My Printmaking Journey

One of the unique qualities of printmaking is that it was originally used to communicate. Communicating to the masses. For this reason, to me, it holds the same sensibilities as collage. I like the idea that it wasn’t elitist – maybe a little bit punk?

I’m trying to remember what first drew me to printmaking. My first compete body of prints was for my diploma show at Winchester School of Art. I created an etching of a female nude where the face, hands, and anything else I fancied was collaged with chine colle to impose a narrative, an identity, a look The prints were quite big, maybe A1 and I think there was about a dozen variations – I might try and dig them out.

 

 

Intaglio is any printmaking technique in which the image is produced by etching into a printing plate. Relief printing is where the surface, is carved into and the ink adheres to the raised surface – like linocut. I love linocut – it’s graphic and strong, but it’s just not me. Not least because I really struggle with the whole reversal thing just spins me out. Then you have planographic printing which is printing from a flat surface – like monoprinting or screenprinting. There are lots of brilliant websites(listed below) that give brilliant advice, nothing beats taught courses and there are plenty of great books. I’m really just talking about my printmaking journey here.

Because I studied as a part-time mature student, I had no studio space provided. I also struggling to get access to the print studio. They didn’t have the time to teach me. So I took myself off to Badger Press an open access Printmaking studio in Bishops Waltham. There I learnt etching, aqua tint, and solar plate etching. I was able to go back, armed with a little knowledge and get inducted into the printmaking rooms. Once I had access, it was easy and many a happy hour I spent there. I continued to use Badger Press after I left art school. Sadly it’s recently closed down. As has Red Hot Press in Southampton. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come, with arts funding cuts and recession. I’m lucky enough to have a studio, and I have a portable printing press but open-access print studios are invaluable, and there’s plenty I can’t do without specialised printmaking facilities and good advice

Both etching and drypoint are intaglio printmaking methods.Etching is the process of using acid to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create an intaglio – I can’t do this in my studio currently. Relief printing is where surface, is carved into and the ink adheres to the raised surface – like linocut. I love linocut – it’s graphic and strong, but it’s just not me. Not least because I really stuggle with the whole reversal thing just spins me out. Then you have planographic printing which is printing from a flat surface – like monoprinting or screenprinting.

My Portable Printing Press

Etching Process

There’s something very therapeutic about printmaking – you can’t skip corners you have to go through quite a process. For etching, you had to file the edges of your plate (zinc, aluminium, or copper) to create a smooth bevelled edge that gives a smooth line but also to remove any sharpness that might hurt yourself, damage the printing press blanket or roller. You protect the back of your plate with sticky back plastic or parcel tape (any exposed part of the plate is eaten or etched by the acid) Then you degrease the plate with a paste made from whiting. You have to ground your plate, that is cover with a thin layer of ground  – BIG ground is less toxic and can be used as a soft ground or hard ground. The acid only eats into the plate where you remove the ground. A hard ground is scrapped away, a soft ground can take impressions , is much easier to make a mark into. You need a hotplate or oven to make hard ground You may transfer your image and then begin your mark-making, or work freehand onto the plate. Then you dip or lay the plate in the dip tray. I will dip a plate several times before I’m happy with it, and usually, I’ll have to remove the ground and test the print to see how what marks to make next. When I’m happy with the plate, I’ll clean off the plate and degrease it again. Ready for ink – gloves are a good idea once inks are involved. Ink is liberally spread over the plate with mountboard offcuts and then scraped with another offcut and or tarlatan cloth and finally with newsprint(for years it was the now obsolete yellow pages). Paper has been soaked in water and then blotted. Then make sure  of your registration so the plate sits in the right place on the paper and then finally print on an etching press. The pressure on the press is paramount. Then the prints need to dry.

This is a very simplistic explanation of the etching process – it’s really to show how methodical you have to be.  You also need to be clean and tidy, also not natural for me. I’m learning to enjoy the process but may always struggle with the tidy element.

Drypoint Etching

This is etching without the acid. So the marks are less sharp, and more velvety. I always thought that it was a poor relation of etching (I am prone to these sweeping judgements, to repent at my leisure). In reality, there is a richness to drypoint that is lush and lovely. The rest of the process is the same as etching.

 

Solarplate etching.
With photopolymer etching or solar plate, you use a precoated photo-sensitive plate. Transfering your image onto transparent film which is placed over the coated plate. The plate is then exposed to sunlight, or more reliably in the UK, an ultraviolet light box. The photopolymer that isn’t covered by marks is exposed. Timing is very important – so for each new project, I would do a test sheet. The depth of the etch is dependent on the light exposure – that’s time and strength of light. Although I love the idea of using sunlight, it’s less predictable and the photopolymer plates are too expensive to ‘play’ with.

Solar plate is great for drawing or photographic work. The exposed photopolymer (the bits that haven’t been protected from the sunlight UV light by the dark parts of your transparency) is washed away – with water – there’s no acid involved in this process. Everything else, the paper soaking, inking up and polishing the plate is like other intaglio processes.

Environmental Concerns

In the old days, before we cared about our lungs, and the environment there was some pretty dodgy practices in printmaking (and art making in general). Nowadays, I’m a little more careful about what I put into my body or expose myself to.

In recent years I’ve moved away from nitric acid to Edinburgh Etch solution or ferric acid solutions. This is much less toxic and volatile, but because sediment settles in the bitten intaglio surface it slows an already lengthy process. I haven’t used vertical dip tanks, but understand because the sediment falls down rather than settling on the plate, this works well.  I been using BIG ground for a few years because traditional ground contains arsenic, mercury and all kinds of nasties. He’s produced some really useful tutorials if you’re interested. Caligo do some nice non toxic inks – that is oil and pigment based. They can also be cleaned up with soap and water.

This is a great handbook for non toxic printmaking and I’m also exploring nontoxic.com online. I’m sure you could pick holes in my practice environmentally, but I’m trying to be mindful of the impact I have and adopt more environmentally concious practices.

If you’re thinking of exploring printmaking, I can’t recommend printmaking short courses enough. I still love to learn new processes and really miss local open-access printmaking studios. If you have one use it (or lose it). I had a few years away from printmaking and then took a foundation in printmaking at Red Hot Press. This covered many styles of printmaking and really got me printmaking again. Then came lockdown, and Red Hot Press, sadly never really reopened. At this point become more involved with my local printmakers group- Cowprint Artist Group. A group of mostly Southampton-based printmakers with a range of skill levels, styles and approaches.

This is very much a whistle-stop tour – I haven’t even talked about viscosity printing or aqua tint. I’m not an expert – there is so much to learn, I think I’ll always be learning. I’m enjoying this exploration and would encourage anyone to explore printmaking. If you have any questions, I’m happy to help if I can.

For inspiration and learning

https://thecuriousprintmaker.co.uk

https://handprinted.co.uk/blogs/blog/tagged/tutorials

BIG ground tutorials

 

 

 

Etching

Drypoint etching

Solarplate Etching

Drypoint Etching

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