Nontoxic Printmaking, Safe Painting & Printed Art

A Short History
of Electro Etching            CONTENT  |  SEARCH    
and Photography

Cedric Green FRSA

Electricity, Light and the Printed Image:

A Short History of the Origins of Photographic

and Electrolytic Methods in Printmaking

Image shows detail of Fleur Imaginaires (bottom left)   
plate galv-etched with open bite areas (bottom middle)
and electro etching equipment (middle panel)


Cedric Green was born in Africa,

and trained in a school of architecture where it was still

considered an art, closely linked to sculpture and painting.

During a period of 30 years he produced buildings

and exhibited drawings, designs, sculpture and paintings,

and also taught at the Cheltenham School of Art,

and Sheffield University in England. Then in the 80s

he became fascinated by printmaking

and after acquiring the basic technical skills, moved to France,

restored an old farmhouse in the hamlet of Bêlèterie

for home and studio and began working full-time in 1991,

painting and making experimental prints.

Over a period of years he has carried out research into safer methods

of making prints and eliminating the toxic acids

and solvents traditionally used.

He has revived some 19th century electrolytic methods

for etching and making plates which he has called Galv-Etch,

and discovered a new electrochemical mordant

to use with zinc plates, called Bordeaux Etch.

He has documented this research in articles,

a booklet entitled Green Prints and in a website

containing most of the content of the booklet.


The following article was first published in
El Grabado no toxico: Nuevos procedimientos y materiales, ISBN: 84-475-2810-3, University of Barcelona, Figueras Ferrer, Eva (Editora), in Chapter III. LA SOSTENIBILIDAD EN EL GRABADO, por Eva Figueras, Friedhard Kiekeben y Cedric Green.

Electricity, Light and the Printed Image:

A Short History of the Origins of Photographic

and Electrolytic Methods in Printmaking

The contemporary search for safer, non-toxic and environmentally acceptable processes has been largely provoked by the introduction of modern technology and chemicals, that had replaced safer processes and substances that were widely used in the nineteenth century, like egg albumen, gum arabic, gelatine, collodion, metal sulphates, electricity and sunlight. The fascinating early history of the development of photography is bound up with the contemporary search for photomechanical printing methods, and closely paralleled the development of electrolytic processes for printing [3]. Photography and electrolytic processes were used, together in some of the best photomechanical methods developed during the nineteenth century [4]. This article describes the genesis of these methods with some technical explanation of how they worked, only some of which have had a contemporary revival. Some that produced superb results at the time will seem unacceptably complicated today; others described are ripe for exploitation now by resourceful printmakers.

The indisputable inventor of photography, Joseph Nicephore Niepce was, like many extraordinary men of that period, interested in a wide range of subjects, and he invented, among other things, the internal combustion engine with fuel injection, patented in 1807! He began his photographic researches in 1816 from a background in lithography. He compensated for his lack of talent as a draughtsman by using a camera obscura and was obsessed with the idea of being able to fix the images he obtained in it.

Joseph Niepce, The Bishop of Amboise, 1826
First successful attempt at photomechanical reproduction

It was known at that time that various chemicals reacted to light and were hardened and made insoluble and so a suitable sensitized varnish would be hardened in the lightest areas [4]. This meant that if the unhardened varnish could be removed, baring the metal which could then be etched and printed in intaglio, he would have a means of simultaneously mirroring the camera obscura picture and producing a positive and permanent ink image [6]. Niepce had his first success in 1822 with bitumen of Judea mixed with oil of lavender, exposed for several hours under an engraving which was oiled to make it transparent. The areas not exposed to light could be washed away with turpentine and oil of lavender, and the dark areas etched in acid.

In 1826 he produced a pewter printing plate of the Cardinal d'Amboise - the first successful attempt at photomechanical reproduction. In the same year, using his heliographic process, he produced a photograph from nature, a view from his window, which required an exposure of eight hours in a camera obscura.

The theatre designer Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre joined the race to find a way of producing a camera obscura image on an iodized silver coated copper plate. This had actually been suggested to him by Niepce in 1829. His breakthrough came in 1835 when he accidentally left an exposed plate in a closed cupboard in which a mercury thermometer had broken. It took him until 1837 to find out how to fix the image with salt, something that Henry Fox Talbot had discovered three years earlier. Niepce formed a partnership with Daguerre but died before they could publish their results [4]. His cousin Abel Niepce de St. Victor continued the partnership and invented albumen negatives. He continued work on trying to develop metal printing plates by the heliographic process.

