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Technical terms

'Antique' is a term sometimes used for handmade LAID paper produced on moulds before 1800. It often can be distinguished from 'MODERN', machine-made paper by the bunching of fibres around the LAID lines of the moulds.
In this INTAGLIO technique, the plate is first sprinkled with powdered resin, which is heated and fused to the plate to create a porous ground. Then acid is used to bite tonal areas into the metal plate.
A term referring to Japanese and Chinese papers, which were traditionally made on bamboo moulds. These papers tend to be more fibrous and silky than western papers and some sheets can appear to be LAID because of the bamboo strips used for their moulds. Asian papers are sometimes referred to generally as 'JAPAN', 'CHINA' and 'INDIA'.
A flat ended metal tool with a rounded end ('burnisher') is used to smooth and polish areas of a COPPER PLATE, after imperfections or unwanted lines have been removed with a SCRAPER. Whistler's etching tools are in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.
A ridge of metal raised by a DRYPOINT NEEDLE or other engraving tool on metal plates. The ridge stands next to the incised line and holds ink, producing a velvety line, but the burr wears down quickly during printing due to the pressure of the printing press.
Whistler signed his work with a 'butterfly' evolved from his initials 'JW'. First used around 1869, it evolved into a more complex form with wings, antennae and a shaded background, with many variations. Whistler signed many etchings and drypoints plates with a butterfly and also used it to sign individual IMPRESSIONS in graphite pencil.
Once the printing of a COPPER PLATE is completed, or it is decided not to continue it, it may be cancelled. The surface is marked with lines, or defaced by acid or burnishing, or holes are punched through the plate, so that the image is no longer fully visible. Whistler's copper plates were often cancelled with diagonal and zigzag lines. The plates of the 'Second Venice Set', now in the Art Institute of Chicago, were elegantly cancelled with large butterflies surrounded by rays of light. The 'Thames Set' and some other plates were cancelled with a grid of crossed lines. Many of the plates that came from Whistler's estate to the University of Glasgow were cancelled with a single diagonal line. The plate for The Square House, Amsterdam [454] is reproduced below.
Etching: PK404_01 (plate)
The Square House, Amsterdam [454]
A printing technique where an etching is printed on a fine sheet of paper, usually asian, which is glued down during printing on a heavier, supporting sheet of paper. This printing method is also known as 'chine collé'. The 'French Set' was often printed on 'chine appliqué'.
Whistler made his ETCHINGS and DRYPOINTS on thin copper plates, sometimes hand-made and often machine made. His favourite manufacturer was Hughes & Kimber of London. However, he used a range of copper manufacturers including Dupuis, H. Godard, Juery, B. Maire and R. Mazarin and C. Servant in Paris, and J. Robinson in Manchester. A high proportion of Whistler's copper-plates are in the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.
While the ink is still damp after printing, an IMPRESSION of a print can be placed face down on another sheet of paper and run through a press to produce a reverse image. Counterproofs are used by printmakers to make corrections on their plates; because the images face in the same direction as work on the plates, it is easier to plan corrections and additions.
Patches or larger areas of crossed lines used for shading.
A drypoint is an INTAGLIO print pulled from a metal plate with an image drawn directly on it with a drypoint NEEDLE or other fine, sharp tool. If the NEEDLE is held upright, the resulting line can be very sharp and fine. However, if the NEEDLE is held at an angle, it raises a ridge of metal that holds extra ink next to the incised line and creates a soft, velvety effect. Drypoint may be used on its own (as in the drypoint illustrated below), or to add shading or other details to ETCHINGS without the need for acid to bite the lines into the plate.
Impression: K0690102
The Miser [17]
For a PUBLISHED print, an edition is the number of IMPRESSIONS pulled from the COPPER PLATE, for example, 100 for Whistler's 'First Venice Set' and 30 for the 'Second Venice Set'.
