I saw it: The invented Realities of Goya's Disasters of War

The Medium for the Message:
Printmaking and the Disasters of War

Understanding the process by which an etching is made is invaluable in appreciating Francisco Goya’s supreme mastery of this difficult medium.  The processes Goya used to prepare the plates for the Disasters of War print series are broadly categorized as intaglio, a general term for the type of printmaking in which the lines carved into a metal plate are the same lines that later hold and print ink, as opposed to relief processes, such as woodcut, in which the parts of the plate that hold ink are those parts left untouched.  Viewing the Disasters leaves no doubt that the methods Goya used were complicated and required a number of tools to render the varied effects in his prints.  In fact, Goya combined several specific methods of etching and aquatint to achieve the rich lineal and tonal qualities we see in his prints.  Some of these methods were old ones that had been mastered by many artists before Goya’s lifetime, while others marked innovations in printmaking that were being pioneered at the turn of the nineteenth century while Goya was creating the Disasters of War.   

In order to etch a copper plate, the artist must first coat the plate with a thin layer of acid-resistant ground.  The artist scratches lines into this ground, exposing the copper underneath.  The plate is then placed into an acid solution, which “bites” the unprotected copper – the lines that the artist has exposed – into grooves deep enough to hold ink.  Etched lines are very clean because the acid removes exactly those parts of the plate where the ground has been scratched away.  “Etching” is also the word most generally used to describe intaglio prints, even when other processes are used to create the image.  Goya’s prints are referred to as “etchings,” although he did much more to his plates than etch them.

While the acid solution does most of the work in the etching process, engraving requires that the artist physically carve into the copper plate.  Engraving is among the oldest of intaglio processes and was used widely in the fourteenth-century  (Tomlinson, Graphic 4).  In this process, the artist carves lines into the copper using one of two traditional engraving tools, a dry point needle or a burin, each of which produces a unique line quality.  The lines created with a burin have tapered ends; dry point lines are blunt (Harris 23).  In drypoint, instead of removing the copper from the plate completely, the artist effectively pushes the copper to build up a ridge (a “burr”) alongside the carved line.  Along with the incised line, this burr ends up holding ink, resulting in a blurred printing that is easily distinguishable from a clean, precise etched line.  Sometimes burrs are removed from engraved plates in order to preserve line precision, but many artists leave the burrs in place to add tonal variety to an image.   

Aquatint emerged as a printmaking process during Goya’s lifetime.  To create an aquatinted surface on a plate, the artist first applies fine particles of acid-resistant resin to the plate.  This is usually done in one of two ways: with a resin powder which is allowed to settle on the plate and then melted onto it; or with an alcohol solution which evaporates from the plate, leaving a layer of resin spread evenly (or deliberately unevenly, as in some of Goya’s prints) over those areas of the plate where the solution was brushed or sprayed (24).  After applying this layer of resin to the plate, the artist places it into an acid solution, which bites the plate in the areas unprotected by resin.  In other words, an even coat of resin allows the acid to chemically etch the plate evenly in the aquatinted area, which then prints as a field of value or tone.  Aquatint was an innovation in printmaking because it had previously been possible to create only linear patterns on prints; fields of value could be created only through hatched lines, a buildup of fine lines that create the illusion of a smooth tone.  Aquatint added the element of tone to prints, an element that adds to the extraordinary quality of the Disasters of War

Another process that was new during Goya’s lifetime was lavis, a grainless method of producing tone on a plate using acid as directly as possible.  In this process, the artist first “stops out” with an acid-resistant varnish the parts of the plate he or she intends to print as white (the parts which must remain untouched by acid).  Then the artist either places the plate in an acid bath or brushes/sprays acid directly onto the plate.  The acid does not affect the protected (“stopped out”) areas of the plate.  Lavis has an unobtrusive, delicate effect, very similar to an ink wash on paper (Tomlinson, Goya 192).  Goya usually used lavis to add pale, even tones to entire plates (Harris 25).  After toning a plate with aquatint or lavis, the artist can choose to erase1 parts of the plate tone by burnishing.  The burnisher is a blunt, rounded tool that the artist rubs against the plate to flatten out textured areas. With a burnisher, the rough areas created to hold and print an even amount of ink can be smoothed out so that they hold less ink.  This is how Goya created highlights in his aquatinted plates (26).

After etching the plate completely, the artist or a commissioned printmaker2 inks the plate for printing.  Ink is spread onto the entire plate and then wiped off slowly with tarlatan, a stiffly starched muslin gauze.  Using slight pressure, the printmaker forces ink into the etched plate’s grooves.  Because a thin film of ink remains on the entire plate even after proper wiping, a plate tone — usually an even, light gray color — tones the entire plate.  After inking, the plate is ready to print.  The printmaker places a damp sheet of paper over the plate and runs both paper and plate through a relatively high-pressure press.  The pressure results in a plate mark on the finished print, which appears as an outline of the plate and slightly embosses the paper.  This embossing effect is an obvious difference between an original print and a reproduction. 