At that time there was an acknowledged need for an easier way of producing high quality reproductions of works of art, original works or popular views to illustrate books, which up to then required the making of steel engravings, each of which could take up to a year to produce [3, 5]. Printed photographs were perceived as the solution and the competition was later stimulated by a prize of 2000 francs offered by the Duc de Luynes in 1856 for the best method of photomechanical printing and another prize for the best method for making permanent pigment-based photographic prints [3].

In parallel with the development of photography, the discovery of electrolysis was exciting much interest and experimentation. After the accidental discovery by Luigi Galvani in 1789 of Galvanism, or chemically produced electricity, Alessandro Volta built a galvanic battery formed by alternating zinc and copper plates separated by fabric soaked in an acidic solution [7]. In 1834 Michael Faraday postulated his Laws of Electrolysis and established the scientific basis of the ranking of different metals according to their electrode potential. Smee and Daniell invented improved versions of galvanic cells, using zinc and copper plates suspended in solutions of copper sulphates and acid separated by a permeable membrane. Mr. Thomas Spencer of Liverpool made the discovery that copper was deposited on the copper plate or negative metal and that the zinc plate was corroded or etched, for which he was granted a patent in 1840 [9].

Simultaneously Professor Jacobi of St Petersburg claimed to have made the same discovery [10]. If the cathode was a three-dimensional object or mould in wax, plaster of paris, or metal, coated with plumbago (black lead) or graphite to conduct electricity, then the copper formed a solid negative mould over the object. The utility of this was immediately recognized and enthusiastically used to reproduce small seals and other objects by the process that became known as electrotyping or galvanoplasty [8]. Later the process was elaborated to produce much larger objects by applying a direct current from a galvanic cell to a separate cell containing a couple of metal plates in a metallic salt solution, which dissolved metal from the anode (+ve) and deposited metal on the cathode (-ve). The process of electrotyping become very widely used for creating printing plates, plating metal objects, gilding objects, decorating silverware and steel cutlery [9].

From then on there was a rapid development of electrolytic processes and in 1852, Charles V Walker was able to document and describe all the electrolytic processes that were currently known, in his book Electrotype Manipulation, in two parts, which went through 29 editions by 1859 and was also published in the USA [11]. Part II covered those processes which were of particular application in the Arts and included detailed descriptions of a process called Electro-Etching, patented in 1847, in which exactly the same equipment was used as for electrotype, but the poles were reversed and the plate on the positive pole prepared with a smoked wax ground through which lines were scratched. A single Daniell cell was used which provided a direct electric current of about one volt, and the exposed lines "submitted to the action of the nascent oxygen" were effectively etched. He considered this process of very great importance for artists, and it was subsequently widely used and included in every account of new methods for etchers. This process was also adapted by the steel industry for marking cutlery and other products and is still used today [16]. Charles Walker also described a novel and dangerous process of drawing directly on a plate connected to one pole of a series of batteries with an insulated stylus connected to the other - an electric arc burns an etched line which will print in intaglio [11].

Another process Charles Walker described at length was called Electro-tint or galvanography, which was attributed to Professor von Kobell:

"It consists in painting on white metal with etching ground or varnish:- the several shades are obtained by the relative thickness of the layers of varnish; the whole is then plumbagoed; and the deposite obtained on it is used as a plate to furnish prints. Prof von Kobell, after obtaining a plate, examines a proof; and if too faint, he makes a mould of the plate; and having obtained a deposite, which will be similar to the original painted plate, he puts varnish on the parts which give impressions too pale, and obtains a second deposite on this, which when removed will give prints of a better character..." [11]

By white metal he means a silvered copper plate and the deposite is an electrotype, from which an intaglio print could be made. The word galvanography was from then on loosely used as an alternative to electrotype for specifically graphic applications. The term Galvanography was also used to describe the Jacquemin process, in which a drawing was made on a plate with lithographic ink dissolved in albumen and water. It was then heated to coagulate the albumin and make the ink insoluble, and then the plate was electrolytically etched.

After the publication of the heliographic and daguerreotype techniques in 1839, there was frantic international competition to find ways of making permanent ink prints of photographs, partly stimulated by the prize offered by the Duc de Luynes. Many of the methods used electrolytic processes in one way or another, starting off with a daguerreotype, in which the image consisted of tiny dots of mercury amalgam over a silver substrate on copper plates. The dots acted as a slight resist to certain mordants, which would attack the silver in between. The earliest attempts, by Alfred Donne in 1839, and Joseph Berres of Vienna in 1840, simply etched the daguerreotype directly from which only a limited number of good prints could be pulled. Berres used a solid silver plate for the daguerreotype which could be etched more deeply than a silver coated copper plate, and so got more prints.

