. Dipping the painting into acid and water works best for the etching process

Le Prince’s invention was a breakthrough and English etchers viewed it positively. There, artists were developing landscape watercolors techniques. His new aquatint technique helped improve the landscape effect. A tint block works better than a color wash to achieve the landscape effect.

Until the 1830s, the aquatint technique produced grey and black shades, which were sometimes later colored by hand. However, the process was still essential as it created images similar to watermarks but relatively solid and fetching a fair price.

Le Prince further modified the technique to create prints with a wide range of tones and shades. He also created some of the earliest aquatint prints, which featured landscapes and religious motifs.

Since then, many artists have adopted the technique due to its versatility and ability to create complicated details. The artists have used aquatint for their artwork and made some unique prints. Other artists have also used the technique to create vibrant prints with various colors.

Modern-Day History: Current Status of Aquatint Printmaking

Today, aquatint printmaking is still widely used by contemporary printmakers who wish to create prints with incredible details and shades. The process has evolved from its original form and is now used to produce prints with dense colors, such as those used in lithography.

The technique has been more accessible since the introduction of digital technology, making it easier for artists to produce prints with various colors and textures. It is also affordable for creating prints, requiring minimal setup and low-cost materials.

Modern-day aquatint prints have captured fine details and textures that are impossible to achieve with other methods. The process is also useful for various applications, such as creating prints of landscapes, portraits, and abstract art.

Modern artists believe aquatint printmaking is an incredible technique to create beautiful prints with various colors, tones, and textures. However, they also acknowledge that the process can be tricky and requires a lot of practice to master.

Process: How To Create an Aquatint Print

Creating a print using the aquatint technique requires some basic steps. However, the process can vary depending on the artwork you wish to produce. Here are the steps you need to take to create an aquatint print:

1. Prepare the Plate

Start by preparing the metal plate, preferably zinc or copper. Lower the edges to reduce accidents of cutting yourself.

You can then prepare the plate for the rosin dust process by coating it with a thin asphalt layer. You can also use a shellac-based adhesive to seal the plate before adding the ground.

2. Apply the Resin Powder

Use a sieve with fine particles, and sprinkle the powdered resin onto the plate. Ensure you cover it evenly and use an etching tool to fill any gaps.

You can also use the aquatint box or a printing press to apply the powdered rosin firmly to the plate.

3. Heat the Plate

After completely covering the plate with the resin powder, heat it until the particles fuse. The heated plate should be removed from the heat source and cooled in the water. However, you should note that you can still work on the resin after heating.

You can use different flames, such as alcohol, methylated spirits, or a gas torch, to heat the plate. You can also use a hot plate or an electric stove for heating.

4. Etch the Plate

You can now etch the plate after removing the excess resin. You can use a soft brush and cold water to clean up the plate.

You can then use an etching tool such as a burin or a needle to create the desired details on the plate. Once you are satisfied with the design, you can add some acid to the plate and etch it further. But, ensure you use a brush to clean up any excess acid, as it can affect the image.

5. Print the Plate

You can now use an etching press to transfer your design onto paper or fabric. You need to ensure you use the right ink, temperature, and pressure to make a good transfer.

You can also clean up the plate using a soft brush and cold water and then dry it with a cloth. The printing press should also be cleaned after each use to ensure the quality of the prints. However, when taking on the acid bath, ensure that you use acid-resistant material to ensure its acidity does not burn them out.

Important Facts About The Process

The aquatint process involves various toxic substances, such as acid, that can be hazardous to your health. Therefore, it is important to take the necessary precautions when working with such materials. You can use protective gear such as gloves and masks to help reduce any contact with toxic materials.

It is also essential to use the right tools and temperature for the best results. Too much heat can cause the plate to crack, and excessive acid can corrode the plate. You can use a thermometer and an acid resistance chart to help determine the right temperature and acid resist ratio.

It is also crucial to remember that the process requires time and patience to get it right. You may have to repeat certain steps and adjust the settings as needed until you are satisfied with the artwork.

Artworks: Some Famous Examples

Some of the most famous aquatint prints include Los Caprichos by Francisco De Goya, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, and William Blake’s Songs of Experience. The prints are considered to be some of the finest examples of aquatint prints ever produced.

