Over the last couple of months or so I’ve been having intaglio printmaking lessons. In the past I’ve made a pretty good attempt at linoprints and some ok-ish woodcuts on my own, but the lack of a printing press has put the kibosh on really getting under the bonnet of printmaking. I have from time to time been trying to use an old mangle as a press, and I did manage to pull some semi-reasonable drypoints on perspex from it.

mangleI’ve been in love with intaglio printing since forever, and it’s something that’s been in my mind to learn for years but somehow always made excuses not to do so. I love drawing in a soft, figurative and organic way and I’m not one to use a wide palette, much more a wide range of tones. It’s why I love using black and white film for my photography. It’s also quite a three-dimensional way of drawing and thinking about drawing. Etching into the metal shares a similarity to making in the round and I can’t deny my inner sculptor, poor wee thing. I came this close to starting a year long workshop in Toulouse, but it would involve relief and screen printing and I was a bit iffy about making the investment.  But now I get to spend every other Monday with an experienced, skilled and very kind printmaker and his fantastic studio. One-to-one tuition and tailor made to what I specifically want to learn. In the last couple of months he has taught me the softground etching process, and I was very happy with the results. A fine layer of soft molten wax is applied to the plate, in this case zinc; burnt and hardened and by laying a sheet of paper over the top you simply draw with a pencil, making an impression into the wax. Once the plate is dipped in the acid bath the exposed lines are etched into the plate creating a delicate, soft image.

softground plate

softground etching

I have to say at this point, I get equally excited and terrified by the dangerous chemicals and dusts and toxic vapours. Livin’ on the edge. Every now and then I’ll mention non-toxic methods, but he has no truck with it. I have however, managed to get him on side using Charbonnel’s aquawash inks and he’s surprised at how good and rich they are…

Now I am working on two processes at once – aquatint and mezzotint. Aquatint is basically a layer of rosin dust coating the plate that you then burnish, scratch or make other marks into the plate. The rosin resists the acid bath while the marks are etched into the plate, creating a ‘bite’.

Goya aquatint etching los caprichos

Francisco Goya ¡Quién lo creyera!

Ok, I’m never going to be Goya, agreed. In any case, I’m trying to work out how these traditional, detailed and labour-intensive skills can be applied to my own ideas for art-making. Love it as I do it requires a precision and attention to detail I’m not sure I possess. But for the moment I’m very happy to learn the rules so I can later work out how to break them.

burnishing mezzotint

mezzotint plate

And this is the mezzotint I’m working on right now. In a nutshell you painstakingly cover the copper plate using a special rocker to create thousands of tiny dents. These dents hold the ink and so by burnishing back into the plate you make smoother and therefore lighter areas. It’s quite strange as you have to work in reverse, going from dark to light. Although it’s a challenge the results are beautiful, deep velvety blacks and an incredible range of soft tones. I’m still working on this tiny plate and it’s very labour intensive, so don’t hold your breath for the final print, it may take me a while yet.

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