Hippolyte Louis Fizeau developed probably the most successful method, patenting it in 1843 [13]. He boiled the daguerreotype in potassium hydroxide to strengthen the resist dots, lightly etched it in nitric acid and then wiped it with heavy linseed oil, as if for printing in intaglio. Then he electroplated it with gold, which was deposited only on the highlights not protected by oil. He removed the oil and etched it again to deepen the dark areas, and finally electroplated the whole plate with copper to strengthen it so that many prints could be pulled [4]. The plates required some hand retouching, and the results were impressive despite difficulties in achieving good half-tones, but the method was so complicated and expensive that it never caught on.

                                                                    Charles Negre, competition test plate,

One of the most talented early experimenters, was the painter and photographer Charles Negre who took up the methods originated by Niepce and his cousin, and elaborated them by introducing an electrolytic step, plating the partly developed steel plate with gold to protect the half tones, then aquatinting it and etching it in nitric acid. He received a French patent in 1856 and was a finalist in the Duc de Luynes competition [6].

Meanwhile Fox Talbot had been experimenting with methods of fixing what he called photogenic images on paper and only later joined the race to make printing plates. He patented a process called photoglyphy in 1858, which used gelatine sensitized with potassium dichromate on a copper plate, aquatinted with gum copal powder melted onto the plate, and then etched in ferric chloride [6]. This process was later elaborated by Karl Klic of Vienna in 1879 and is now known as photogravure or heliogravure, which eventually became the most successful and widely used photo-engraving method until the introduction of new chemicals and photo-resists in the 20th century. It was the noxious nature of these processes which stimulated a return to old gelatine-based methods in the 1980s and a revival of heliogravure.

But the Austrian, Paul Pretsch took a completely different approach and patented a process called photo-galvanography in 1854 [15]. He discovered, while he was manager of the Imperial Government Printing Office in Vienna, that gum arabic sensitized with potassium dichromate, silver nitrate and potassium iodide on a glass plate, sensitized under a photographic negative to sunlight, had a tendency to swell and reticulate when washed in water. The depth and intensity of the worm-like texture that was produced was proportional to the exposure and gave the grain required for half-tones. He then created a mould of the reticulated gelatine with gutta percha, which was a widely used gum from a Malayan tree. He then deposited copper by galvanoplasty onto the mould, which duplicated the original reticulated gelatine. To print it in intaglio, he had to make a second electrotype of his matrix. He filed another patent in 1855 describing refinements to his process, using gelatine instead of gum, hardening it with tannin and applying the process to making relief prints. He formed a company in London to produce a series of albums of commercially printed photographs called 'Photographic Art Treasures' in 1856 and employed Roger Fenton as his photographer and manager [14].

    Stieglitz, photogravure, 1894

Sadly his venture was not a commercial success. The process of production of each plate took about six weeks, and he was dogged by lawsuits from Fox Talbot who claimed that his Photoglyphic patents covered Pretsch's inventions. In the end he proved the originality of his work but the company folded in 1858.
He was awarded medals for his half-tone photo-galvanographic plates at the Great Exhibition of 1862, and was a finalist in the Duc de Luynes competition 1867. He did a great deal of work illustrating the Journal of the British Museum, but found it difficult to get on in London, and returned to Vienna a disappointed man, and died of cholera in 1873.

Alphonse Poitevin, aware of the pioneering work of Pretsch on the reticulation of gelatine, filed a number of patents in 1855 for a very similar process, substituting a plaster of Paris mould for the gutta percha. But he turned his attention to the behaviour of dichromated albumen exposed to light on a lithographic stone, and it is with this method that he won the prize for photomechanical printing offered by the Duc de Luynes in 1867. He is also credited with being the originator of the technique of collotype, which uses the carefully controlled reticulation of exposed and heated gelatine on a glass plate, which is then printed like a lithograph.

Collotypes were capable of reproducing photographs with exceptional detail and subtle silky half-tones, and the technique was perfected by Otto Albert in Berlin in the 1870s [4].
Although it was not an electrolytic technique, the method patented by Walter B Woodbury in 1866 is of very great interest here, because it was licensed for use in France by the firm of Goupil & Cie, publishers of Fine Art reproductions. They set up a factory at Asnieres to produce photographie photoglyptique or Woodburytypes. It was not strictly a printing process, but a method of reproducing the three-dimensional image of a gelatine print in which the depth of tone was given by the thickness of coloured gelatine. The original produced by a purely photographic process on a metal plate, was cold pressed into a lead mould, which was then used to impress hot coloured gelatine onto paper [3].