Here is a closer look at these famous prints:

1. Los disparates, Francisco Goya

This aquatint print has more than one name, some referring to it as the Sueños (Dreams) or Proverbios (Proverbs). It is the work of Francisco de Goya, who made it between 1815 and 1824. The medium used was etching, and the aquatint technique was well showcased in this print.

The print depicts a surreal landscape of human figures in bizarre poses. It is considered an important example of Goya’s mastery of the aquatint technique, and it is still admired today. It is also considered an allegory of the Spanish people’s struggles against their rulers.

The prints in this series include:

  • Disparate de miedo (Fearful folly) – The number 2 plate from the series has a dimension of 24.4 x 35,3 cm. The print shows a group of frightened people running away from a dark cloud. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for fear of an unknown enemy. The print can also represent men’s high risk of danger as they undertake their normal activities.
  • Disparate cruel (Cruel folly) – The print is Number 6 in the series and has a dimension of 24.3 x 35.1 cm. It shows a man holding a weapon as he drives other individuals in a certain direction. With the facials and body language of the characters, it can be interpreted as a representation of violence and power struggles. The print can also be seen as an allegory of the Spanish people’s sufferings at the hands of their rulers.
  • La Lealtad (Loyalty) – It is the 17th plate of the series and has a dimension of 24.4 x 35.1 cm. The print shows several individuals standing near a single sitting man. They all seem to praise or offer something to the man, who is presumably a ruler or authority of some kind. The print is interpreted as an allegory of loyalty and faithfulness to one’s leader.

Other prints in this series include:

  • Modo de volar (A way of flying)
  • Disparate claro (Clear folly)
  • Las exhortaciones (The exhortations)
  • Disparate pobre (Poor folly)
  • Disparate general (General folly)
  • Disparate desordenado (Disordered folly)
  • Los ensacados (Folly in sacks)

The prints in the series are still admired today as they represent a unique style of printing. The intricate details and surreal elements in these prints make them a timeless classic.

2. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Francisco Goya, 1799

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is number 43 of the Capricho series of eighty prints created by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco De Goya in 1799. The printmaker used the aquatint technique to create this masterpiece.

The print features a man sleeping with his head under his arms while bats and owls circle him. The artwork is a criticism of the Enlightenment era, in which people used to rely more on logic than imagination.

Other prints comprised with The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters in the Capricho include:

  • There it goes.
  • Where is mommy going?
  • Bon voyage.
  • Who would have thought it!
  • They have flown.
  • What one does to the other
  • Be quick; they are waking up.
  • Can’t anyone unleash us?
  • It is better to be lazy.

All the prints in the Capricho series have been widely praised for their beautiful detail, subtle tones, and expressive themes.

3. La Tauromaquia, Francisco Goya

La Tauromaquia is a series of 33 prints produced in 1816 by Francisco de Goya using the intaglio aquatint technique. It depicts different aspects of bullfighting, from the training of bulls to the slaughtering of them. Each print has a detailed description that accompanies it, providing insight into the various techniques used in bullfighting.

The prints in the series include:

  • Otro modo de cazar a pie (“Another way of hunting on foot”)
  • Capean otro encerrado (“Another one is caped”)
  • Origen de los arpones o banderillas (“Origin of the harpoons or banderillas”)
  • Banderillas de fuego (“Fiery “banderillas”)
  • Echan perros al toro (“Dogs are sicced on the bull”)
  • El Cid Campeador lanceando otro toro (“El Cid spearing another bull”)

The prints were not only meant to document the sport but also to serve as a critique of it. Goya aimed to demonstrate how cruel and dangerous the practice was and to express his disapproval of it.

4. Seated Giant, Francisco Goya, 1818

Seated Giant is one of Francisco Goya’s most famous prints and was published in 1818. It has a dimension of 28.4 × 20.8 cm using a medium of etching, aquatint, and burnishing. The print shows a giant seated on the ground, looking out away from the viewer.

The figure’s expression is a mixture of despair and doubt, with its arms crossed and placed on its knees.