Etching is an INTAGLIO technique that uses acid to bite an image into a metal plate. Whistler worked on a thin COPPER PLATE with a shiny, smooth surface. This was heated and covered with a thin acid-resistant ground (he used a mixture of white wax, bitumen pitch, and resin). The surface was blackened with smoke from a wax taper to produce a shiny black surface, on which the drawing showed up as bright coppery lines. He drew with a steel etching NEEDLE sharpened to the finest point. Lines were etched with nitric acid diluted with water. With the tip of a feather he dripped acid on the plate. It bit down into the lines, leaving black areas unaffected. He varied the depth of the bitten lines, and made changes as he worked. After draining off the acid, he checked for accidental scratches or mistakes. Lines sufficiently etched could be painted out with 'stopping out varnish' (so that when the plate was re-etched, these lines would not be affected). To make changes he heated the plate, hammered out the unsatisfactory area, and started again. Whistler learned to etch at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington DC in 1854; an example of his work at that time is reproduced here.
Impression: K0010101
Sketches on the Coast Survey Plate [1]
Also known as 'Faux-bite' or over-biting. Dots, flecks and splashes of acid on the surface of the copper plate, produced mostly by accident, result in grainy, irregular marks. Whistler sometimes cleaned off foul biting but at other times left or manipulated the marks to produce textural effects, as in the example illustrated below.
Impression: K0330202
The Music Room [39]
To make an ETCHING, the surface of the COPPER PLATE is painted with an acid-resistant substance that dries to produce a hard or waxy surface that can be drawn through with an etching NEEDLE.
An abbreviation for the Latin word 'impressit', which means 'printed'. Whistler often signed prints on the paper margins, on the verso, or on a small paper TAB with his BUTTERFLY signature and the letters 'imp' to indicate that he had printed the IMPRESSION himself.
The etched COPPER PLATE when printed produces an impression on a sheet of paper. Each print is known as an impression.
Words or dates inscribed on the plates by the artist and others as well as annotations in graphite pencil or ink on the margins or verso of the IMPRESSIONS pulled from the plates.
'Intaglio' comes from the Italian intagliare, meaning 'to incise'. . In printmaking, acid or a sharp tool is used to score the lines of the composition into a metal plate, which is inked and then run through a press with a sheet of dampened paper. The pressure forces the ink out of the incised lines and onto the paper, resulting in the raised character of the lines and also leaves an indentation that corresponds to the edges of the plate. ETCHING, DRYPOINT, MEZZOTINT, and OPEN BITE are all intaglio techniques, as are line engraving and AQUATINT, which were not employed by Whistler.
Asian papers often characterised by silky fibres, which can range from very thin tissue to heavy sheets. The lines visible on some papers, when they are held to the light, are the result of the bamboo moulds used to make them, and those regular grids differ from the CHAIN and LAID lines visible on western papers.
Western paper is traditionally made from fibres, originally from rags and more recently from wood pulp, which are soaked and then dried in thin layers on screens. Before 1800, the paper was dried on wire screens, comprised of more widely-spaced wires crossed at right angles by more narrowly spaced ones; in modern times, those wires were replicated on machines. Paper that shows evidence of these CHAIN and LAID LINES when held to the light is known as laid paper.
Lithography is a planographic printmaking technique, where the image is pulled from the surface of a stone or plate rather than from incised lines. Whistler made lithographs by drawing with lithographic crayon either directly on limestone or on specially prepared paper that was used to transfer the images to stone. The surface of the stone was prepared so that the work in lithographic crayon could be inked to produce prints that share some qualities with drawings. Whistler explored some subjects in both lithography and etching.
Impression: E730101
Lady standing [170]
  • In this INTAGLIO technique, a metal plate is completely covered with tiny, regular dots by passing a toothed tool called a 'rocker' across the surface over and over again. A similar even texture may be produced with a ROULETTE wheel. The artist then uses a SCRAPER to create a composition by selectively smoothing parts of the pitted surface of the plate. When the plate is printed, the image appears in shades ranging from dark grey to white against the deep black background produced by the textured surface of the plate. One of Whistler's not very successful attempts at this technique is reproduced below.