The reason Goupil's use of this process is interesting here is because they later started producing reproductions of photographs by a different process from copper plates, but kept the precise process a closely guarded secret [6]. The results were exceptionally good, with rich velvety blacks and subtle half tones, although a lot of handwork is evident on the plates, a process which earned the name of Goupillage. The author of this article has examined some of their plates, conserved in the Musee Goupil in Bordeaux, and believes that they were produced by an electrolytic process related to Paul Pretsch's photo-galvanography in which they used the Woodburytype press to make a lead mould of a reticulated or grained gelatine original, on which an electrotype could be easily deposited and separated [20].

As early as 1840 Thomas Spencer described a method which was later used extensively for making large copper plates for printing Ordnance Survey maps. Lines were drawn through a thick ground with a special tool, and then copper was deposited slowly into the cleaned lines, producing a linear relief plate [9]. This method was widely used for other printing purposes besides maps, including the illustrations of Spencer's original description. Electro-etching, introduced and recommended for use in the arts, gradually became much more widely used in industry for decorating and making metal objects. The steel industry in particular took it up for applying trademarks to cast and wrought iron pieces, and until recently, when laser methods emerged, was the standard method of marking stainless steel cutlery [17].

In the 1962 S W Hayter described the electrolytic process of depositing metal into lines drawn through a ground on a metal plate that he had developed and used at Atelier17 in Paris before the war [22]. In industry electrolytic processes were used very widely, mainly for plating and protecting metal. Anodising was developed as a process for protecting aluminium. In 1943 a US company called Lectroetch adapted the Electro-Etching process to marking metals of all kinds, and is still supplying equipment and materials for the purpose. Many other companies have started to provide the same service, and electro-etching became well enough known for artists who were interested to learn about it.

Commercial Electrotyping workshop

In Canada Nik Semenoff and Christine Christos carried out research into electro-etching in 1989, and published a paper in Leonardo, an art journal in 1991, detailing the method for artists, the equipment required and its advantages regarding safety [23]. In Sweden Ole Larsen developed electrolytic processes, and one that he called Polytype was in essence the same as the Electro-Tint process described by Charles V. Walker in his 1855 book [24]. In the USA Marion and Omri Behr learned about the electro-etching process originally patented in 1840 by Thomas Spencer, and they received a US patent in 1992 for their improved equipment, and registered the names ElectroEtch, and MicroTint [25]. The basic process itself has been shown to be in the public domain, as all the references to it, and its use by artists since 1840 have shown [23, 26, 27].

There has also been a revival of the original 19th century Heliography and photogravure processes using gelatine or albumen and potassium dichromate, and the best-known publicist of these processes invented by Fox Talbot, is Keith Howard [29]. He has also adapted methods used in the electronics industry for etching circuit boards using thin photosensitive film applied to metal plates, and refined them for use by printmakers as a safer alternative to the photosensitive chemicals previously available.

                                                                          Equipment for Galv Etch, Cedric Green

I began research in 1989 into non-toxic printmaking methods and from my base in Sheffield [UK], a traditional centre for electrolytic plating and industrial marking, I became aware of the long history of electro-etching. For my own use I found simple, safe and low cost methods using off-the-shelf equipment for the revived electrolytic methods. I developed an electrochemical method for etching zinc and steel plates using copper sulphate which I called Bordeaux Etch, and non-toxic methods for applying resists to plates and graining them using oil based lithographic ink called Fractint [26, 27].

In 1995 I began a campaign to publicise methods like Electro Etching, and to resist efforts to make printmakers pay royalties for using them. I created a website
( fully describing my low cost methods for etching electrolytically which I called Galv-Etch, and supplied free information on all my methods.

In 1998 Nik Semenoff and L W Bader published a paper in Leonardo on an improved mordant for etching aluminium and zinc which was similar to Bordeaux Etch [28]. The subsequent development of both electrolytic and photographic plate making processes has been very rapid and has been given a great deal of stimulus by the search for so called non-toxic methods, or methods which greatly reduce the dangers to health and the environment that were notorious features of traditional processes using acids, solvents, and photosensitive chemicals.

