Hard ground etching: The final process

Water & spit biting


We prepared a dedicated work area for this because the process can be quite hazardous as it involves pure nitric acid and keeping that contained is all important.  It is a colourless liquid and is, obviously, highly corrosive.

zinc-etch-18The studio has several dedicated fume removal areas with pull-down front perspex to protect users, and we set up in one of those.  Using a very large, heavy plastic tray as my work area I arranged three containers within it: pure nitric acid, water and hand wash detergent.

The print plate was laid over base struts so that excess liquid could run off.

Water biting

zinc-etch-19Water was tipped onto the plate.  Normally it would immediately turn into small droplets but with the aquatint base it appears to cover the entire area where it is applied.  See my previous post to understand why this pooling occurs.  Nitric acid, from the jug, was then brushed in selected areas over the water.

Note: I’m well aware of safety issues and that gloves should always be worn, but I guess it is the teacher’s prerogative whether he chooses to wear them or not.

zinc-etch-20Above you can clearly see where the acid has turned cloudy in the water.  The idea is to move it around, alternating diluting and adding acid.  Where the acid sits for differing lengths of time determines the depth of the etching that occurs.  So this technique is perfect for creating smooth tonal differences across a surface.  By keeping the plate wet (in this case only the sky down to the horizon line) the acid is suspended and can be lightly moved around, so avoiding harsh outlines of etched areas.

This soft process should give excellent sky tonal value without vastly bitten areas.

Spit biting

I’m told that in the olden days (I’ll let you research exactly when that was yourselves) spit was actually used as a resist against acid biting.  However, my tutor usually uses washing up liquid.  Not having any to hand I took a container and purloined some hand-wash from the closest bathroom.

zinc-etch-21On the left, hand-wash is being dribbled in lines across the lower half of the plate, in the hope that we get some water movement in the final prints.  On the right a light amount of water has been added in the remaining areas.  The hand-wash will act as a resist against the acid but the edges of it will gradually mix with the water.  Once the acid is added and the hand-wash is moved around marginally it should be possible to achieve some quite dynamic changes in tonal value as the acid bites in very selected areas.

zinc-etch-22On the left, the acid is being added.  This isn’t being softly brushed across as per the sky, here it is being applied carefully in horizontal lines.  It is filling in some of the spaces, mixing with the water, forming waves and movement and the hand-wash is being reshaped to stop out the acid in some places.

On the right, the plate is almost finished etching and is ready to be plunged into a water bath to remove the acid and hand-wash.  You can see the difference between the soft approach in the upper sky area and the more robust effects on the lower section.

zinc-etch-23The plate was rinsed and the bitumen was removed from the swan and cygnets.

Ready to print.

With only 20 minutes of class time left and quite a lot to still clear up I only had time for one initial print.  One of my classmates kindly told me to use the colours she had already mixed as there was no time to start from scratch.  The colours were lovely but a bit too concentrated for my design as I’m keen to try a heavily diluted background and have the swan sitting brilliantly in the foreground.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers and I was grateful for the offer to use her inks.  So here is the first print proof of this single plate.

zinc-etch-24On the left is the inked plate.  On the right is the first print.  A little more “Lost at Sea” than “First time out on the lake with mum”!  Oh, and is that a cyclone forming in the background?

OK, a bit of work still to do here to get this happening how I want to see it, and I have yet to print the soft ground etched plants as a second layer.

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Hard ground etching: The next stage

Aquatint & selective masking

Step 1: Aquatint

Aquatint is a way of preparing the print plate surface to hold a lot of ink, thereby creating a solid deeply coloured printed area.

So what is aquatint?
Aquatint is powdered resin that is applied and fused to the plate surface.
How does it work?
Imagine millions of marbles covering the bottom of an empty swimming pool, all fused (glued) in place.  If you were to walk over them you would feel the rise and fall of each marble, and if you looked closely you would see the curved dips where each abutted the next.  Now think about tipping in gallons of paint.  Where will it pool?  Well, it will sit in the crevices between the marbles and, if they are lightly applied, it will sink between them as well.

zinc-etch-13Got that?  Now scale the whole thing down – down as far as powder or dust.  By fusing the aquatint (powdered resin) to the plate and applying ink to the surface you can achieve a very solid velvety printed design.  Using dampened paper will help this as the paper becomes flexible and the pressure of the etching press pushes it into the textural surface of the inked & aquatinted plate.
How do you apply the aquatint?
The powdered resin is stored in a large enclosed chamber with a shallow drop down door.

zinc-etch-14The print plate is placed inside the opening on a cardboard support, sitting on a wire rack.

The outer handle is cranked very fast many times to agitate the resin and produce a cloud inside the box.  In my case, 3 minutes was allowed for it to settle and produce an even covering over the plate.

