etching, Printmaking

Etch-A-Sketch #2

It’s been well over a month since I posted about this, so I guess this is well overdue…

I thought I’d begin this post with a look at the workspace. Printing etchings (intaglio printing) is quite a different process to the relief printing I usually do in my garage printshop, so I needed to be a little more prepared. Listed above are:

1. etching plates
2. position guide
3. my printing notebook (I did a course a year or so ago and made copious notes)
4. muslin cloth squares
5. scrim and newsprint squares
6. rubber gloves (I didn’t use these after all)
7. cotton buds
8. black ink
9. turps dispenser
10. ink spatulas
11. rags
12. burnt umber ink
13. leather wad
14. glass inking plate

When printing lino or letterpress, I am covering the raised parts of the block with ink and transferring that directly under pressure to the paper. With intaglio printing I am filling the scratches and grooves that are cut into the block:

In order to get the ink right into the block, I use a wad covered in leather. The wad is rolled into the ink transferring it to the leather, which is then vigorously rolled, smeared and ‘pushed’ hard into the entire surface of the block:

The first stage of the inking process is to completely cover the entire surface, pressing hard to ensure the ink is pushed into every line:

Then comes the process of removing the ink;

First with scrim,

then with soft muslin,

so what is left of the ink is in all of the scratches and grooves, with just a little left on the surface for tone (this is frowned upon by some printmakers, but I rather like this effect.)

The press I’m using is a large flat bed rolling press. I have already adjusted the rollers for this type of printing and turned the wheel to move the pressbed all the way over to one side.

A little earlier, I immersed my paper into a large tray of water. This method of printing required the paper to be damp. The thicker the paper, the longer it needs to soak. It is then put between sheets of blotting paper to remove the excess whilst I am getting the plate inked up.  This is an important part of the process – I have made the mistake of getting the plate inked up and on the press before realising I haven’t any dampened paper! As I mentioned at the start, this type of printing takes a bit more preparation.

The actual moment of printing arrives. A backing sheet of paper (with a position marking for neatness) is placed on the bed with the block in place upon it. The white covers you can see in the image above are the press blankets; heavy duty felt used to spread the pressure. After the blankets are repositioned, a long turning of the wheel takes the press bed and its contents through the rollers at a high pressure. This leaves a significant  emboss on the print:

The reveal is always the best part. The shot below was actually taken as I peeled back the very first print of the day – the money shot!

I printed just four prints of each of the five plates. I have actually made six plates but left one behind – DUH! These are the best five:

Some of the first prints were a little too heavily pressed and tore the paper in places. Small adjustments were made to prevent this from reoccurring.

Drypoint etching on acrylic gives an amazing variety of line quality, from fine hairlines to deeper gouges. I really love looking at the details now that they are printed. I’m not being vain here, but I am genuinely excited by this process and the overall quality of these prints.

The image above shows some of the surface tone that is achieved when traces of ink are deliberately left on the plate.

An altogether successful result from around six hours of printing. The prints will be put aside for now, and I will prepare another six new plates for printing in the new year. This will eventually become part of a book which, of course, will be posted here first…

Just keep your eye out!

etching, Printmaking


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…