Lucian Freud’s Etchings –– The Arcane Sculpture on the Etching Plate

Written in 2015 Fall semester for The History of Printmaking.



Printmaking stands between drawing and painting, as it is not a direct process, firstly requiring the realization on a plate and secondly on a substrate’s surface. The surface of prints becomes an integral part of their aesthetic value. The scholar Ruth Pelzer-Montada conceived of a new way of looking at print surfaces in the post-modern context, a haptic-optical twofold structure, which involves a combination of ways of looking: one initiates the desire to physically touch the print, the other is more photographic. She focused specifically on the effect of haptic imageries regarding prints:

To these we might productively add printmaking, for it is this kind of ‘caressing’ or ‘step-by-step’ look that the printed surface, more often than not, also attracts –– as is readily observed in printmaking exhibitions where viewers press up close to the prints, their eyes roaming the surface, scrutinizing its concatenations, delighting in its variegated fabric, puzzling as to its sensuous fusion (“How is it done?”). (Pelzer-Montada 85)

This sensibility of layered looking and the attraction to the physicality of surfaces not only apply to modern digital prints, but also traditional printmaking, like etching. However, traditional printmaking, such as etching, does not layer its image the same way as its digital counterpart, overlapping jarring visual elements from different sources on top of each other. The visual content of traditional prints focuses on narrative or formal components, unified by the selected medium and retaining the textures of those mediums. Freud, who chose etching as his only printmaking medium, enhance the layered effect of the traditional print by creating symbolic and enigmatic images with psychological depth. He was influenced by Pablo Picasso, Francisco Goya, and Rembrandt Van Rijn. He treated the etched lines as a form of sculptural exploration, and incorporated platetone. In this way he expanded the possibility of etching as a modern medium and achieved a new way of looking at etchings.

When Freud eloped to France in the 1940’s he met Picasso and had a chance to look at Picasso’s print collections. “From 1946 until 1948 Freud lived and painted in Greece and France, where he met Picasso” (“Lucian Freud, OM”); it was in the same year that Freud created his first two etchings. Starr Figura mentioned that “Freud made his first two etchings during an extended trip to Paris in 1946: The Bird (plate 3) and Chelsea Bun (plate 4)” (15). The Bird showed the early fine lines of his drawings, and the simplified forms of the birdcage and bird. The eyes of the bird are two hollowed-out circles, which are drawn on, giving the picture an eerie atmosphere. Chelsea Bun has the same delicate line work. The almost abstract forms of the bun make it look more like a blossoming flower, reflecting a sensuality that is rare in his early stark paintings. Picasso’s 1934 etching and aquatint print, Boy and Sleeping Girl by Candlelight from the Vollard Suite, also features rather exaggerated and simplified forms of candlelight and figures. However, Picasso is more mature with his techniques than Freud: the various breadth of strokes and intensity of lights and shadows not only show a pictorial depth, but also an emotional resonance that Freud’s two early etchings lacked. Phyllis Braff asserted that Vollard Suite collection’s prints utilized symbols that contain personal meaning to Picasso and mixed them in with mythology, evoking common understanding among viewers: “As a whole, the collection possibly offers the best insights into Picasso’s use of autobiographical symbolism. The personal references are often intertwined with mythology, which adds complexity, blurs time divisions and provokes a certain universality”(“Showing Off Picasso’s Skills as a Printmaker”).

Freud soon made another etching, Ill in Paris, which appears to be influenced by Picasso’s symbolic approach. In this print, a thorny rose was placed across the picture plane and became a focal point. It contrasted with the woman lying on the bed whose unnaturally large eyes and slightly open mouth made the whole image more perplexing. The rose symbolized a process of new growth and eventual decay, which contrasted with the woman’s sickness. The existential tension presented in the image reflected Freud’s own sentiment of living and the alienation of his wandering experience in Paris. Picasso’s influence on Freud eventually wore off, as Freud could not produce any more prints once he returned to England from Paris between 1949 and 1981, partly because of the lack of systematic support of printmaking in Britain. Figura ruminated on this historical backdrop:

The Market for etchings had collapsed in England in the 1930s and would not recover for several decades. The network of etchers, publishers, and dealers that had existed during the so-called Etching Revival in the early decades of the twentieth century disappeared, leaving no real support system for artists, such as Freud, who might want to make prints. (16)

Without the support of skilled printmakers and facilities, Freud ceased to produce prints. However, his practice with linework and different surfaces continued during that time. He explored it in his painting and drawing practices until he started to produce etchings again in 1982.

Freud was always fond of Goya’s prints. Martin Gayford quoted Freud on Goya, “Goya is one of the most mysterious of painters. For me, his prints and graphic work are enormously more interesting than his paintings” (88). In 1982 Freud picked up etching again and the new works not only exhibited wilder strokes and freer drawing styles, but also revelled in the mystery of Goya in their subject matter. Goya’s 1848 etching and aquatint Disparate Volante, one of his most enigmatic prints, displays a range of dense lines, which trace the dramatic gestures of the subjects and the strangely darkened atmosphere. A woman is held by a man from behind; both fly on a hybrid bird-monster. Though the viewers can see that the woman is gesturing passionately, the people’s faces cannot be identified.

An aquatint made by Goya in 1818, The Colossus, exudes similar obscurity, revealing an enigmatic giant sitting under the moon. This print exemplifies the heightened mystery presented in Goya’s work. In the shadow of the contemplating giant, a face is turned upwards towards the viewer as if gazing into the darkness. The existential toil and psychological elements are evident in the print, which are also part of the theme for Freud’s print. Bella, Freud’s etching of his daughter gazing dispassionately at either the viewer or at herself, shows a different kind of mystery. Even though the viewer can identify the woman’s facial features, her thoughts and emotional state are incomprehensible, like Goya’s subjects. The fact that her right eye seems to look down and her left eye look straight out of the print adds a sense of ambiguity to the etching, rejecting the perfunctory reading of imagery. This particular etching, compared to his oil painting of the same subject in 1981, depicted Bella in a more severe way, elongating her face and hardening her facial features in a close-up. The psychological effects are more prominent than in the painting, with its dark and dawdling lines and the striking contrast created by black and white colours.

