I have been often been inspired by the characters in Tom Waits lyrics – I am still fine-tuning the circus poster I began last year – and I have been thinking about a small-scale printmaking project to make a book with. This seemed to be just the link I needed.
I like Waits’ characters. They are streetwise, life-beaten, wronged or just plain wrong, these quintessentially American misfits populate the vaguely historic and seedy boulevards and flop-houses that Waits is prone to dwell.
I began to research images of tramps, hoboes and the disaffected, using a wide range of sources from photographers galleries and news agencies, to government photographic archives of images of the depression era in the states.
I began by roughly sketching out what was forming in my mind – close-cropped, high contrast faces, probably linocuts around 10cm high. Some may be full-face and others may be partially cropped. These were quickly scribbled in my sketchbook, each a couple of centimetres high. I did seven pages of these:
A couple of days later I sketched out some more detailed images, this time using some of the research images I had collected previously. These are much bigger, about 10cm high and I had a couple of markers and fineliners on the go:
These drawings were just to get a feel of the direction of the project, not particularly the people themselves, but of the composition and visual tone. It was at this stage that I decided that this was more suited to etching than linocut. I think you can see my decision emerging in the two faces at the left of the batch above; the top one is clearly drawn with linocutting in mind – solid blacks with regular and coarse linework, and the one below is more tonal, using finer, more complex hatching. I did about 20 or so of these.
I decided to etch on acrylic sheet using the dry-point technique – essentially scratching the surface with a sharp point. It has been quite a while since I did any etching – almost two years in fact, when I created this portrait of my father for his seventieth birthday.
The acrylic sheet is just the ordinary stuff you can buy in DIY stores. Mine’s just under 2mm thick and comes with a protective film which is peeled off just prior to starting to ensure a clean, blemish free surface:
I start by lightly scratching some of the main details and hatching a light tone that follows the contours of the face
There is a sheet of black card under the acrylic and I am working beneath an anglepoise lamp (a vintage 1963 model in cream I picked up for a couple of quid at a car boot sale in Hunstanton a few years ago.) This helps me get the most contrast.
The darker tones are built up by over-working the hatching in different directions and increasing the pressure.
Working like this can be quite frustrating because you are creating whiter areas as you scratch over the surface, but by moving the lamp so that the light is directly reflected over the image, you do get a good idea of progress:
It’s probably worth noting the scale that I have decided to work at. Each image is being created at 6 x 5 cm, so the detail is quite small:
All the while, more tones are added, along with more subtle details. You can see the reflection of the lamp more clearly here:
When I did the portrait of my father I used the point of an old compass. For these I bought a proper etching tool with a good fine point.
The image below shows how the difference that pressure makes to the surface scratches:
I tend to work in set areas which helps me maintain the right proportions. You get these odd moments where things begin to take form whilst other areas remain blank:
I have included images of a couple of finished plates (as they now are ready to print from) but just want to show you the scale again:
At the time of writing this I have finished four faces and am about halfway through the fifth. The plan is to make twelve plates and print them in two batches. I can’t actually print these on my presses as I need much more pressure and more consistency, but I do have access to the right kind of press, and the facilities to produce a limited edition run. Watch this space…