How Rembrandt van Rijn Changed the Art of Etching Forever

Etching, "Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre" (1634), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Etching, “Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” (1634), Rembrandt Van Rijn


Rembrandt van Rijn’s name is synonymous with fine art and a mastery of technique, but few realize that his impact on the art world has more to do with printmaking than his skills with a brush.

Sure, his world-famous paintings like “The Night Watch” and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” will forever be studied and admired, but it was Rembrandt’s remarkable innovations in the field of printmaking—specifically, etching—that helped immortalize him.

Etching, "Abraham Francen, Apothecary" (c. 1656), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Etching, “Abraham Francen, Apothecary” (c. 1656), Rembrandt Van Rijn


Etching was first popularized in the 15th century, with artists such as Albrecht Dürer employing the method. The process has its origins in the armorer’s trade, where it was used to add elaborate patterns to swords and armor, but it was later adopted to mass-produce images on paper.

To produce an etching, a piece of metal known as a “plate”—initially iron, but later copper and zinc—is coated with a varnish called a “ground.” An image is then drawn into the varnish using a sharp tool and treated with an acid that eats away at the exposed metal, creating fissures. The depth and subsequent darkness of the fissures depend on the length of time the metal is exposed to the acid.

Ink applied to the cleaned plate settles into the etched lines and is then transferred to paper during the printing process, allowing multiple images to be created from a single plate.

Since most of the etching process is comparable to drawing on a sheet of paper, and the acid baths and printing could be handled by professionals, many artists found etching to be an easy and accessible printmaking process.


Etching, "The Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate" (c. 1630), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Etching, “The Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate” (c. 1630), Rembrandt Van Rijn

However, it did have its limits. If the acid bath was too weak, the lines would not show clearly, and stronger acids could cause lines to become irregular and print less finely.



By the 17th century, more artists were working with etchings and many were attempting to refine the method, including Rembrandt.

However, what is extraordinary about Rembrandt’s printmaking is how he experimented with ink and paper to produce noticeable differences from one plate-pressing to another—a revolutionary technique that ultimately made a lasting impact on the art of etching.


Etching, "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (1634), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Etching, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (1634), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Typically, when a plate was inked for an etching, the excess ink that had not settled into the etched lines was completely wiped from the plate. Rembrandt experimented with this process, allowing the ink to partially remain on the plates after each pressing. This allowed him to construct varying contrasts and tones, which changed with each printing. The artist used this tonality to create deep shadows that dramatically altered the atmosphere of a print.

Rembrandt also observed the different properties of various papers and inks and tested different combinations. He was particularly drawn to Japanese paper due to its yellowish color, which he found ideal for landscape prints.

From time to time, Rembrandt used different intaglio styles within his etchings—“intaglio” represents any printing or printmaking technique that involves adding ink to a plate with lines or indents added to it. One of those intaglio styles was drypoint, the process of drawing onto a plate by using a sharp needle. Drypoint pulls up pieces of the metal called “burr,” and the burr helps catch additional ink to produce a fuzzy texture within the print.

Many artists found the effect appealing, but the burr wears away quickly during the printing process, making it unsuitable for mass printings. However, Rembrandt found that, due to the smooth texture of Japanese paper, the drypoint elements of his prints were more distinguishable and did not wear away as quickly.


Etching, "Man in Cloak and Fur Cap Leaning Against a Bank" (c. 1630), Rembrandt Van Rijn

Etching, “Man in Cloak and Fur Cap Leaning Against a Bank” (c. 1630), Rembrandt Van Rijn



Rembrandt not only experimented with the materials used to create his prints, but he also reworked his imagery. He was able to do this because of the nature of copper plates, which are comparatively soft and can be pounded or burnished so lines can be removed or added.

Rembrandt sometimes spent years working on a single plate, making prints from the plate between various changes. These changes—referred to as “states”—offer a rare glimpse into the artist’s creative process.

These states have been meticulously documented by Rembrandt scholars for centuries, in what are known as “catalogs raisonné” of his etchings. The most recent publication includes photographs of each state. These sources are referenced in the Park West descriptions for each etching and are the standard references used throughout the art world.

