Printmaking Techniques

With my first etching I felt I’d reclaimed my mother-tongue. The technique marries painterly-ness, integrity of line, rich tone & texture. Printmaking satisfies the envy I have for the boundless creativity of music; a melody is composed, then endlessly improvised upon. With printmaking I can revisit an image rhythmically, over & over, at the press.

Copperplate Etching & Aquatint


Starting with a copper plate, the edges are beveled with a file and the surface is hand polished to a mirror finish. The plate is then covered with a material called ‘ground.’ There are many ways to apply the ground; it can be directly painted to completely cover the surface or sprayed on to create a dot pattern, a process called ‘aquatint.’

Sharp drawing tools are then used to lightly scratch or stipple a design through the ground. The plate is then put into a corrosive etchant bath (traditionally acid, but I use a modern non-toxic process). Wherever the protective mask of ground has been disturbed to expose the copper, the etchant will attack or ‘bite’ the metal to, literally, “etch” down into the surface of the plate.  It is these bite marks that will eventually hold ink for printing.

The artist can then re-apply ground to areas where the desired value has been achieved; to “stop out,” or halt, the etch. When the plate is returned to the etchant bath, those re-masked portions are protected, while the rest of plate’s bite deepens, resulting in darker lines & rich textures. This process of etch, mask, etch, mask re-working of the plate is repeated to achieve the luxurious tonal quality that is the signature of Intaglio printmaking.     

Next, the ground is stripped off and the plate is thoroughly cleaned. Ink is thickly spread over the surface of the plate & forced down into the etched lines. The surface of the plate is then painstakingly wiped to remove excess ink, using in succession: newsprint and then a type of starched cheesecloth called “scrim.” Finally, the artist might finish with a delicate “hand wipe,” using fingertips or the heel of the palm, to achieve a soft, brush-like effect.

The plate is carefully laid, face up, on the bed of an etching pressure press. Thick, cotton paper is dampened and laid on top. Sturdy wool press blankets are laid over all, and the entire “sandwich” is pulled, by hand, through the press. The plate is then cleaned, re-inked and hand wiped for each pass through the press, making each print an original.

The pressure of the press forces the paper down into the grooves of the plate to pick up the ink, which is imbedded deep into the fibers of the paper. Ink does not sit on top of the paper as in most print processes. It resides… beneath the surface.

Original Copperplate Engraving


The plate is prepared in the same manner; edges beveled and surface polished to a mirror finish. Using various sized engraving tools (v-shaped “gravers”), each line or texture mark is stippled lightly, roughed up or cleanly carved deep into the copper. These lines and marks kick up “burrs” which will hold ink when printed. A burnishing tool is used to smooth & work such burrs to desired effect. It takes a lot of pressure and a steady hand. When complete, the plate is inked, hand wiped, and run through an etching press. The pressure from the press will eventually smooth down the burrs on the plate, so print editions tend to be small, as the plate loses its integrity. The plate is wiped clean and re-inked for each pass through the press.

Original Solar Plate Etching

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Solar plate etchings are made with an aluminum plate that is coated with a light-sensitive polymer developed in the 1970's. In my process, I first make a detailed drawing on transparent material. Next, the drawing is placed on the plate and exposed to UV light. I use a light box, but sunshine will work. Wherever the lines of the drawing block UV rays, the plate remains soft, while the rest of the plate hardens. The softened polymer is then washed away with water. Ink is hand rubbed onto the plate, then carefully wiped. Ink on the hardened surface is wiped away, while the ink in the (washed away) exposed grooves of the drawing remains. The plate is then hand pulled through a heavily pressured press, which forces the paper down into the grooves, to pick up the ink. The plate is then cleaned, re-inked, wiped, and printed again. Each print is unique as the inking & wiping is impossible to replicate. 



About Non-Toxic Printmaking

All of my printmaking methods are non-toxic. In the 1600’s acid was a basic ingredient in Rembrandt’s etching recipes. The risks & hazards of using acid went unchallenged until the late 20th century when a healthy fusion of art and invention resulted in new techniques that use acrylic products and even the sun’s UV rays as alternatives. This allows the artist to work totally unencumbered by the limitations & risks of Intaglio’s toxic history.

Original Intaglio Printmaking

The Italian word Intaglio translates to “beneath the surface.” Unlike relief printmaking (linoleum or wood-cut, for example) in which the artist is “cutting away” from the block and then printing the surface left behind, the Intaglio artist is “cutting/etching into” (beneath) the surface of the plate. Ink is rubbed down into the etched marks and printed. Etching and engraving are two methods of Intaglio style original printmaking.

The term “original” is used as each print is individually inked, hand wiped, and printed. The plate can only be run through the press once before it must be cleaned, re-inked and wiped for each successive print. As well, the intense pressure of the press effects the integrity of the plate. Each pass through the press wears the plate down until it is eventually no longer printable. This is the reason that original prints are numbered.