You are in: Online Resources > Online Exhibitions > Whistler > Glossary

Glossary of techniques and materials

BURR

The filing of metal thrown up by drypoint, trapping a rich deposit of ink around the edges of a line.


DRYPOINT

A sharp point used to scratch directly into the copper without using an etching ground or acid. Copper displaced from the scratched line is thrown up to either side in a rough burr. When the plate is inked the burr traps rich deposits of ink, which then print as soft velvety areas along the line. Very few impressions can be printed before the burr wears away.


ETCHING

A thin copper plate is coated with an acid-resistant ground. The artist draws with an etching needle, which easily scrapes through the ground to leave lines of exposed copper. The plate is then immersed or covered in acid, which bites (corrodes) into the copper where it has been exposed. If the artist wants some lines deeper than others so that they will print more heavily, these lines can be exposed for a second time to the acid whilst protecting the other lines with some kind of acid-resistant varnish. When the ground has been cleaned off, the plate is ready for intaglio printing in a heavy roller press, which indents the paper creating a plate mark. To make alterations, the surface of the copper is scraped down and then the scraped area beaten from the back to bring the surface of the copper up to match the rest of the plate. The surface is then burnished before etching new lines.


IMPRESSION

A single pull printed from a plate or stone.


LITHOGRAPHY/LITHOTINT

Lithography is based on the natural repulsion of water and oil. The artist draws directly on a lithographic stone (traditionally limestone) with greasy pen, crayon or wash, or, alternatively, draws on transfer paper from which the image is transferred to the stone. The stone is washed with water and printing ink is applied with a roller. This oily ink affixes to the drawn lines, but is resisted by the damp parts of the stone. The image is then printed on a sheet of paper. Because no pressure is applied at the edges of the stone, there is no 'plate mark'. Lithography is capable of much longer print runs because it does not suffer the surface deterioration that occurs with intaglio printing. Whistler's print runs were limited not by the condition of the stone or plate but by his abhorrence of the idea of 'prints for the people'. He expected prints to appeal to the same exclusive clientele as his drawings, and his preferred printing methods on rare paper only suited a small print run. But he did agree that certain lithographs could be transferred to multiple stones and printed in large numbers for periodicals.


OPENBITE

Especially at the time of his Venetian etchings, Whistler applied acid selectively with a feather, sometimes to the open surface of the plate, thus roughening the metal so that it would trap ink to print as tone.


PAPER

Whistler often used a variety of papers of different sizes, even for a run of impressions of the same print. He favoured Japanese paper or old European paper.


A variety of Japanese papers of beautiful quality were being imported into Europe, and those used for Whistler's prints included thin, silky papers, as well as the thicker vellum-like papers (called torinoko), both made from gampi fibre. The published edition of the 'French Set' was printed on chine collé, whereby a very thin oriental paper was laid onto a heavier European paper before printing. Whistler and his assistants (in Menpes' words) 'ransacked the slums and alleys of Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Brussels and London' in search of old European paper for printing the best 'proofs', bringing back fly-leaves from books or sometimes a precious haul bought from a paper merchant. Most of these papers were 'antique' laid papers: that is, papers made by hand before 1800 on old-fashioned moulds. Whistler's favourite was an 'exquisite' eighteenth-century Dutch paper of 'an indescribable tint of gold'. He did not mind if the paper was already foxed or stained before printing, as he pointed out to the lithographic printer Thomas Way: 'I don't know what you mean by finding the paper dreadfully stained - I like it''. Whistler preferred his lithographs printed high on the sheet with a generous margin around the image. This was in line with his practice from around 1880 of trimming the margins of his etchings to the plate mark, leaving only a tab for his butterfly signature. The sheet was then floated in a mount. The trimming was partly an aesthetic choice but also a way of criticising and frustrating the value placed on large margins by collectors of etchings.


PROOF

Whistler used the word proof to describe a fine hand-printed impression. The word is used in this exhibition in its more usual sense to describe an impression outside of a formal published edition.


ROULETTE

A spiked wheel used to roughen the surface of a plate, typically in mezzotint, but used by Whistler to make dotted shading in certain of his Venetian etchings, notably where he also intended to leave ink on the surface of the plate to print as tone.


STATE

The condition and appearance of the plate or stone when an impression is printed. If alterations are subsequently made to the plate or stone, any further impressions would represent a different or later state.


SURFACE TONE

After ink has been forced into the lines of an etching plate, the surface is wiped clean with a cloth, or with the side of the hand, to remove excess ink. Auguste Delâtre, who printed Whistler's 'French Set', was especially renowned and skilled at creating effects by the way he wiped a plate. From the time that he printed his Venetian etchings in the 1880s, Whistler himself varied the effects of light, weather and mood between individual impressions by leaving films of ink on the surface of the plate, which printed as tone. Perhaps not since Rembrandt had a printmaker gone to such trouble to make each impression an independent work of art.