The combination of the various states of Rembrandt’s prints, along with his distinctive printing techniques, created a sense of uniqueness in a method known for its mass production qualities. This, in turn, helped increase the popularity and collectability of Rembrandt’s etchings.

Collectors sought to acquire multiple examples of Rembrandt’s images in order to capture the variations between the different states. Through this, a record of Rembrandt’s creative process was captured and can be studied long into the future.

Rembrandt’s importance to the history of etching cannot be overstated. The over 300 etchings, engravings, and drypoints he created throughout his career helped influence generations of printmakers to come.


The Park West Museum in Southfield, Michigan has over 20 examples of Rembrandt’s remarkable etchings on display—including all of the etchings pictured in this article. For more information on visiting the museum, click here.

The Rembrandt etching gallery at Park West Museum

The Rembrandt etching gallery at Park West Museum


The Rembrandt etching gallery at Park West Museum

The Rembrandt etching gallery at Park West Museum

To add a limited-edition masterpiece by Rembrandt van Rijn to your collection, contact one of our gallery consultants at (800) 521-9654 ext. 4 during business hours or email for inquiries after hours.



Leave a comment

Prove you\'re human. *

Latest News

  • Judges Reveal Their Top 5 Finalists for 2018 MI Great Artist Competition

    Five Michigan artists have been chosen as finalists, but only one will be named 2018’s MI Great Artist.After much deliberation, a panel of expert judges has narrowed down a ...
    Read More
  • How Artist Slava Ilyayev Brings Modern-Day Impressionism to Life

    Collectors around the world love the remarkably textured paintings of acclaimed artist Slava Ilyayev. While his style is uniquely his own, Ilyayev regularly cites Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh ...
    Read More
  • Meet the Artist: 10 Questions with Slava Ilyayev

    For artist Slava Ilyayev, it’s not just about expressing color—it’s about feeling.Much like the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that influence him, Ilyayev creates art to express feeling and emotions. Specifically, ...
    Read More
  • See If You’re an Art Aficionado with Our Fall Sale Art Quiz

    With Park West's 2018 Fall Sale in full swing, it's time to get to know our featured art and artists with our new art quiz!As the largest privately-owned art ...
    Read More
  • What Makes a Master Artist? Meet 7 Legendary Masters in Our New Video

    Read More
  • MI Great Artist Announces First-Ever People’s Choice Winner, Top 35 Artists

    MI Great Artist has announced its 35 semi-finalists for 2018—including one lucky “People’s Choice” winner who automatically moves to the competition’s final round.Sponsored by Park West Gallery and Michigan’s Oakland ...
    Read More
  • See How Artist Slava Ilyayev Creates His Unbelievably Textured Paintings

    When people first encounter a painting by Slava Ilyayev, one of their most common questions is "How does he do that?"There is a level of texture and color in ...
    Read More
  • Meet the Artist: 10 Questions with Ron Agam

    Ron Agam started his career as an artist later in life, but has made up for lost time with bold, exciting art that evokes movement and contemplation.He readily admits ...
    Read More
  • Auctioneer Spotlight: Alex O’Rafferty and Candi Hanson

    At Park West, we know one thing for certain—our collectors love our onboard Art Teams.We hear it all the time. When people attend our auctions and art events on cruise ...
    Read More
  • Autumn de Forest Paints First-Ever Mural at Miami’s Wynwood Walls

    Having already exhibited her art in prevalent museums and galleries by the age of 16, art prodigy Autumn de Forest added some street cred to her impressive resume by ...
    Read More
  • Ilyayev, Max, Renoir, and More Now Available in 2018 Fall Sale

    As summer winds to a close, fall is definitely in the air. Bring the cozy feelings and amazing colors of autumn into your life with amazing new artwork from ...
    Read More
  • Collect the Breathtaking Art of Slava Ilyayev During our 2018 Fall Sale

    Incredible color, dynamic textures, and a magical sense of romance. Experience these sensations with the art of Slava Ilyayev during our 2018 Fall Sale.This limited-time sale features
    Read More