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How I Etch Photographs

These one off illustrations are created by scratching designs directly into the photographic emulsion. There is no painting or drawing on any of these pictures. The colour of the design depends on the colour of the original photograph where you’re etching and how many layers of the emulsion you scratch off.

Etching into black emulsion allows the greatest range of colours, while etching into light areas only gives pale yellow and white.

I’m often asked if I invented my technique and how exactly I etch onto the photos.

So, firstly I didn’t invent etching. People have been playing around with photography ever since it was invented in 1839. It’s more common for people to scratch into a film negative and then print the results rather than etch directly into the print’s emulsion, but it’s not unheard off. I did however discover the technique I use independently of outside influences.

In 2007 I started going to drawing classes because I was embarrassed about calling myself an artist when I couldn’t draw. As my confidence grew I wanted to incorporate my newfound talent in my photography. I spent about a year experimenting with different ways of doing this: cutting photos up, adding tissue paper, drawing on them and scratching into their surface.

Eventually I decided that etching was the direction I should take and I feel I’m now getting to grips with the technique and have learnt the control required to reveal different colours beneath the surface. My drawing is getting better all the time too!

The Technique

To etch properly requires a traditional photo print rather than one printed off at home.

Instant prints place coloured ink on white paper, traditional prints are processed in one hour (or more) because the digital image is exposed onto the printing paper and then developed in chemicals. The emulsion is made up of several layers which are sensitive to different colours. Some of these get washed away in the development process, to create a perfect rendition of your image. Black areas of the photo have the most layers intact at the end of the process.

The only equipment needed is a stylus. If it’s jaggy like a pin it will scratch too much into the print. I use a pointed metal wax-modelling tool that I’ve filed down slightly to remove the sharp edges.

Wet a small area of the print. This makes the emulsion soft and you can gently lift off the emulsion with the stylus.

It’s that easy. If you can use a pen you can etch!