Etching is an art form that has its roots from decorative engravings of knights armour in the 14th century. Armourers discovered they could etch the designs instead of engraving which was less time consuming and more cost effective.
It took 70 years from this point for etching to develop into intaglio printing that is still used today. In 17th century etching rouse to recognition as an art form, and was embraced and promoted by modern artists of that time. Earliest etching prints on paper date around 1445 and were produced in Germany.
In the 1540s, a burst of etching took place at Fontainebleau in France, where a group of artists—perhaps motivated by a desire to publicise their accomplishments in that remote locale—began to make use of etching to create prints after the designs of Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio, and others for the decoration of the palace of Francis.
Rembrandt is certainly one of the names that are heavily associated with etching prints of 17th century, due to his etching style in which he masterfully played with darkness and light. Perhaps one of the best examples of that is his 'Christ preaching' print.
Etching is traditionally done on a metal plate, that is first layered with etching resistant, varnish or a wax, called the ground. Artist then scratches through the ground exposing the metal beneath, plate is then dipped into acid which eats away the lines that have been exposed.
After the ‘ground’ is removed, plate is ready for inking. Inking is done with with a roller, bringing the layer of ink onto the plate, after inking the access ink is carefully removed with tarlatan (cheesecloth) and then ‘polish wiped’ with newspaper so ink is only left in the etched lines.
Paper is soaked in water prior to printing, depending on the type of paper, it can be soaked from 20 min to overnight. Printing the plate is done through a heavy cylinder press, by adjusting the pressure according to the design and paper weight.
Traditionally steel and copperplates were used most frequently as steel could produce more prints, while copper produced finer lines. Today most commonly we use Zinc plates as they are soft enough for quick polishing and etch while giving excellent print detail.
Etching as an art form is still present today, one of the best known modern artists creating prints with etching is Damien Hirst.