Last November I told you about my experience learning how to print drypoint with instructor Peter Ligon at Southern Methodist University (You Can’t Make Art without Getting Your Hands Dirty). This time I will impart my experience learning acid etching and aquatint.
Etching and aquatint were once again taught by Peter Ligon at SMU. The only difference was the day of the week and a few of the regular students. I don’t think two sessions makes me a regular yet, but who knows.
Acid etching is not nearly as scary as it sounds. Yes, real acid is used to remove unwanted parts of the copper plate, but it is very easy to use without incident. If you were to get a little acid on you then a rinse of water will take care of it. Just don’t splash the acid in your eyes because we’ll have to hose you down. Consider yourself warned.
Now that the safety lecture is completed we can start talking about etching a plate.
Same as drypoint, we use copper plates for creating a print. We start out by degreasing the copper plate and coating it with asphaltum, a black, runny liquid. This is known as a hard ground. The hard ground will protect the areas of the copper plate that we don’t want etched.
After the hard ground has dried we take a needle and scratch in a drawing down to the copper plate. The needle is only strong enough to removed some of the hard ground from the copper plate. It does not removed any copper or create a burr like dry point does.
Once the drawing is completed then contact paper is applied to the back of the copper plate. Remember that the acid will slowly eat away at any exposed copper. Since we may decided to be thrifty one day and use the back side for another print, we will protect it from the acid. This also increases the life of the acid by not eating away at the back side.
With our drawing scratched into the hard ground and contact paper applied to the back, we are read to etch the plate. We use small plastic holders to keep the copper plate, which is put into the acid face down, from touching the bottom of the acid vat. Depending on how dark we want the etch lines to be is determined by the length of time in the acid vat. Really light lines can be done in less than ten minutes. Heavy dark lines can take an hour our longer depending on the strength of the acid.
After etching the copper plate in acid for the desired time, we then rinse the plate with water. We use kerosene and fine saw dust to remove the hard ground. At this point we have an etched plate ready for inking and printing, which are much like drypoint printing except that more ink is removed.
Aquatint is also an acid printing process that can be used with and without etching a plate first. Aquatint has the ability to give tonal values to the copper plate. It can be a very beautiful addition to an already etched plate, but it adds a layer of difficulty to the process of creating the plate.
Aquatint is the application of very finely ground resin that is evenly dusted over the surface of the copper plate. After dusting, the copper plate is then heated to 350 degrees to melt the resin and adhere it to the copper plate. Although the resin has melted to the copper plate, it has left evenly spaced holes all over the surface of the copper plate.
Once the aquatint has been applied and the copper plate is cool enough to touch, then we apply stopout (a clear version of the black hard ground) with a paint brush to protect the areas of the plate that should not be etched. After the stopout has dried and the back of the copper plate has been covered with contact paper, we can then use the same acid vat to etch the aquatint.
The great part about aquatint is the ability to build up values. When the copper plate is first aquatinted, we will stopout the area of the plate to be the whitest. We then put the plate in the acid bath for the desired length of time and rinse the plate with water. We can then continue to stopout other areas of the plate again and again. This allows us to create several tonal values using the same aquatint and stopout.
After the aquatint etching process is completed, then all stopout is removed by alcohol. Then plate can then be printed the same as a regular etch plate. The aquatinted areas will hold more or less ink depending on how much exposure to the acid they received.
Well, my general overview is becoming long winded. I think you get the idea. Acid etching and aquatinting is not nearly as hard as it sounds. You should give it a try.
Now would be a good time to look as some photographs.
The above pinhole camera photograph is the main printing press at the SMU printmaking lab. The press puts a lot of pressure on the copper plates to transfer the ink from the grooves of the plate to the damp paper. The printmaking lab is a very dirty and wonderful place. Last term I did a lot of hand washing with kerosene to remove the ink. This term I discovered disposable gloves.
The above photograph is Mo Melander inking a full size copper plate. The plate is put on a heating element which helps the ink flow into all the etched grooves of the plate. Once the plate is inked, then the majority of the ink is removed and reused. Only the ink in the etched grooves will remain for printing.
The above photograph shows Mo turning the printing press. Prior to this Mo laid the inked plate on the press and then a damp piece of paper on the plate. He then covered everything with felt blankets, which hold the paper in place and protect the paper from tearing.
Here Mo and instructor Peter Ligon slowly peel back the printed paper from the plate. The larger the art, the more help needed. Clean hands are essential for handling the paper. Nobody wants a smudged work of art.
Here is Mo’s print. Mo preferred to etch his copper plates without aquatinting. With all the needle work he did, there was no need to add any tonal values.
Above is my self portrait in blue. This print was both etched and aquatinted. You can see the etched lines and all the aquatint values. In comparison, my print is a small 4 x 6 inches. Mo’s print above is about 20 x 30 inches.
I hope you enjoyed this overview of etch and aquatint printmaking. See you again in the fall. Cheers.