aqua fortis

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Practicing Obsolete Art Forms

Etching, or intaglio, is just one of those weird old-school methods of artmaking that you don't necessarily think of right away when you think about printmaking or about visual art. But Rembrandt and Goya were masters of the craft and its expressive language, and studios like Crown Point Press continue to ensure that contemporary artists working in fine print media are known and respected.

Although I can only wish that one day Rob or I might be associated with Crown Point Press beyond just having gone on field trips there, I CAN be proud of our homegrown operation, Imp Press. Now that we have a studio of a respectable size such that two or even three people can move around in it at the same time, we've enjoyed getting back to work on what we love. I almost feel like it's a fetishistic act. I so much love the mere process of touching and smelling the ink, tearing the paper to size, cranking the wheel of the press. Call me crazy.

The following print was produced for a group project, which I'll describe in more detail in a later post. I got started a little late due to holiday circumstances beyond my control, but the first thing I did was look around the studio for copper plates I could use. I happened to luck upon a plate that was already of an appropriate size and already hard-grounded and ready for line etching. In order to perform a line etch on a copper plate, the plate must first be polished and de-greased, and then the edges beveled so that the plate does not cut the paper or the blankets on the press. Then, a waxy substance called hard ground is melted and rolled onto the surface. Once it hardens--a matter of minutes--it is possible to draw lines on with an etching needle, also known as a Whistler twist (see my profile photo).

Etching Step 1: Line EtchingThe surfaces exposed by the needle get etched away when the plate is submerged in acid (see later photos). Once the hard ground is cleaned off, it's time to ink the plate. Ink is carefully taken out of a metal can like the one in the background of the photo at left, using a putty knife. Then, using a chip of matboard or a plastic squeegee thingy, ink is drawn across the surface of the plate and gets squeezed into the little lines and divots left by the etching.

Etching Step 2: Inking the Line EtchA piece of cheesecloth or tarlatan is used to wipe off the excess ink from the surface and evenly distribute it inside the etched lines. (That's the crumpled inky wad at the top of the photo.) Small pieces of phone-book paper can also be used to further clean the surface, or you can hand-wipe it with the side of your hand. The result is shown at right: an inked plate that is ready for printing.

Etching Step 3: Printing the Line EtchFurther down the page you'll see a photo of the press in our studio, which is a Conrad etching press with a star wheel and composite press bed. The machinery is geared so that it's relatively easy to crank a print through with the required pressure (well over 1000 pounds). The results of printing the line etching are shown at left. I did a few prints so that I could use a pencil to draw on one of them, to figure out what shades of value to use in the aquatint. Aquatint is the method by which areas of tone can be etched onto a plate--flat areas of color as opposed to just lines.

Etching Step 4: Melting the AquatintTo create an aquatint is a semi-toxic process that has to be done in the garage. First, finely powdered rosin (like the rosin dancers or violinists use) is dusted evenly over the surface of the plate. We do this inside a cardboard box, using a dust mask. The rosin is sprinkled out of a shot glass that has had a double layer of nylon stocking stretched over the top. Then the rosin is melted into a fine layer of tiny droplets using a butane torch. You can see the rosin melt almost all at once when it reaches the right temperature, after a couple of minutes--it's sort of magical to watch the surface change in sheen suddenly, in a matter of seconds.

Etching Step 5: Etching the AquatintWith an aquatint, the droplets of melted rosin form a pattern that's almost like the Ben-Day dot pattern seen in old newspaper photos. The space between the dots is etched down and when it's inked, you get a relatively flat area of color. To create light tones, you etch for less time; for darker tones you etch the plate progressively longer. To preserve your light tones, it is necessary to "stop out" those areas so that they do not etch. Stop-out is a tarry mixture of liquid hard ground and asphaltum that is painted onto the plate using a brush. Above, you can see a partially stopped-out plate ready to go into the acid. The acid is ferric chloride, actually a heavy salt, and it is relatively fume-free and non-toxic but it's a horrible nasty iodine-like color so you still don't want to touch it.

Etching Step 6: Inking the AquatintWhen the etching part is finished, I take the plate outside and clean off the stop-out using mineral spirits and a rag. (This is where all of our old clothes go in our house.) Then, the rosin is cleaned off using denatured alcohol, and I ink up the plate as before. I will need to pull a few test prints in order to see if I need to make any alterations to the plate: areas that are too dark can be burnished to be lighter, while areas that lost detail or are too light can be scratched at with a drypoint needle (a direct method of intaglio that does not involve etching).

Etching Step 7: Fixing My Screw-UpsSince it turned out that I did some major screwing up at various points in the process--it's been a little while since I did an etching, and this was my first time doing one using our new setup--I had to do quite a bit of both of these techniques. Shown at left are some burnishing tools. Rob even has a burnisher that was blessed by the Pope (long story) but this isn't that one.

Etching Step 8: Fixing My Screw-Ups Cont'd

Above are four progressive states as I carefully burnished and drypointed this baby to a reasonably finished condition. The messy print in black on the top left is what came right out of the acid. The background is way too dark, and there are some "washed-out" looking spots resulting from me getting stop-out on areas where it wasn't supposed to go. I burnished the background quite a lot, added some drypoint to darken up the blacker areas, and ended up with the print at the top right. I also changed ink color at this point. The bottom two prints are just me evening things out and fussing with details.

Etching Step 9: Printing the Final VersionThen, it was time for me to print the final edition. I needed to print 20, and I decided to use some tan Rives BFK paper that I had left over from making holiday cards. First I had to tear the paper down to the appropriate size of 8x10--in printmaking, it is traditional to tear paper using a heavy metal straight-edge rather than simply cutting it. It creates a nice fuzzy edge to the paper instead of a mechanical-looking one. Then the paper needs to be soaked for at least 20 minutes in a tub of water. When the paper is wet, it softens, and this helps it to a) not tear under pressure, and b) sink into the detailed surface of the plate. The plate is put on the press, then the paper is blotted dry on a towel and placed on top of the plate. A pair of felt blankets cushion and also help press the paper into the inked lines. In the above photo, taken right after the print was cranked through, you can see the raised part of the paper where the plate was pressed into it. (Ignore the unfinished painting in the background, please.)

Etching Step 10: Drying the Prints

The resulting prints are then placed into blotter paper and dried flat under a heavy board. We have a drier set up to hasten the process; once the paper is dry to the touch, it can be moved to the drier, which is basically a stack of blotters set up with a fan and a wind sock sort of thingy. And there you go. When they're dry, I'll sign and number them. That was a long explanation, but at least a few people requested pictures and the pictures require some description. I promise to tell you more about the group print project itself later...