The print can be interpreted in many ways. Some interpret it as a comment on political powerlessness, while others view it as a metaphor for human fragility and mortality. The print is a powerful reminder of Goya’s mastery and keen understanding of politics and human nature.

5. The Iron Forge between Dolgelli and Barmouth in Merioneth Shire, Paul Sandby

The print is plate 6 of XII Views in North Wales, created in 1776 by the British artist Paul Sandby using the engraving, and aquatint printed in black and grey color.

The print shows a furnace located between Dolgelli and Barmouth in Merioneth Shire, Wales. It features a group of workers tending to the furnace while another group is walking away in the background. The print evokes an atmosphere of industry and hard work in a rural setting.

The print is an important part of British history, documenting the industrial processes in Wales in the late 18th century. It is also an example of Sandby’s skillful use of light and shadow, creating a dramatic composition that captures the scene’s essence. 

It is a lasting testament to Britain’s industrial history and an important reminder of the hard work of its people. 

6. The Public Promenade, Philibert-Louis Debucourt

The print was created in 1792 by the French artist Philibert-Louis Debucourt using etching, engraving, and aquatint printed in color. It depicts a public promenade in Paris, as the creator pictured the swells admiring each other in the Palais Royale gardens. The print contains various colors, including blues, greens, and yellows.

The print is an example of the Rococo art movement in France, focusing on lightness and elegance. It showcases the gardens’ beauty and the time’s fashionable culture. The figures in print are dressed in bright, colorful clothing and accessories, adding to their vibrant atmosphere.

The print is also a reminder of the social life in Paris during the French Revolution, providing insight into the city’s culture and customs. It is a lasting testament to the city’s history and a valuable contribution to the Rococo art movement. It also serves as an important reminder of the power and influence of France’s society during the period as it captures their fine culture. 

The print is a valuable representation of the time and serves as a reminder of Philibert-Louis Debucourt’s skillful artistry. The creator uses it as an inspiration for other artists and a source of knowledge for those interested in French culture.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Artworks have a vital role in the world of visual arts. That’s why numerous questions about the ancient but famous print-making technique, aquatint, have been raised. Here are some of the most common questions.

What is the purpose of aquatint?

The purpose of aquatint is to create different tones through etching than different lines. Tones make the final work smoother.

What is the difference between an etching and aquatint?

Here are some common differences between etching and aquatint:

Shapes – Etching involves creating incised lines and shapes on the printing surface, while aquatint uses tonal effects to create subtle transitions between light and dark.

Process – Etching involves painstakingly etching lines and shapes into the printing surface, while aquatint uses acid to etch dots into the printing surface.

Preparation – In etching, the artist prepares the printing surface by carefully etching the lines and shapes into it. On the other hand, aquatint involves coating the printing surface with a protective layer of resin grains.

Result – Etching produces prints with sharp lines and shapes. While aquatint creates a more subtle transition between light and dark tones, giving it a more lifelike and realistic feel.

What is the difference between mezzotint and aquatint?

Mezzotint and aquatint are two different techniques used in printmaking. Here are some of their main differences:

  • Process – Mezzotint involves engraving a copper or zinc plate surface with a specialized rocker tool. Aquatint, on the other hand, involves coating the printing surface with a layer of resin grains, then exposing the printing plate to acid.
  • Result – Mezzotint produces prints with tonal values, from dark shadows to rich highlights. Aquatint prints have a more subtle transition between light and dark tones, giving them a more lifelike and realistic feel.
  • Preparation – Mezzotint requires more preparation time than aquatint, as each print from a mezzotint plate requires a unique set of engravings. Aquatint does not require any additional preparation time, as all prints from one printing plate will look the same.

How do you identify aquatint?

Identifying an aquatint is relatively easy, as the print usually has a smooth tonal variation of the colors and shades. Also, since it is an intaglio printmaking technique, you can usually identify an aquatint print by looking for fine lines in the print.


Aquatint printmaking techniques are an important part of art history, and it continues to be celebrated today.

From Constable’s Hay Wain to Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, many artists have used the technique to create stunning works.

The printing technique has been praised for its sensitivity to nature and ability to capture the details in the countryside, dark themes associated with experience, and iconic scenes. As such, it has left its mark on art history, and its influence can still be seen today.