What is an aquatint?

An aquatint is a type of art print. Aquatints are printed from an image etched onto a metal plate with acid and tools.

It's called "aquatint" as the prints often resemble watercolour paintings.

Aquatints are quite difficult to make. This means they are rarer than prints made by engraving or lithography.

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Why was aquatint used to make prints?

Aquatinting produces prints with delightful variations of shading.


Who used aquatinting?

The painter and printmaker Jan van de Velde IV invented aquatinting in Amsterdam, around 1650.

The technique remained imperfect until 1768. Then, French printmaker Jean-Baptiste Le Prince discovered how to use resin in the process.

Famous artists to make aquatints include Goya, Degas, Picasso and Hockney.


When was aquatinting popular?

Aquatint became the most popular method of making toned prints in the late 1700s.

It remained popular until about 1830. By then, easier printing techniques had become more popular.

Aquatinting is still used today, mainly in fine art.

Where was it used?

Aquatinting was popular in England, France, Spain and some other European countries.


How was an aquatint made?

An aquatint begins with a copper or zinc plate covered in powdered resin.

The artist would:

1. Prepare metal printing plate

  • Heat plate to melt resin. This forms a slightly bumpy coating.
  • Dip plate in acid. The acid eats through the resin most where thinnest and erodes the printing plate. This creates a speckled surface. This gives an aquatint a characteristic look.

This blank plate would now print a finely speckled gray shade.

2. Create picture on plate

  • Etch outline of the picture on the speckled surface.
  • Coat some parts with wax so they will not hold ink
  • Bathe plate in acid. The artist may do this several times.
  • After each bath, wax areas that have desired tones. This "stopping out" prevents the acid from changing those areas
  • Wash and dry the plate.

3. Create aquatint prints

  • Ink the plate
  • Wipe plate. This leaves ink in etched areas
  • Press plate onto paper with a printing press
  • Repeat if more coloured areas are required, stopping out areas and using different coloured inks.
  • Finish by hand painting detailed colours

How do you find out if your print is an aquatint?

This takes a bit of experience!

  • Look at your print through a magnifying glass. An aquatint will have variable speckled dots
  • Look for the text on the print saying a.f., aq. or aquaforti. This means "aquaforti" in Latin, which is nitric acid. This was used to etch metal printing plates, so the print is an etching or aquatint.
  • Become familiar with aquatints. Click the pictures below to see more.
  • Decide if yours looks similar.

If you get stuck consider using our antique print valuation and appraisal service.

Here is an aquatint from 1807 by William Daniell of a betel nut palm tree:

 Betel Palm Tree  antique aquatint by William Daniell
​Here is a very high quality aquatint from the 1850s by by Henry Alken:
 Shooting, aquatint by Henry Alken

Read about our antique print valuation and appraisal service if you have an antique print that you'd like to know more about