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La Minotauromaquia (1935)
Juan Carrete Parrondo

II. Picasso and the Print. The Engraving to the Etching


Without a doubt Picasso loved printmaking and practiced almost all printmaking techniques, with the most common being etching and drypoint, not to mention the occasions on which he used the burin. Although the technique from which he profited the most artistically was the sugar aquatint - the most pictorial method of making a print, surpassing the lithograph - a method Picasso employed for the final prints of the Suite Vollard.

The speed and immediacy of execution that the etching technique allows would be the primary reason that Picasso utilized it, although the fact that it is an easy technique to learn may also have contributed to his decision. Both circumstances combine to make the etching the most utilized printing technique among amateur printmakers, which is to say, essentially painters, who found that the etching needle afforded them almost the same level of freedom as the sketches they made for drawings. Needless to say that with this method one could achieve an enormous wealth of expression.

The etching technique consists in drawing with a metal needle, and sometimes a chisel, on a layer of acid-resistant ground covering a copper plate; the plate is then dipped in an acid bath, where the acid "bites" into the metal exposed by the needle. A process so apparently simple does not demand a special skill for materials or tools, nor, above all, for printmaking itself.

Picasso drew directly on the layer of ground protecting the copper plate and, in most cases, only once; that is to say that the first state was the definitive proof. Nevertheless, on some occasions he returned to the plate to add interwoven lines to different states in order to emphasize the blacks, reinforce contours, decorate sections, or simply to decorate an empty space with scribbles. Rare, but telling are the occasions upon which the artist, after printing the first proof of an etching, decided to make changes introducing new techniques in which he employed the burin and the drypoint form of engraving. He even resorts to combining techniques, such as etching, aquatint and the use of the burin.

Except in rare occasions, Picasso did not need to print various states, apart from completing the composition, which in its first state was the simplest, or adding a few details. Although there were also cases when, during the process, he would erase from and add to the composition; he would also introduce new techniques mid-process, such as wash, which basically consisted in applying the nitric acid directly to the copper plate.

The copper plates etched by Picasso were meant for printing, that is to say that the image would be passed to paper. For this process, the plate is first covered in ink, an operation that generally consists in spreading the ink across the etched area with the help of a brayer, continually wiping the surface of the plate with a piece of cotton cloth – tarlatan – and sometimes, with the palm of a hand, taking precaution not to the remove ink from the groves.

Making prints using the etching, aquatint and drypoint techniques – and in general all current processes – requires the special participation of the printer, as this operation is decisive for the final result. The task of the printer is to find, in perfect coordination with the artist, what type of print should be used, as the printer is capable of creating more luminous zones, highlighting the ink in the grooves or providing changes in tone and effect in order to augment the depth of the composition.

Once the plate has been inked, the etching is printed by a rolling printing press. This machine, which has not changed much since the fifteenth century, is composed of two lateral supports, on top of which rest two solid cylinders, which today are made of metal, but used to be wooden. The first cylinder is operated by a spoke wheel, which is operated manually or with a small electric motor. Between the cylinders, a wooden board or metal plate – the platen – is where the inked plate is placed, upon which the paper and then a felt cloth are arranged – formerly a coarse fabric called grogram was used; the pressure exerted upon the plate by the two cylinders causes the ink deposited in the grooves to pass from the copper plate to the paper. In this manner the print is born. Each new print requires a newly inked plate to be passed through the press.