The term 'modern' is used to refer to paper produced after 1800, which is often machine-made.
Whistler worked with steel etching needles, and with other sharp pointed tools sometimes described as being like dentist's tools. They were kept pointed by rubbing on a carburundum (an artificial stone composed of the ceramic silicon carbide). The pointed metal stylus used to draw a dypoint image directly into the metal plate is known as a drypoint needle.
An etching technique in which areas of the COPPER PLATE are exposed to acid. This etches a fine-grained tonal area into the plate.
Whistler printed on many different types of paper, adding subtle colour and variety to the impressions taken from his etching and drypoint plates. He particularly liked thin, glossy ASIAN PAPER and old WESTERN PAPER, which was often removed from books or ledgers and frequently had watermarks of European paper mills. Contemporary papers made from chemically processed and bleached wood pulp lacked the colour and texture he wanted. See LAID PAPER and WOVE PAPER.
An original print is a work of art usually on paper, which has been conceived by the artist to be realized as a print, rather than as a photographic reproduction of a work in another medium. Prints are produced by drawing or carving a design on a hard surface (the matrix) i.e. a wood block, metal plate, or stone. This surface is then inked and the image is transferred to paper by applying pressure, thus creating an 'IMPRESSION' or 'print'. Unlike paintings or drawings, prints usually exist in multiple impressions, each of which is pulled from the inked surface
Tiny flecks that appear in the ink during printing, sometimes when too much ink has been left on the plate.
The surface of a COPPER PLATE can deteriorate over time, and become pitted with irregular holes, through corrosion or rusting. The copper plates for the 'Thames Set', for instance, were printed over a long period, and some late impressions show signs of pitting.
The pressure on the copper plate when it is run through the press produces a slight indentation in the paper that corresponds to the edges of the plate; this is known as the platemark.
Whistler often left a thin skim of ink on the surface on the COPPER PLATE, carefully wiped to add colour, texture and atmosphere to the composition. Nocturne [222], reproduced below, is an extreme example of this, with a wide range of wiping effects suggesting mist, sunset or night.
Impression: K1840407
Nocturne [222]
To print an ETCHING or other INTAGLIO print, the PLATE is cleaned, warmed over a heater, and dabbed with ink. Surface ink is wiped off, with light strokes, leaving ink only in the etched lines. Sometimes a thin film of ink (see PLATE TONE) is left on the plate surface, which, when printed, adds atmosphere to the IMPRESSION. The plate is placed on felt blankets on the bed of a printing press, a piece of dampened paper is put on top of the plate, and more blankets are positioned on top of the paper. Finally, the plate and paper are pulled under pressure through the printing press. Whistler's early etchings were printed by Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907), who taught him how to print.
Whistler usually printed quite small print-runs of ten or twelve IMPRESSIONS, but as many as 50 or 100 impressions were sometimes printed from a published COPPER PLATE .
The first IMPRESSIONS pulled from a copper plate are often called proofs, and they are frequently used to check the status of the printed image. Additional proofs may be pulled during the course of a plate's development, most notably to monitor the progress of STATES. These impressions, sometimes called 'working proofs', may not be carefully printed and may have inky fingerprints or other defects that betray their function as part of the creative process rather than truly 'finished' works. The printer or artist (and Whistler was often both) was entitled to keep these, separate from any contracted published set.
Print dealers and publishers both sold individual etchings, and published sets of Whistler's etchings, including the 'French Set', 'Thames Set', 'First Venice Set' and 'Second Venice Set'. Sometimes he sold the plates, and the publisher handled the printing; at others he sold the EDITION of prints and maintained control of the plates, themselves.
The front side of a sheet of paper - in the case of a print, the side bearing the image; the back side of the sheet being the VERSO.
French: ‘dragging up’. A technique of gently passing a fine cloth over an inked plate to draw a little of the ink out of the line, producing a softer effect. A similar effect could be produced by heating the plate to make more ink flow from the etched or incised lines. Whistler learned this technique from Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907).
