The etching technique of printmaking was invented in Europe in the beginning of 16th century. Similarly to the copperplate engraving, it is a variety of intaglio printing technique. The metal plate is covered with a varnish and the artist creates a painting on the varnish with a needle, scratching the varnish and exposing the parts of the surface. Then the acid is applied, biting the metal where it is not covered with varnish. Different parts of composition could pass more or less time in contact with the acid, which permitted to have different depth and width of lines and shades. Often the acid was applied several times, and the varnish was gradually removed, permitting to accentuate the shades and deepen the lines. Before printing, all the varnish was removed and the deep parts carrying the drawing were filled with ink. The impression was created in the same way that with the copperplate engravings. Often the painter would leave a very thin layer of paint in the different parts of the plate, which permitted to unite, stress or soften various details and parts of the compositions.

The technique of etching is relatively simple and very flexible. In the beginning of 16th century steel plates were used but they would quickly rust affecting the quality of impressions. Dürer made only six etchings and abandoned this technique, despite understanding its peculiarities and the relative easiness of etching. Dürer's contemporaries, working on etchings, used some engraving techniques.

The etching flourished in the 17th century. Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch painter and graphic artist, was one of the greatest masters of etching.