Obviously, this process is hazardous to lungs and we wore masks to avoid breathing in the dust.

The plate was very carefully removed (one sneeze or deep breath and it’s over!) and placed on a metal rack ready for the fusing stage.

zinc-etch-15A heat gun, one that radiates heat without blowing – so not a hairdryer – was used from the underside to melt and fuse the resin together and to the plate surface.

In this picture you can see the heating in action and the swan image just starting to appear as the resin becomes translucent.

zinc-etch-16On the left is an image of the plate once the resin has been fused.  I’ve photographed it under a yellow light so the ‘mottled’ surface can be seen more easily than on the silvery zinc colour.

Once cooled down it is ready for the next stage.

As I am working on the background and have the swan and cygnets exactly how I want them (having checked by doing a proof print before getting to the aquatint stage) I masked them so none of the next techniques used to produce the water and sky will affect them.

Step 2: Bitumen

What is an effective way to block out an area of a print plate where you don’t want the acid solution to bite?
Initially this plate was covered with hard ground wax as a resist.  The swans were then etched through the wax using an etching tool and the plate put into the acid bath to bite the areas where the tool had removed the wax.  Very straightforward.  But this technique isn’t possible when a selected area, or areas, are needed to be masked.  The wax is rolled onto the plate and cannot be carefully brushed onto particular parts because it is never liquid enough to use a brush and solidifies immediately it leaves the heated hotplate.

zinc-etch-17So a mix of bitumen and meths was made to a thick paint consistency and this was brushed over the swan and cygnets.

It’s quite a hard process because if any bitumen ends up in the wrong place, or you miss a bit, it has the potential to ruin the plate.

Keep in mind that every part of the exposed plate has the potential to be affected by the next stage of acid work.  So I took my time, used a very fine brush and blocked out my subjects.  This will protect them from further etching.  After the whole process is complete the bitumen solution will be removed with turps.

Next comes the water & spit biting to create the unevenness of sky and water.

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Hard ground etching: My first plate


Zinc-Etch-11The aim with this plate is to combine it with my soft ground etched plant material from a few weeks ago, which will be printed as a second layer.

I thought it might be interesting to be looking through the plants to a lake or river, perhaps with ducks or swans.  So, using my beginner’s guide to drawing book, I picked up my pencil.

SwansDuck head and shaping was quite good but I wasn’t sure what to do with the folded wings and the book had a good example of a swan and cygnets that I could learn from, so I went with that.  The images were then regrouped whilst being transferred to tracing paper using a 6B pencil.

My zinc plate was prepared as for the soft ground etching: cleaned, degreased and heated on the hotplate to 90 degrees, then hard wax was applied.  It melted the same way as the soft wax and was then rolled to form a smooth covering.  Hard-zinc-etch-1Once cold it dried to a very hard finish and the traced image could be laid on the surface and put through an etching press (reduced pressure) to transfer the graphite to the wax.

Due to a lighting issue my photo didn’t come out well enough so here is a view of a transfer from a classmate (Cynthia).  Using an etching tool I then proceeded to draw into the wax using the transferred lines as a guide.  Detail not transferred was added as the etching evolved.  My design is quite detail-specific and it was surprisingly difficult to see where to etch as the light played over the golden surface of the waxed zinc.

Once complete, the plate was immersed in a nitric acid & water solution (ratio 1:8) for several minutes, checking from time to time and wafting with a feather to remove bubbles, for the design to be bitten into the plate.  When satisfied, I dissolved the remaining wax, cleaned the plate and took a proof print.

Hard-zinc-etch-2An excellent start for this design.  The next stage will be aquatint and masking, followed by water bite and spit bite background sections to create sky and water effects.

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Workshop: The Mono Printed Brushmark

Experimental Printing Techniques

Vivien Haley Agate

Vivien Haley, Agate

I’ve mixed feelings about this one day class I attended yesterday.  The finished works shown by the tutor, Vivien Haley, were spectacular, beautiful colour schemes, innovative patterning and quality outcomes.

Should I have felt a little put-out that the samples she brought along were actually digitally printed rather than hand printed, when she was teaching us a hand printing class?  Probably not, but I did.  To be fair, she did have 2 gorgeous scarves that she had hand printed but her focus is firmly in the realms of digital printing.

Vivien Haley Fan Coral

Vivien Haley, Fan Coral

Vivien Haley Seven Fishes

Vivien Haley, Seven Fishes

In her defense I should add that she isn’t just playing at designing and producing a few lovely pieces, teaching from time to time and considering her talents as a ‘serious hobby’.  No, she is trying to eke out a modest living and endeavouring to promote her name and art style by selling on-line and through art shows/expos.  Therefore she needs to produce a quantity of quality, hard-wearing, desirable items in a range of colourways and digital printing is the way to achieve that.

