Drypoint: Portrait of Helene

Despite the shortcomings of the drypoint method (as discussed here), I found the process very appealing and enjoyable, and decided to make another. As described in the linked post, that first drypoint was done using a plate first destined to be an etching, but the acid wasn’t fresh enough, resulting in a plate with an image which was not bitten deeply enough. It was however just enough to give me an outline, to modify the image into a drypoint.

Originally, though, the earliest extant drypoints were created before the method of etching was developed. It is quite difficult to find a medium (which isn’t a modern permanent marker) for drawing an image onto copper plate which will stay in place on the plate as a scribe is being used. From my research so far, it would appear that beeswax comes to the fore as a ground. For drypoint, however, the ground is not being used to resist acid as it is in etching – instead, it is being used as a vehicle for the image to be transferred. The basic outline can then be scribed through the wax, the wax removed, and the image further developed.

A photograph I had taken some years ago sprang to mind as being a suitable subject for a drypoint. To me, the image is quite reminiscent of some early extant drypoints and engravings – highly detailed with attention to clothing, hair, ornaments and accessories, but with very simple backgrounds and composition.


Smaller Martin Schongauer A Wise Virgin Engraving German 15th century
Martin Schongauer
A Wise Virgin
Engraving German

Smaller Master of the Housebook Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet Bearded Man with Blank Shield German or Netherlandish c1475–80 III
Master of the Housebook (Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet)
Bearded Man with Blank Shield
German or Netherlandish c1475–80

Monogrammist BXG Engraving Frankfurt c1475-85 PairOfLovers
Monogrammist BXG
Pair of Lovers
Frankfurt c1475-85

Master of the Housebook (Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet)
St Catherine
Germany c1480-90


To begin preparations in the studio, I coated a plate with beeswax. This was done by melting the beeswax on the surface as the plate was being warmed on a hotplate. The photo was scaled to approximately the right size for the copper plate, and printed out. I traced the basic outline using tracing paper and a 2B pencil.


WM Helene photo and trace
Above: the scaled photograph and basic outline


After the basic trace, more detail was added, but not too much, for I felt that there was a balance to be considered – enough detail to be useful as a guide would be helpful, but too much detail in the drawing to be transferred could make the image lose clarity on the plate. I was also concerned that doing too much of the drypoint mark-making through the beeswax would get messy, churn the beeswax up, and perhaps inhibit the way the scribe would make burrs.


WM Helene trace detailed
Above: the trace outline with more detail


The image was then transferred by rubbing, using a bone folder, onto the copper plate. It turned out beautifully clear to read.


WM Helene trace transferred to plate
Above left: the beeswax-coated copper plate and right: the transfer


As I had done with the previous drypoint, I used a diamond-tipped scribe to work the image. Even though this is a modern tip for a scribe, the only difference is that it is possibly slightly finer, and does not need sharpening, and I am satisfied that this is a reasonable compromise. It is still held in the hand as would a normal scribe, and the action is still the same, that of using a pencil.

The outlines were worked in, and as I had found with working a beeswax ground for etching, the pencil image is clear, but the scribed lines are very hard to see through the patina of beeswax, which made it relatively slow going. However, once I felt there was enough detail on the plate, I cleaned the beeswax off the surface.

Having tried this once before, but forgetting the result, I used turpentine, which worked eventually but was not very good. I have in mind to try either hot water, or detergent, or vegetable oil next time. I have found no mention of how this would have been done pre-1600 – my hunch is that it would possibly be hot water. The plate may have been dipped into a container of hot water to melt off the wax. It may even be possible that they could have collected the solidified beeswax when the water had cooled down and reused the wax – everything had a value. According to Stijnman in Engraving and Etching, even inking rags were boiled clean and reused, something that modern practice would never bother with.

Once the plate was carefully cleaned (to avoid damage to the burr marks), I continued working the image until I felt it was time to stop. This was hard to judge, given that it was also hard to see exactly how the image was going to print.


WM Helene basic outline WM Helene first state
Above left: cleaned plate with basic outlines and right: with more line work, and ready for printing


WM Helene first state detail
Above: detail showing line work and the texture of drypoint


The plate was inked up in the usual intaglio method, with extra care given to wipe as evenly as possible. Given that the burr on the surface is the main holder of the ink for the image, it is important to not wipe too much off, and to make sure one wipes on all directions, not just one, or the ink will wipe off one side of the burr more than the other. Also worth mentioning is that I decided to round the corners of the plate when the edges were filed to make ready for printing. This is something which is very common in extant prints and surviving plates.


WM Helene first state reveal
Above: the image is revealed


The resulting proof was very satisfying, with the only issue being that I felt that a couple of elements around her face needed a little gentle working. In order to change the expression on Helene’s face, I accidentally made her chin jut forward, something I realised almost as soon as I had scribed it on the plate, but wasn’t sure how to rectify. Often, these things are best left until a proof has been pulled and the resulting image can be clearly seen. Under her chin, and around her cheekbone and eye, were areas also a little too sharply defined and needed softening.


WM Helene first state inked WM Helene first state print
Above left: plate ready for proofing and right: the proof print


Once inked and the image printed again, I decided I was happy with it. If this had been an intaglio plate made using another method, I quite possibly would have worked into the image again to even out some of the marks around the neck. However, being a drypoint, the plate begins to degrade from the first time it is put through an intaglio press. It is therefore possible that, by working a particular area of the plate multiple times, a patchy, uneven image could result, as some parts of the plate would degrade more quickly than others. There is also the consideration that overworking facial features on intaglio plates can make the face read more heavy and coarsely (and possibly also hirsute) than one would desire.


WM Helene second state WM Helene second state print
Above left: the reworked plate and right: the final image


Overall, I am very satisfied with this image – although it is not a perfect likeness of Helene as a portrait, it is most definitely recognisable. I am also very pleased with the clothing, hair dressing and accessories, elements of the image which I feel were given close attention in extant prints. One can also appreciate the line work created by the drypoint technique – every stroke leaves a mark, and careful inking adds to the soft, gentle, sketchy, organic appearance.


WM Helene second state detail II WM Helene second state detail I
Above left: detail of sleeve and right: detail of hair dressing