Photo intaglio – an overview

What is an intaglio print? Barbara Maloney explains what photo intaglio is.

Writer and Photographer / Barbara Maloney

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.
The word intaglio comes from the Italian language, and it means carved or recessed. In this type of print, lines or textures are cut or etched with acid into the surface of a metal plate.

The plate is inked, then wiped clean so that the ink lies only in these recesses. A print is made when damp paper is laid onto the plate, and the two are rolled under pressure together in an etching press.

How about photo intaglio?

A piece of original artwork (photograph, drawing, collage, or whatever) is reproduced onto transparent or translucent film or paper, then exposed onto a light-sensitive plate.

The emulsion on the plate hardens where it receives exposure and will resist acid in the etching process. The softer areas will be eaten away and will become the recesses which will hold the ink.

A Little History of photo intaglio printing:

Photo intaglio goes back to the origins of photography. In the 1820’s, Niepce invented a photomechanical process using sensitized pewter plate. He called the images produced from these plates heliographs. Daguerre and Fox Talbot made their own contributions a few years later, and photogravure (a form of photo intaglio) became a commercial process for reproduction in the late nineteenth century.

During the height of the photo-secession, Alfred Stieglitz used photogravure in his periodical, Camera Work. Both Peter Henry Emerson and Alvin Langdon Coburn chose photogravure as a means of printing for their pictorialist images.

Two Kinds of Photo Intaglio: Traditional Photo-etching And Solarplates

Photogravure is a fiddly process, demanding a high level of craftsmanship. Two easier methods of photo intaglio for the alternative printmaker are traditional photo-etching and solarplate. The traditional method makes use of pre-sensitized zinc plates and an acetone developer. After exposure, the recesses are formed by an acid etch. Solarplate is a light-sensitive polymer on a steel backing, which is developed and etched with water.

Both types of plates will then be inked and prints made by use of a printing press. Each can be used to produce one-off images or an edition of similar images. And each will produce a plate mark, which is characteristic of an intaglio print.

Tulips traditional photo etching
Tulips is a traditional photo-etching.
Anything Goes was made with with a solarplate.print
Anything Goes was made with with a solarplate.

An Overview of Old Fashioned Photo-etching (Revere Zinc Plates)

  1. Expose the light-sensitive zinc plate in contact with a positive image.
  2. Develop the plate in chemical developer, which is an acetone with dye. The portions of the plate which retain color will form a resist to acid.
  3. Rinse the plate and dry it.
  4. Put the plate into an acid bath. The acid will bite into the unexposed areas, forming recesses.
  5. Rinse the plate and dry it.
  6. Ink and wipe the plate.
  7. Run the plate through an intaglio press in contact with damp paper. The ink will be forced out of the recesses, forming your print.

An Overview of Solarplate Etching

  1. Expose the light-sensitive solar plate in contact with a positive image.
  2. Develop the plate in water with gentle scrubbing for a minute or two.
  3. Rinse the plate and dry it.
  4. Ink and wipe the plate.
  5. Run the plate through an intaglio press in contact with the damp paper. Voila! Your print!

What About Aquatint?

Large open areas on a plate will not hold ink. These are said to be over bitten or under cut. Traditional printmakers solve this problem with an additional step called aquatinting, which is the application of a thin layer of rosin dust prior to the acid etch. This layer adds an additional resist in the open areas and will help the printmaker retain good tone in the shadows.

Photo intaglio on a solarplate
Bern Stairway was made from a digital positive exposed on a solarplate. The darkest areas required aquatint by exposure.

In solarplate, you must expose the aquatint onto the plate. Most literature suggests that you make a second exposure with an aquatint screen to get additional random hardening in the open areas. This will avoid the undercutting problem.

I have found that you can skip the aquatint screen step if you are using a digital positive to expose the solarplate. You must manipulate this positive in two ways.

First, curve the tones so that the darkest tone is no greater than 70 percent black.

Secondly, print the positive as a random dot bitmap. The positive looks somewhat anemic, but the shadow areas on the plate will get enough random exposure to hold substantial amounts of ink.

Advantages and Disadvantages of solarplates

Whether you are working with traditional materials or solarplate, you have the potential to produce beautiful images. Solarplate is considerably easier, in my opinion. It is also safer and more environmentally friendly, as you eliminate the need for several chemicals and your acid bath. As a result, many university art programs have shifted to this newer technology.

Lady Hamilton photo intaglio print
Lady at Hampton Court is a traditional photo-etching with considerable reworking in the sky.

I think that you do give up something when working with solarplate, however. Most printmakers re-work their plates significantly with dry-point, further aquatint and acids, and so on. This is not so easily done with solarplate. Once the plate has been exposed, developed, and hardened, the image on the plate has been fixed.

You can, of course, alter the prints themselves, in the way of many other alternative photography practitioners, by hand-coloring, collaging, overprinting with other processes, and so forth.

A Little Caveat: I’ve given you a quick bare bones summary of the two variations of photo intaglio that I know. If you’re interested in the process, it would be a good idea to take an intaglio class at a local community college, atelier, or university or sign up for a photo intaglio workshop. Even with solarplate, there are health and safety concerns which you should understand.

Barbara recommends further reading:

Polymer Photogravure A New Method for Photographers & Graphic Artists

by Taneli Eskola & Kari Holopainene, University of Art and Design, Helsinki

Hard to get hold of, but try Amazon or second hand shops.

Recommended reading on Photopolymer, gravure, solarplates and printmaking
Polymer Photogravure: A Step-by-Step Manual, Highlighting Artists and Their Creative Practice by Clay Harmon

Polymer Photogravure: A Step-by-Step Manual, Highlighting Artists and Their Creative Practice

by Clay Harmon

Clear and easy-to-understand instructions.

Printmaking in the Sun

Printmaking in the Sun

by Dan Welden and Pauline Muir

Covering the solarprint, or the photopolymer process, an inspiring read!

Copper Plate Photogravure – Demystifying the Process

Copper Plate Photogravure – Demystifying the Process

by David Morrish and Marlene MacCallum

Step-by-step basic printing procedures for a photogravure plate, complete with trouble shooting information.

The Complete Printmaker

The Complete Printmaker

by John Ross, Jim Ross, Tim Ross

Step by step through the history and techniques of over forty-five print-making methods.

6 thoughts on “Photo intaglio – an overview”

  1. Hello,
    I enjoyed your article on the subject of solarplates very much. I recently built a uv light box and am having a bit of trouble with exposure times. I have had success in the past using the sun, but can’t seem to get a good plate with the light box. The exposed plates have a visible image, but don’t hold ink well, and when I press them I often get a pink cast. Is is possible that I am not rinsing long enough, or maybe underexposing? Help! Any advice would be much appreciated.

    Heather Jacks

  2. Hi Nick,

    I didn’t know to check the article for comments. I’m delighted that the overview was helpful to you and gave you enough confidence to try solarplate printing. Congratulations on your award and sales. Working with this medium is such a pleasure, don’t you think?

  3. Greetings !
    Thanks for making helpful information available.
    I’d like to try the photogravure process with someone who is accustomed to exposing Solaplate media with hand drawn (graphic) images. As a photographer, i’d like to use film positives generated with appropriate curves that maintain subtle nuances of the photo images. Are “curves” available for producing the best possible transparencies for Solarplate?

  4. Hi Barbara;

    Thank you so much for explanation. Read the book printmaking in the sun and started solar printing of digital photos about 1 mos ago. Just won a award and sold first solar print. Not possible without your overview.Had purchased etching press to do bromoil transfers. This is so much easier. May give up bromoil transfers.

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