Goya’s process also influenced Freud. Robert G. La France stated that, “Goya often significantly deviated from the preparatory drawings when creating the finished plates, designing directly on the copper surface” (252). Goya’s preference of drawing directly on copper plate with either an etching needle or a pastel possibly manifested greater fluidity in his lines and a dramatic freedom in his compositions, creating a unified look in his prints by using linear textures. Freud propped his copper plate up on the easel around in 1986 to draw on it standing up, which affords him “of greater force and breadth for his etching strokes, especially in his larger plates” (Figura 21). These are evident in his later etchings, which abandon the early delicate line work and adopt a more unruly style of drawing.

Part of reason that Freud chose etching exclusively as his printmaking medium was that he was interested in developing his line works as a sculptural form. Figura described the way “he bundles and moulds lines into masses of convex and concave shapes that suggest different spatial planes, textures, and weights”(21). Lines become a medium of sculpture under Freud’s direction, to be carved and casted into various shapes and dimensions. Freud’s painting also reflects this obsession of lifting the medium out of the surface to create a more three-dimensional effect. The print’s surface gains a tangible physicality that creates pleasure and depth.

Another of Freud’s notable influences is the Dutch master Rembrandt, who created psychological likenesses among his subjects rather than focus on depicting the actual look of the sitters. Freud asserted that “(L)ikeness in a way isn’t the point, because whether or not a painting is a good likeness has nothing to do with its quality as a picture. For example, Rembrandt’s people all look alike in that they all have spiritual grandeur. You feel that he did not steer very close to the actual appearance of the sitters” (qtd. in Gayford 83).

In 1982, Freud produced two versions of the etching, The Painter’s Mother. In the first version, the mother stares out of the frame with a frown on her face. In the second version, the mother looks down as if contemplating the past and an inexpressible pain. Freud’s frenetic hatching and cross-hatching rendered the face almost flat, insubstantial, looking rather washed out. The lines create no perceptual depth and a reduced facial form. The mother seems to disappear and merge into the whiteness of the paper. The viewer can sense that it is not important that Freud’s mother actually resemble the etching of his mother. He is more interested in depicting the hollowed out spirituality of his mother through unrestrained and plain lines. In one of his later etchings, Esther, the young woman in the picture is far from resembling his mother, however, the viewer could perceive a spiritual kinship between the Esther and The Painter’s Mother, caught in a moment of internal disquietude while simultaneously rejecting the spectator’s prodding scrutiny through the lack of identifiable icons and imagery.

Freud worked with Balakjian solely, a printmaker in London’s Studio Prints, “since 1986” (Figura 22). Their collaboration propagated Freud’s incorporation of platetone, which gives each edition of prints a dramatically different atmosphere and outlook. “Each time Freud completes a plate, Balakjian begins by printing numerous impressions of it, varying the inking and wiping, and sometimes pulling proofs on different papers, to create nuanced differences from one proof to the next” (Figura 22). This process of printing multiple prints to experiment with different platetone was firstly developed by Rembrandt in order to obtain one-off prints that are different from edition to edition. For instance, the second state of The Entombment by Rembrandt is completely submerged in darkness, with only a small amount of light on the surface. This darkness contrasts with the first state of The Entombment, featuring less platetone and appearing brighter. The variation between the first and final state of the print could greatly differ in ways that changed the whole concept and content. Margaret Deutsch Carroll described this tendency in Rembrandt’s print, “… the representation shifts from relatively profuse material description in the early states to a shearing away of narrative and spatial abstraction in the final states” (585). For Freud, platetone incorporation adds an overall tonal quality and a veil of darkness that could not be achieved through etched lines alone. His Painter’s Garden displays this melancholic indulgence in the murkiness of unwiped ink. The darkness of this print revealed an untamed essence that is common to all of his other etchings with human figures. The subjects in his etchings are all different: some are of nature; some are human figures or animals. This psychological depth makes each of his prints look quite similar and recognizable.

Freud’s etchings are integral to his painting practice showing off an intense focus on the subjects’ internal lives. Freud was interested in developing depth of lines, stripping off unnecessary paint, and removing the sitter’s backgrounds, making his subjects less identifiable and heightening their emotional distress. His etchings become a way of meditating on his art practice and the existential mystery of human beings and the nature. Simultaneously, the enigma and his sculptural approach to lines pushed the boundaries of etching and draw the viewers’ eyes to investigate the sub-consciousness of his subjects.






Works Cited

Braff, Phyllis. “ART; Showing Off Picasso’s Skills as a Printmaker, in Diary Form.” New York

Times 27 Feb. 1994. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Carroll, Margaret Deutsch. “Rembrandt as Meditational Printmaker”. The Art Bulletin 63.4

(1981): 585–610. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Figura, Starr. Lucian Freud The Painter’s Etchings. New York: The Museum of Modern Art,

  1. Print.

Gayford, Martin. Man with a Blue Scarf On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud. New York:

Thames & Hudson Inc., 2013. Print.

La France, Robert G.. “A Source for Goya’s “disparate Volante””. Print Quarterly 20.3 (2003):

249–254. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

“Lucian Freud, OM.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. 21 July 2011. Web. 28 Nov.


Pelzer-Montada, Ruth. “The Attraction of Print: Notes on the Surface of the (Art) Print.” Art

Journal 67.2 (2008): 74. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.






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