A tool used to produce dotted areas directly on a metal plate or, infrequently, through a GROUND. The roulette has a toothed wheel that revolves, making a regular track-like pattern.
A tool with a sharp, curved, triangular metal blade that is used to remove unwanted lines from ETCHING plates and excessive burr from DRYPOINT lines. The scraper leaves marks on the surface, which may print as grey areas, and those marks are usually polished away with a BURNISHER. Removal of deep or extensive lines often reduces the thickness of the COPPER PLATE, creating depressions on the surface. In order to correct that problem, printmakers hammer the back of the plate to push up and even the printing surface. Several of Whistler's Venice plates show evidence of such hammering.
Over the course of his printmaking career, Whistler put together several coherent groups of ETCHINGS and DRYPOINTS, which he marketed as sets. The published sets are the 'French Set', 'Thames Set', 'First Venice Set' and 'Second Venice Set'. In addition a 'Cancelled Set' was published at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy. Sets were usually mounted and sometimes sold in albums : his 'French Set' in the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow, for instance, was originally bound in an album in Paris. There are other groups of related prints which were not published, including the 'Brussels Set', 'Jubilee Set' and 'Amsterdam Set'.
A mixture of nitric acid and Gum Arabic (or in theory, saliva) which can be dripped, spattered or painted onto a metal surface to provide additional textural effects.
Each alteration or contemporaneous group of alterations made on a COPPER PLATE, results in a new state. The change or changes may involve the removal of parts of an image as well as additions to it. Although many of Whistler's etchings only appear in a single state, others were taken through as many as twenty different states, as he sought to refine and develop the images.
COPPER PLATES can be 'steeled' or electro-plated with a harder metal to preserve the surface before printing, thus making them capable of being printed in larger editions. Whistler's 'Thames Set' was steel-faced for one edition, and later, when the 'steeled' surface showed signs of deterioration and PITTING, the steeling was removed.
Soft-ground is an INTAGLIO technique that employs a soft ETCHING GROUND on the metal plate. An artist places a piece of paper or cloth on top of the ground and draws on it, the paper is removed, the plate is bitten in acid and the lines of the resulting print resemble those of a drawing.
Stopping out is used during the ETCHING process to produce a variety of depths of line or to cover areas that are complete while other parts of the COPPER PLATE are rebitten. Lines to be protected from further biting are covered with stopping-out varnish or acid-resistant ground before the plate is returned to the acid bath
A syrupy solution of sugar can be painted onto the metal plate prior to it being coated in a liquid etching ground or 'stopping out' varnish. When later the COPPER PLATE is placed in hot water the sugar dissolves and lifts off, leaving a delicate textured effect. The plate can then be etched.
The term commonly used for the small segment of lower margin retained by Whistler when he trimmed certain etchings and drypoints to their PLATEMARKS. Whistler at first left margins around his INTAGLIO prints, but after about 1880 or 1881, he often trimmed the impressions to their PLATEMARKS, leaving a tab for his BUTTERFLY signature and the letters 'imp' (see IMP.). A tab is visible at lower left of the impression reproduced below.
Impression: K4330102
The back of a sheet of paper; the front being the RECTO.
The mark of the paper maker, in the form of a design, name, number or monogram, which is visible when paper is viewed against a light. It also may be somewhat visible on the surface of the paper. On early papers, watermarks were created with wire attached to the chain and laid lines of paper moulds (see LAID PAPER). For example, many of the etchings published in the 'Thames Set' have the watermark of 'DE ERVEN DE BLAUW' and beehive watermark.
Wove paper, manufactured on a woven, mesh wire screen, does not have the chain and laid lines of LAID PAPER, and presents a more uniform distribution of the paper fibres. Wove paper was developed in Europe around 1750.
Papers made in Europe; see 'LAID' and 'WOVE'.



  • Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints, London: and New York, 1986.
  • Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking. An Introduction to the History and Techniques, London: British Museum, 1980.
  • International Fine Print Dealers Association at
  • Museum of Modern Art website at (2010)