Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Adventures in Intaglio Printmaking

"I don't like to say I have given my life to art. I prefer to say art has given me my life."
                                                                                                                  ~ Frank Stella

Finished print on drying rack

One of the classes I'm taking this summer is a printmaking class. Printmaking has always fascinated me, but I've only had the chance to dabble in linoleum block printing and that was a few years ago, so I jumped at the opportunity to explore printmaking more.

Currently we are making intaglio (pronounced in-tahl-yo) prints, an Italian word for etchings or engravings which in its essence means "to cut into". In a nutshell, an image is cut into a copper or zinc plate, ink is applied and then cleaned off, leaving a residue in the cut areas. When damp paper is placed on top of the plate and forced into these cut areas by the pressure of the printing press, the ink transfers onto the paper and creates a print of the image. If a plate is cut into by hand, the process is known as engraving. If the plate is cut into by acid, the process is known as etching. In my class, we're using acid! 

Here's the etching printmaking process, step-by-step. You may recognize the image I'm etching from a shell drawing in a previous post.

Ready to begin the etching process!
A jig is made to keep the plate from moving when I transfer the drawing onto it.

Rolling on the acid resist.
 The whole plate is covered in asphaltum; an acid-resistant substance made from tar.

A printmaking sandwich.
The asphaltum-covered plate is returned to the jig, a piece of plain newsprint is placed over the plate and the drawing is traced on top of that.

The first reveal.
The pressure of tracing the drawing transfers the asphaltum onto the newsprint, which gives you a rough idea of what the final print may look like. Wherever there is asphaltum on the plate, the acid can't reach the zinc and that part of the print will remain blank. Where the asphaltum is removed, the acid will eat away at the plate, creating an area where ink will collect. You have to be careful when handling the plate because it's very easy to accidentally touch the asphaltum and end up with a fingerprint etched into your plate!

The acid bath is in an enclosed booth with ventilation and glass shields.
I donned safety goggles, long thick protective gloves, and a big protective apron before heading to the acid bath. My plate luxuriated in the acid bath for about 6 or 7 minutes. Once the plate comes out of the acid bath, it is important to wash off any acid residue so you don't accidentally get any on yourself.

The post-bath plate
It doesn't look like anything has happened to the plate at this stage...

The squeaky-clean plate
...but when the asphaltum is cleaned off, you can see where the acid ate into the exposed parts of the plate, leaving an etched image.

Inked and ready
 Ink is applied all over the plate and then wiped off, only leaving ink in the etched lines.

The amount of pressure this press can generate is mind-boggling
The plate is placed image-side up on a printing press, damp paper is placed over the plate, and big thick felt and wool "blankets" are placed on top to protect both the plate and the roller when the whole thing is run through the press.

The big reveal!
The final step is the "reveal" - the moment you get to see what all that work produced! There's a buzz of excitement in my class every time someone pulls their print off the plate because you really don't know exactly what it's going to look like. My first print was a little too stark, so when I inked the plate the second time, I didn't clean it off quite so thoroughly and got a nice faint tone in the background. If I wanted to, I could also reapply asphaltum to the plate and add more details, run it through the acid bath and try printing it again.

I'm really enjoying intaglio printmaking, but obviously this is not something I'd do in my home studio. Somehow I don't think our landlord would be too keen on the whole acid bath thing.

1 comment:

Ken Januski said...

Nice to see that you're enjoying your printmaking. There is something unique about that method of making images, always with an element of surprise.

Finally made it to the Wissahickon today after not having been there in weeks. But with today's cool morning I couldn't resist seeing what was about - lots of Veeries, Acadian Flycatchers and other breeders.