The first etchings were made early in the 17th century as a quick way of producing engravings. In engraving, the design is cut directly on the surface of a copper plate that is used for printing. In etching, the plate is covered with a thin coating of wax on which the design is drawn with a needle; the plate is then immersed in acid which eats into the metal that has been exposed. Etching is far easier than engraving because it is easier to draw in was than in copper.
At the same time, etching gives greater subtlety because the depth of lines can be controlled by the length of time the plate is left in the acid and the plate can be removed from the acid and any lines that are sufficiently deep can be varnished over before it is returned.
Important artists in the 17th century, including Rembrandt, made etchings but the art slowly declined until, by the beginning of the 19th century, it was regarded as a minor craft used for producing book illustrations.
In the 1860s, a number of artists revived the art of etching. The Victorian Etching Revival lasted until the First World War.
The most important artist of the Etching Revival was James Whistler. Other important artist-etchers included John Everett Millais, James Tissot and Samuel Palmer. A large number of etchings were produced by amateurs.