Although Whistler had achieved his earliest critical success as an etcher, it was only during his time in Venice that he developed a truly experimental approach that enabled him to create aesthetic effects comparable to the painted Nocturnes of the 1870s. Utilizing a radically attenuated, skeletal line, he enveloped selected areas of the composition in films of plate tone, using ink left on the etching plate to suggest color, light, and atmosphere. He discovered his subjects while strolling on foot or floating in a gondola, and he drew the initial composition onto the plate seated before his chosen motif. Later, he refined and varied each image, sometimes returning months or even years later to make subtle linear changes that resulted in a new “state.”
Whistler often combined the distinct processes of etching and drypoint on a single copper plate. For etching, he covered the plate with a waxy black coating, or ground, and drew on it with sharpened dentist tools. Generally, the plate is then placed in an acid bath that “bites” into the copper where the ground has been removed. Whistler, however, poured the acid directly from a bottle onto his design. He used a feather to move the acid over the plate, “coaxing” out the lines and achieving different degrees of depth and tonal variations within a single line. Then, he cleaned off the ground and often added drypoint by drawing directly on the copper plate. Drypoint creates a velvety fragile line that Whistler frequently used to add details or texture in darkly shadowed areas. He then inked the cleaned plate and selectively wiped it to vary the amount of plate tone. Dampened paper was placed on the plate and run through a printing press, producing a mirror image of the composition. Consequently, Whistler’s views, drawn on site, appear in reverse when printed.
Unlike many graphic artists, Whistler undertook every aspect of the printing process himself. After printing, he trimmed the paper to the plate line, leaving a tiny tab that he inscribed with his signature butterfly and imp to indicate he had printed the work. These qualities enthralled Freer in 1887, but when Whistler first exhibited these prints seven years earlier, one critic characterized them as “another crop of Mr. Whistler’s little jokes.”
Watch a video to learn more about making an etching