William Blake Was Etching Copper In 1790

You may know William Blake as a poet, or even as #38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. But did you know that Blake was also an artist and print maker who made illuminated (flourished) books?

Blake sought to marry his art with his poetry and unleash it on the world. To do so, he created an innovative printing process, which is recreated by [Michael Phillips] in the video after the break. Much like etching a PCB, Blake started with a copper sheet, writing and drawing his works backwards with stopping varnish, an acid-resistant varnish that sticks around after a nitric acid bath. The result was a raised design that could then be used for printing.

Cleaning up the ink smudges before printing.

Blake was a master of color, using few pigments plus linseed or nut oil to create pastes of many different hues. Rather than use a brayer, Blake dabbed ink gently around the plate, careful not to splash ink or get any in the etched-away areas. As this was bound to happen anyway, Blake would then spend more time wiping out the etched areas than he did applying the ink.

Another of Blake’s innovations was the printing process itself. Whereas traditionally, illuminated texts must be printed in two different workshops, one for the text and the other for the illustrations, Blake’s method of etching both in the same plate of copper made it possible to print using his giant handmade press.

Want to avoid censorship and print your own ‘zines? Why not build a proofing press?.

Thanks for the tip, [Andy Pugh]!

11 thoughts on “William Blake Was Etching Copper In 1790

    1. Blake did not invent etching, this process was already known for three centuries at his time. He perfected etching by combining it with other techniques.
      The headline should read: “William Blake hacked etching copper in 1790.”

        1. Copper was standard, and nitric acid was common. Relief instead of intaglio was new, and somewhat time consuming compared to intaglio. Text and images together was used in engraving and woodcuts. Honestly, the headline should be “Blake invented an unusual printing technique not used before, or really since”

  1. The list of 100 greatest Britons is astonishing, and illustrates the weakness of a public poll. Listed among truly great individuals are the famous but otherwise ordinary, and even a few who were no credit to humanity.

    1. There are plenty of great people who are not known by the main public, making it difficult for the main public to vote for those great minds or achievers. Sometimes their achievements are “discovered” or “recognized” decades later and they are accepted in the history books. These “greatest blablabla” contests are essentially popularity contests based upon the limited information/knowledge given at the time, but also based upon the personal “taste” of the voter. Apples and oranges… while we all are equally important although in different ways.

      1. Because it took far more than 40 minutes to draw the images and text.
        This process wasn’t for making single pages. It was for making multiple copies of the same page.

        It took hours if not days of work to produce the text and the drawings on the copper plate. It would take the same hours or days to draw a single page on paper.

        The copper plate was etched and used to make copies. Each copy could be made in less than an hour (and with consistent results) rather than the hours or days it would have taken to hand draw each copy.

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