Cedric Green

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R e f e r e n c e s: (click)


Cedric Green's References:

1 Encyclopedie Hachette Multimedia, Livres Hachette, Paris, 1999;

2 Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Penguin Books, London, 1968, 1974

3. Pierre-Lin Renie, Le temps cisele, in Etat des Lieux, Musee Goupil, Bordeaux, 1994.

4 Raymond Lecuyer, Histoire de la Photographie, Paris, 1945

5 Francis Haskell, The Painful Birth of the Art Book, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987.

6. William Crawford, The Keepers of Light - A History and working guide to early photographic processes, Morgan & Morgan, New York 1979

7 Encyclopoedie Larousse Illustre, Paris, 1999.

8 G. Barclay, The First Steps in Electrotype 2nd. edition, G. Barclay, Soho, London, 1841.

9 British Patent No. 8656 ... AD 1840, Engraving Metals by means of Voltaic Electricity granted to Thomas Spencer and John Wilson.

10 Mr Thomas Spencer, An account of some experiments made for the purpose of ascertaining how far Voltaic Electricity may be usefully applied to the purpose of working in metal, Annals of Electricity, Magnetism and Chemistry, Vol.4 Jan 1840.

(See also by the same author in Westminster Review, Vol 34, II, 1840 pp 434 - 460)

11 Charles V WALKER, Electrotype Manipulation, Part II. Containing The Theory, and Plain Instructions in the Arts of Electro-Plating, Electro-Gilding, and Electro-Etching; with an account of the Mode of Depositing Metallic Oxides, and of the Several Applications of Electrotype in the Arts. Nineteenth Edition, George Knight and Sons, London, 1855.

Charles Vincent Walker, Electrotype Manipulation, Vols 1 & 2, H.C. Baird, Philadelphia, 1852.

12 Chattock R S, Practical Notes on Etching, 3rd Edition, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London 1886. (Electro-Etching for artists is described in full)

13 Hippolyte Louis Fizeau, British patent No. 9957, 1843.

14 John Hannavy, Roger Fenton, David Godine, Boston, 1976. (The process of photo-galvanography is described in detail)

15 Paul Pretsch, Improvements in producing copper and other plates for printing, British Patent No.2373, 1854.

16 Seymour Hayden, Etching for Copper Plate Printing, The Printing Times and Lithographer, Vol 8 (1882) Oct 15 pp.247 - 248. (Electro-etching and galvanography are covered briefly)

17 Electrolytic marking is done in Sheffield by: John H. Elliot (Monostamp) Ltd. and Eyre & Baxter (Stampcraft) Ltd.; In the USA by The LectroEtch Company, who have been doing it since 1947, (email

18 Charles V Walker Electrotype Manipulation, Part I. being the Theory, and Plain Instructions in the Art of Working in Metals, by Precipitating them from their Solutions, through the Agency of Galvanic or Voltaic Electricity 29th Edition, George Knight and Sons, London. 1859.

19 Maj.Gen. J Waterhouse, Paul Pretsch and photo-galvanography, Penrose Pictorial Annual 1910-11 Vol 16, Lund Humphries & Co, London. (see also Maj.Gen. J Waterhouse, Mordants for Zinc, The Photographic News, June 30 1882 for a description of etching zinc by galvanism)

20 Otto Lilien, History of Industrial Gravure Printing up to 1920, Lund Humphries, London 1972.

21 Pierre-Lin Renie, Goupil & Cie a l'ere industrielle - la photographie appliquee a la reproduction des oeuvres d'art, in etat des Lieux, Musee Goupil, Bordeaux, 1994.

22 S W Hayter, About Prints, Oxford University Press 1962.

23 N. Semenoff and C.Christos, Using Dry Copier Toners in Intaglio and Electro-Etching of Metal Plates, Leonardo, Vol 24, No. 4, pp. 389-394, (published 1991, received 1989).

24 Peter Jones, Spanish Printmaking Summer School, Printmaking Today, Vol 2, No 3 Autumn 1993).

25 Marion Behr, ElectroEtch I, ElectroEtch II, ElectroEtch III, Printmaking Today, Vol. 3, No 1, 1994, Vol 4, No.4, 1995, Vol 7, No.4 1998

26 Cedric Green, Intaglio without Tears, Printmaking Today, Vol 7 No.1, Spring, 1998.

and Galvanography Revisited, Printmaking Today, Vol 8 No.1, Spring, 1999. Galv-etching without Electricity, Printmaking Today, Vol 11 No.2, Summer, 2002.

27 Cedric Green, Green Prints, Ecotech Design, Sheffield, 2002

28 Nik Semenoff and L W Bader, Intaglio Etching of Aluminium and Zinc Using an Improved Mordant, Leonardo, Vol 31, No 2, pp. 133 - 138, 1998.

29 Keith Howard, Non Toxic Intaglio Printmaking, Printmaking Resources, 1998.