It is common to print a fairly large number of prints, a practice known as editioning.  Multiple copies of single prints or, as in Goya’s case, multiple copies of a series of prints, are made to be sold or distributed to different collectors, galleries, and museums.  Large print editions can damage copper plates, especially plates with raised burrs from engraving processes.  Sometimes these copper plates can be coated with a layer of steel alloy that makes them stronger and more resilient to multiple printings for large editions.  This is called “steel-facing.”  The Disasters of War plates were steel-faced after a large edition was printed in 1863.  This steel-facing helped make it possible to publish later, smaller, editions of the Disasters of War without further damaging these valuable plates.

      The process of creating a print involves many intermediary stages in which the artist “drafts” versions of the final print, called working proofs.  The artist then consults these proofs to decide which changes to make to the plate.  Often, printers will actually draw on these proofs to visualize possible changes.  Because they function mainly as tools to aid the artist in achieving a final impression, working proofs often are discarded or lost.  Collectors, especially modern ones, value these proofs largely because of their limited number and direct connection to the artist’s working method and thought.  There are 485 working proofs from the Disasters of War (Harris).  One might speculate that so many proofs from this series exist because Goya worked on it for over a decade and because he never published a finished edition in his lifetime.  The proofs would have been his main reference as he worked on the series.  The last copy that Goya produced was a set of eighty-five working proofs that he gave his friend Ceán Bermúdez, who he hoped would correct the captions penciled in the lower margins.  The original copper plates (from which the Bermúdez proofs were pulled), along with some preliminary drawings and other proofs, remained in Goya’s family until between 1854 and 1862 when they were sold to various collectors throughout Europe.  In 1862, the Academy of San Fernando purchased the original plates.  The plates reached the Academy largely in good condition; however, some of the plates (numbers 13, 14, 15, and 30) which Goya had etched during the war were of inferior quality and needed minor repairs.  The Academy applied aquatint and burnished these damaged plates.  Around the same time, Ceán Bermúdez’s daughter presented the set of working proofs with captions to master printer Valentín Carderera, who engraved the corrected captions.  These finalized plates were the source of all subsequent editions of the Disasters of War, including the one presented here (Harris 140).

Each print is unique in some way; each print impression has individual qualities based on the skills or preferences of the printer.  The copper plates from which prints are pulled are just as unique as paintings and, like paintings, can only be in one place at any given time.  Prints are just as capable of conveying aesthetics and ideas as less accessible artistic media and, in the pre-photographic era, prints had the advantage of being able to reach large audiences.  Before the invention of photography, the only way to see a painting or sculpture was first hand.  Printmaking, by contrast, was a way for an image to reach many people who lacked the resources to travel or to own paintings and sculptures. 

Printmaking played a vital role in Goya’s artistic career.  He began his study of the medium as part of his academic training at a time when it was conventional for aspiring artists to etch copies of famous paintings as a form of practice.  Goya also owned a few prints, including some by the great seventeenth and eighteenth-century etchers Rembrandt van Rijn and Giovanni Battista Piranesi.  Many of his acquaintances were art collectors with substantial print collections.  From his knowledge of prominent printmakers and of printmaking processes, Goya began to make prints on his own.  Goya etched over three hundred plates in his career.  One of Goya’s earliest original prints, The Garroted Man, illustrating an execution method sometimes used by the Inquisition, stands in stark contrast to the commissioned paintings Goya was producing at the time.  This print set a tone of direct social critique that he would develop further in several series of prints, including the Caprichos, Disparates, and Tauromaquia.   The Disasters of War, along with these other series, was an uncommissioned work that reflects Goya’s personal response to troubles plaguing Spanish society at the time.     

Goya’s stated purpose in creating the Disasters of War was to address the effects the Napoleonic War had in Spain, a war that most directly affected the common people.  We can speculate as to the many possible reasons Goya intended to print these images rather than to paint them.  For one, the print medium was particularly suitable to Goya’s strong anti-war message because of its unique directness.  Etchings can retain the direct sketchy qualities of drawings while also achieving a crisp and clean effect that remains even after a plate is reworked many times.  Etching allowed Goya to perfect the expressive economy of line that became his signature. 

The period convention regarding a print series such as the Disasters of War was to display it as bound in an album that a viewer could peruse by turning the pages.  There is, then, an important distinction to be made between the way Goya intended the series to be seen, an essentially private experience, and the way we see the prints today in a modern museum or gallery space.  That is, the presentation of the series holds implications for how we encounter and view the images.  Looking at the prints in bound form invites a kind of sustained, private examination that may not always be possible in a gallery.  This is something a modern audience should keep in mind while viewing and responding to the Disasters of War.

—Annaliese Beaman & Roxanne Young

Last Updated: September 2, 2004