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Drypoint printing

About drypoint

Drypoint is a different way of creating an intaglio print which, like an etching, is all about fine lines and delicate marks. Unlike etchings where grooves are made through the use of chemicals, the artist manually scratches into the plate to create rough areas (burr) which hold the ink. Like etchings, the plate is covered with ink and then carefully wiped away before printing, leaving ink only in the scratches. The difference between drypoint and etchings are clear when you use a magnifying glass: drypoint lines are softer and have blurry edges, etched lines are more crisp and often have a slight wobble because of how the image is drawn onto the plate, using a thin needle on a shiny metal plate. There is also a difference in the printing: the burr thrown up by scratching into the plate is fragile and will not stand up to repeated wiping, eventually wearing down until a just a thin and unsatisfying line is left. You can expect to be able to make about 10-15 prints from a drypoint whereas an etching can produce up to many more prints.

As they could not print larger editions, artists often only made drypoints if they were making prints for themselves or to develop an idea. Rembrandt often combined etchings with drypoint and dramatic inking, pursuing his own artistic vision and using printmaking as a medium for creating unique images. Whistler used drypoint plates almost like a sketchbook – working directly onto the metal. Contemporary artists create drypoints because the technique is so direct and enables them to create effects that are not achievable by any other means.

Artists to look at: Tony Bevan, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Peter Howson, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, Mary Cassatt, Eunice Kim.

Create the drypoint plate

You can create a drypoint plate either on metal (such as aluminium, copper or zinc) or transparent plastic (see blog post 'About plastic for drypoint'). Transparent plastic has advantages in that you can lay it directly over your drawing and trace through. It is also cheaper than metal. It the direction of your drawing is important, then you will need to reverse your preparatory image.

Scratch into the plate using a sharp point such as etching needle, diamond point or even a compass. It is also possible to use linocut tools, mechanical engraving tools and even selective use of sandpaper to create marks on the plate. The depth and intensity of the marks will create deeper and richer areas of tone.

If you want to check your image you can place a piece of black paper underneath the plastic to see the lines more clearly.

If your plastic is thin enough you can also use a sharp blade or scissors to cut the plate to fit the image so that you don’t have a rectangular plate mark.

Print the drypoint plate


Apron and gloves

Clean surface such as a piece of glass for mixing and spreading ink

Blotting paper

Your drypoint plate

Etching ink

Small strips of card (for spreading ink)

Scrim (or soft lint-free rags for removing ink)

Squares of phone book and tissue paper (about 10 x 10 cm)

Cotton buds or paper spills (rolled up cartridge paper)

Printing paper cut to size with 1 ½ inch border minimum

Template (see below)

Paper fingers (little folded strips of card to keep paper clean)

Tissue paper or newsprint to protect the bed of the press and blankets

Printing press


Soak paper (about 5 minutes, avoid air bubbles). Blot it with blotting paper so that no water is visible and there are no shiny areas on the surface of the paper . Store in a sealed plastic bag for up to 12 hours.

Next, make a template using a piece of clean paper the exact size of your printing paper. Draw an outline of your plate and mark ‘top’ inside the outline.

Then check the pressure on the press. Lay your uninked plate on top of your template (cover with plastic if you are going to print quite a few), with a piece of damp printing paper. Run it through the press - it shouldn’t be too easy to turn the handle. If it is, the bolts controlling the rollers need tightening. The bolts should be level so the pressure is even and you should see the same depth of plate mark on both sides. You should also see a faint impression of the marks you have made on your plate.

Put on your gloves. With a strip of card, spread a small amount of ink onto your plate. Spread the ink into the scratches - you won’t need much ink. Make sure the ink is spread evenly and remove any excess ink with a strip of card. At this point the plate will be completely covered with ink.

Start removing excess ink using scrim. Wipe the plate using small circular dabbing motions.

With phone book/tissue paper continue to remove ink. Use the sheets flat and twist off very gently using the soft pads of your fingertips. It should start to feel ‘powdery’. You should take care not to drag ink out of scratches or remove too much ink.

You should now be able to see the scratches. Take a cotton bud and clean the areas you want to remain completely white. Don’t forget to clean the back and edges of the plate.

REMOVE GLOVES (to keep the printing press and paper clean).

On the bed, place your template (and plastic) first and then put your plate inky side up and then cartridge paper. Then cover the paper with a piece of newsprint to protect the blanket.

Place the blankets over the top and turn the handle SLOWLY to send through the press just once. Lift up the felt and newsprint. Pin the centre down with your fingertips and carefully peel the paper away from the plate.

To dry your prints, interleave between tissue paper and blotting paper and weigh down with wooden boards or books. Replace with clean, dry tissue paper and blotting paper (if necessary) over the next two days. Your prints will take 2-3 days to dry.

And finally clean the plate and tools with vegetable oil, soap and water. Remove template from bed of press and keep for next time.

Intaglio is Italian for ‘carved in’ or inscribed and includes etching, drypoint and engravings. It is different to relief prints such as linocuts because the ink does not rest on the surface of the block but is worked into the grooves and rough areas of the plate and mostly wiped away before putting it through the printing press with dampened paper.

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