When designing, she primarily concentrates on mark making and shape making.  Realism isn’t her thing.

She uses cut wood, cardboard, old x-ray film, plant material and whatever other fairly flat items she comes across.  She works shapes and patterns with acrylic paint on cartridge paper and later scans them into a computer.  Components are isolated, repeated, resized, re-coloured, reoriented and regrouped to form a unique unified whole.

Obviously the majority of her process was well outside the scope of the class, so we concentrated on making marks and patterns on paper which, frankly, I could have done equally as effectively at home or with friends.  However, it was a day out and I spent some dedicated hours mucking around with paint and paper.

Vivien demonstrating with wood and plastic transfer sheets

Vivien demonstrating with wood and plastic transfer sheets

Drawing on painted cardboard, printing plant matter, simple cut shapes.

Drawing on painted cardboard, printing plant matter, simple cut shapes.

A few of my samples:

VH-3Left to right: 1) paint transfer from glass, with a netting resist. The piece was relaid a second time slightly moved to create the ‘broken line’ effect. 2) Cardboard shapes, painted and used as stamps. Gauging the amount of paint required to create brush marks. 3) Repeated lino stamp I previously made with a cardboard cutout.

VH-4Left: A range of cardboard stamps & repeated plant material. Right: a bigger, less dense version of image number 3 above, with a more definite focal point of interest.

VH-5Here I repeatedly used the same wood block to print, alternating between 2 brushes – one with lighter brighter colours and the other with black or blue.  The brushes were never cleaned and the block was overlapped time after time, creating an integration of the various colours.

I think there is some scope to develop this type of printing/stenciling/stamping but I find it difficult to visualize unified outcomes (for me).  The idea of just messing around and making all sorts of patterns then selecting small sections and using the computer to formulate something workable from individual components could be interesting, but without the means to print out cloths myself it’s not somewhere I want to go at this stage.

Overall, a nice day, average teaching and techniques.  Something to keep at the back of my mind I guess.  You never know what you might want to do in the future.

Works by others in the class:


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Making denim paper: Stage 2

PPA-DP7Back at Primrose Park I liberated my pulped-denim vat, gave it a good stir and started making paper.

My aim was to produce some quality A3 sheets but it didn’t go too well.  My couching cloths were slightly too small so I borrowed from someone else.  What I didn’t realize is that the cloths make a huge difference to the paper result.

I use old sheeting cut up and hemmed as my cloths and I thought I borrowed similar ones but it turns out that mine have a slightly more open weave (possibly just more worn!) and this enables the air and water to pass through easily, so reducing the amount of air bubbles that become trapped when turning the paper out of the deckle onto the layered cloths.  Out of 10 attempts to turn out A3 sized sheets I only managed 2.

I decided to reduce my paper size to a slightly smaller square shape and return to my own cloths.PPA-DP8

No problems there and I was happy with a dozen sheets.  Here you can see the paper once I left it to dry – quite a lot lighter than the concentrated pulp in the tub.

Normally the pressed sheets are turned out onto boards and dried flat in the sun but as I live a distance away I bring them home pressed but still wet on the cloths and dry them on my spare bathroom floor.  They then go under my book press for a few days to flatten, ready for printing on.

With still over half a tub of pulp remaining I can see myself with a ton of blue paper in the future.  Perhaps adding some dye will be fun and increase the variety.

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Making denim paper: Stage 1

This was a strenuous, fun, NOISY day!  My first experience with transforming an old pair of jeans into paper.

PPA-DP1The jeans were cut up, all seams, studs and the zipper were removed.  The remainder was cut into postage stamp pieces and weighed.  450gms to turn into paper.

Now to meet the beater:

PPA-DP2It’s a monster machine, very noisy when in operation and apparently worth a small fortune.
Clockwise from left: 1) The prepared beater with water already in the channel.  The hanging hose is used for draining when the process is complete. 2) Ensuring the rotating struts are clean, ready to turn and grind the denim to pulp. 3) Once the beater is turned on the denim pieces are slowly added.  The handle to the left is wound to increase the water movement pressure and grinding process through the water wheel.  As the denim becomes softer and starts breaking down the resistance is increased and the denim disintegrates into smaller fibres.

PPA-DP3These photos were taken towards the beginning of the process and on the left you can clearly see the pile of denim squares being slowly pushed around the channel.  On the right …. well, what has happened here?  PPA-DP4

The jeans were given to me washed and rinsed.  I then washed them another 4 times with no soap to ensure I would avoid any soap suds.  Who would believe how much soap could still be in the fabric?  I spent the first beating hour constantly removing as much foam as I could.  In addition, colour was coming out of the fibres and I was anxious to avoid accidentally dyeing the floor, the mop or my clothes.  I ended up having to wash my sweatshirt part way through as it became spattered with blue dye.

