Let’s face it: most of us are not artists. As a result we are unable to take a favorite photograph of a bird, flower, or animal and draw the image in any recognizable form. However, with a little bit of practice and experimentation, photo-etching can make this possible.

The first requirement for photo-etching is a black and white photographic print. If a wildlife subject is desired, spend an afternoon at the zoo taking close-up shots of the animals. A trip to the next local garden show will provide a floral selection. After the film is developed, select your favorite shot and have a print made from the negative which will be large enough to work with and large enough to frame when finished. Black and white photographs also may be made from color slides.

A dull finish on the photograph is preferred, but a glossy finish will take ink if it is first rubbed with talcum or baby powder. Sprinkle a small amount of powder on the photo and rub it over the entire surface with a tissue. The picture is not harmed by hard rubbing. Wipe off the excess powder.

Next, choose a pen staff and the point size you prefer. A medium point probably will be suitable for the first attempt, and as you acquire skill you can vary the line sizes by using fine, medium, and broad points. Waterproof India ink is used for the etching.

Since the India ink lines drawn on the photograph will be all that is left of the picture when the etching process is completed, the inking is the most important and difficult part. Straight or curved lines may be used to get the desired effect, or a combination of lines, dots, curves, and curls may be necessary to satisfactorily reproduce the image. Vary the spacing or thickness of the lines to get a light or dark result. Ink heaviest in the dark areas of the photograph and lightly, or not at all, in the light areas.

The photographic image must now be removed to allow only the ink to remain on the paper. To do this, put about an inch of water in a dish or tray large enough to hold the picture. Add enough iodine to turn the water the color of weak tea. It is not necessary to measure either the water or the iodine since solutions of varying strengths will achieve results. However the stronger the solution, the faster the photographic image disappears.

Place the print, image side up, into the solution and rock the tray gently to wash the print. Do not touch the inked area, since this causes smearing. As the photograph fades away, the paper will turn a bluish color. This is no cause for alarm.

When the photographic image is completely gone, remove the print and place it in another dish or tray containing a solution of regular photo developing fixer, commonly referred to as “hypo.” This fixer can be purchased in a concentrated liquid form at most stores selling photographic supplies and diluted according to bottle directions. When the print is placed in this solution, the bluish color is removed and the black ink etching is left on a white background.

The pring must now be thoroughly washed with water for at least half an hour to remove all traces of the hypo. Again, do not touch the ink image during the washing process because it will smear. Drying the print is the final step. Place it, image side up, on an absorbent towel, being careful not to touch the ink. When completely dry, the print is ready for display.

Your first attempt at photo-etching may not be perfect, but it may be surprisingly good. Try it.

Additional Information:

Ilo Hiller
1983 Photo-etching. Young Naturalist. The Louise Lindsey Merrick Texas Environment Series, No. 6, pp. 122-125. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.