Sunday, April 13, 2014

Turning Photographs into Digital Etching Patterns

Lately I have been interested in etching metal with more organic, botanical looking patterns. Here's an example of an image of tree branches etched onto copper sheet I did yesterday:
(Not really recognizable as a tree, but I think it will be an interesting texture to use somewhere.)

I don't really draw, and I dislike using ink as a resist (it just doesn't cooperate with me), so for etching, I stick to printed black and white digital images with a toner resist, which is what I did for the metal above. (You can use a household iron to melt laser printer toner onto metal, which works as a dandy resist for etchant--here are links for how to do it using glossy magazine pages, using old-fashioned transparency sheets, or Press n Peel blue sheets.) Lately I have been using overhead transparency sheets from Office Max and they work beautifully:
Really organic-looking, botanical, ready-to-use images are hard to find at a decent price with no copyrights attached, so I decided to start using photographs. Here is the original photograph used for the etching above, which I took myself of my neighbor's still-leafless tree:
and the eventual image that resulted after some manipulation (read on to see how I did this), which I printed on my laser printer and transferred to my metal:
There are of course images of plant life (and everything else) all over the Internet as well, but there will be copyright issues with most of these. Fortunately, Wikipedia has a wealth of public domain photographs of various plant life (and other stuff too). (You can find copyright information by clicking on the individual photographs in a Wikipedia article to find out if the photographer has released the photograph to the public domain). The photograph below is of switchgrass, from Wikipedia. The image copyright info states, "This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Chhe at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible: Chhe grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law."
I typically use (a free website) to edit my photographs--it is similar to Photoshop, which is the first photo-editing program I learned so I am comfortable with this. You could create the same effects with, or (I'm sure there are others as well.) To create an image suitable for etching from a regular photograph, first I crop it if necessary, then I desaturate it (i.e., turn it into black and white), invert it if needed (reversing the black and white, like a negative), and then turn up the contrast and brightness until all the grays are gone (gray tones will not work with the toner resist method):
I love how the final image has a very distinctive Japanese bamboo effect, like it was created with traditional Japanese ink and brush. You could also use the black and white image without inverting it, if you wanted the grass blades to be recessed on your metal, instead of raised--once etched, this would give it more of a fossil effect, as if the grass had lain in a layer of mud and eventually become part of some sedimentary rock formation (remember, only the black parts will print on your transfer sheet, and the toner becomes the resist--anything that is black will be raised, as it will not get etched):
Here is the metal etched with both images, inverted and not inverted (the metal on the left was with the second image, of white grass blades on a black background; the metal on the right was with black grass on a white background--any black areas resist the etchant, and the white areas are bare and so get etched):
I'm still in the experimental stages with this, but so far it looks like it's going to work--it just takes some refining of my photographs. The images below are some dried shrubs I snipped from my dormant garden--at the top is from a spirea bush, the next image is from a bridal veil bush, and the image at the bottom is from my lilac bush.

Here they are converted and ready for printing and transfer to metal:
Some tips for this:
  • You don't want any shadows in your pictures, as they will just be giant black or white blobs in your final image, so it is important to avoid bright light/shadow with these pictures--use indirect light, or photograph only under a very cloudy sky if outside. 
  • Additionally, there must be sufficient contrast between your subject and the background for you to be able to get them to solid black and white without losing too much detail. It doesn't really matter whether it's a light subject/dark background, or vice versa, because you can always invert the image if you need to. (This makes photographs with lots of different colors in them generally unsuitable--when desaturated, you end up with a lot of gray).
  • If you are taking pictures of growing plants (as opposed to taking cuttings and arranging them at your leisure), anything immediately behind them, like a fence, or a wall, or any other object, is going to end up in your photograph--when you try to reduce it to black and white, you may end up with extraneous lines and shapes that may interfere with your silhouette. Airbrushing that kind of stuff out with your photo editor is a huge pain, so try to find a setup with a blank background behind it and no other objects (or take your own improvised background with you if you're out scouting for roadside plants.
  • Lastly, if you find some plant specimens that you want to cut or pick, to arrange later, if they aren't dark or light enough for your background, you can always spray paint them. 
I have some other ideas for types of photographs that can be used for etching--I will share those with you one day in another post.



  1. I have a whole collection of images I've managed to manipulate into b&w (Picasa has a great DuoTone function to help with that), but have not had time to actually etch them yet. Hope this post will shame me into that next step. Anyway, I love all your etching, but your silhouettes of the actual plant parts are fabulous! (RIght now, I need to hang a portrait of poison ivy around my neck to remind me to stay away from that darned stuff in the garden.)

  2. This is a completely new medium/technique to me. I like where you're going with this and think the etched designs that you've created are fantastic . . . especially the finished metal pieces, they look amazing.

  3. Thank you for sharing all the details of your experiments with this. Your plants look fabulous and I love the 2 variations of the etched bamboo. I can see endless possibilities. I think I have a box of transparencies - time to put them to use!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this, I totally love your etched designs, wonderful work.

  5. Loving the sumi-e sort of effect

  6. Thank you very much for this post. I have been wanting to try etching but I don't draw either. The other articles I have read using photographs seemed so difficult and sometimes confusing. You have really made me want to make the leap. Next step is to learn how to edit photos on the computer.

  7. Thanks for the info, Keirsten! I am getting ready to do some etching for a project...will have to give this a go!

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  9. Very inspiring article, so much so I am looking now for a cheaper laser printer :>)
    I have only done electro etching using adhesive tape as my resist, which worked reasonably well. How does laser copy toner resist hold up if using an electro etch??
    A source for some photos of rarer/exotic ferns, grasses, fungi etc are the groups on Facebook.


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