PPA-DP5Clockwise from left: 1) Unclogging the wheel when there is a backlog of fibre trying to enter this area. 2) I removed some of the semi-pulped denim to add back at the end.  This will add some texture into the finished paper sheets. 3) The fully pulped denim (after 2 1/4 hours) ready to be removed from the beater, drained and stored.

PPA-DP6Once removed from the beater into multiple buckets I strained the pulp into one, with a small amount of water.  The courser semi-ground fibres were mixed back into this.  So I’ve now got a huge container, labelled (heaven help anyone pinching any of it after hours of work) and ready to form into lovely sheets of paper.

I’ll split my pulp into batches, form some paper sheets from this original colour then experiment with adding dyes to create a variety of papers.  I hope that by adding yellow I’ll get a decent green, I’d also like to attempt a darker blue.  I guess I’ll try some red and see what type of purple comes out but that’s not my preferred colour.  The next dilemma will be what colour to use when I print on it in the future.

The next stage will come in a couple of weeks when I get back to the Centre to create my paper.

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Soft ground etching: My first plate

For my first plate I decided to imitate what Matthew, the tutor, had taught us.  I have a bit of a habit of running away on my own and trying things that don’t necessarily work very easily, but as this is so new I’m trying something fairly straight forward first.

I prepared my plate to waxed stage as per my previous post.

Zinc-Etch-6My dried and pressed plant material was laid over the wax, the waste plastic was placed over this and it was run through the press.  Now came the hard part.  As much of my dried flower heads were very fragile they stuck to the wax and I spent a frustrating 25 minutes trying to locate very fine particles and removing them with tweezers.  You can clearly see some pieces of very delicate leaves still sticking to the plate on the bottom right.  I had to be painstaking with the removal or the etching would be ruined.

Zinc-Etch-7I finally got it into the acid bath.  After a 5  minute stint, followed by a further 3 minutes, it looked about ready.  I rinsed and then removed the excess wax.

Fingers crossed that I was careful enough with the tweezers and haven’t ruined the plate.  Hard to tell until the first print.

Zinc-Etch-8Having filed and smoothed the plate edges (so it wouldn’t tear my print paper) I proceeded to ink up, rubbing it into the etched areas, and then semi-wiping back the blank non-etched areas  My goal was to produce a print with sharp imagery and a faintly coloured background.  The first result, above right, came out quite well.  The paper is only cartridge proofing paper which had been quickly run through water and dabbed dry.  Obviously it’s crinkled but the idea is only to assess how well, or badly, I’ve inked the plate before moving to better paper.

Zinc-Etch-10Moving to BFK Reeves, soaked for 10-15 minutes before drying between towels, I took my first print.

I felt that my initial sample had too much of an overall blue look background so rubbed this one back significantly more.  Just look at that sharp, sharp, sharp imagery!!  Great start.

There’s a small edging problem.  Even though I rubbed away the ink from the filed edges it is still captured and is giving me an inked edge.  Not sure I always want that.  I refiled and smoothed (I’m hopeless with the abrasive file and the sandpaper) then re-inked, changing the colour.

Zinc-Etch-11Mixing a deep yellow with a touch of black gave me my favourite olive-green.  To this I added some of the original blue from the previous print.  The plant etched sections were printed with this mix whilst plain blue was applied lightly to the upper blank plate section.

I’m very pleased with this as the delicacy of the dried plants has been enhanced by this slightly softer colour scheme.

My colleague, at the printing station adjacent to mine, was using a brilliant full strength orange for her project and offered me some of her ink.  Zinc-Etch-12We hoped that by applying it over the remainder of the green mix I might come up with something resembling a dried corn colour.  Frankly I was doubtful because her ink was super bright and I was sure it would overpower the little grey/green left on the plate.

So the result is as shown on the left.  In real life it is a little more straw coloured than light green.  Photography is difficult sometimes.

So what shall I do with this plate from here?  It’s a lovely start but a bit plain on its own so I need to decide how to enhance the imagery, perhaps adding some layering and depth to the print.  I can also experiment with more than one colour to give more focal interest.

So here are my main choices:

  • Re-wax this plate and add additional components to it.  They could be etched for a longer time, giving better bite and more ink retention – so darkening those areas.  However, if I make a mistake the entire plate is wasted and I quite like this initial composition.
  • Make a new plate the same size and add different plant material to that.  These can then be printed together in either order, or independently.  I could continue etching more plates and widening the scope of my results.  The issue here is the cost.  Zinc is not cheap.
  • Make new plates from other materials to use as backgrounds to the zinc plate.  My stash of foamex board immediately comes to mind.  It’s inexpensive, easily etched, quickly cleaned and gives very good results.  That sounds like a plan.
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