I’m going to describe how I produced my second image of the workshop. My first was a 9”x8” print inspired by a photograph of my parents on the beach in Florida in the late 1970s. The subsequent print, which I’ll detail, was also inspired by a photograph taken by my dad around the same time; this one is of my mom with their Irish Wolfhound, Sheelagh, at beach on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio.
With both prints, I attempted to capture feelings of nostalgia and melancholy invoked by looking at photographs. Today, digital cameras can instantaneously load photos to the web, and shots can be taken and retaken until they’re perfect. They also signify impermanence, as the photographer can easily delete those pictures he or she doesn’t care for. And, even those that are saved are simply pieces of data visible on a screen. When browsing through old photographs, I was struck by their uniqueness. As I perused my chosen two in particular, it occurred to me that they were taken at a moment in which the subjects weren’t overly concerned with perfection and the option of a redo probably didn’t cross their mind—let alone the possibility to “undo.” To me, these pictures are simpler, more honest, sincere and authentic, which I feel is a reflection of the time, too, when a photo may have held more meaning. Rather than being something digitized, destined to be computer data, a photo was tactile and held value to the subject, the photographer, friends, etc. While photos taken today can chronicle passing minutes and the same photos can be found in different Facebook albums, older photographs are more singular, more staggered, less sequential and, at least at our house, less organized. Maybe I romanticize…anyway, the idea to turn this photo into a color print came from a desire to showcase the sincerity and beauty of real photographs and bring about a feeling of nostalgia, maybe even for those with no relation to the subjects. I did not want to allow my images to become extremely photorealistic; I hoped they would reveal an atmosphere that connoted the past through the graininess of aquatint, use of light, and muted, earthy colors rather than those that were vibrant and super-saturated.
Having attended school in Maine, I had the opportunity to visit the art museum of Colby College, our school rival. Their museum has a fantastic collection of Alex Katz’s work, and, although I don’t emulate his style or particularly marvel at all of his work, I remember so distinctly the feelings of nostalgia—even heartache—that resulted from viewing his paintings and prints. Even with no connection to his subjects, I longed to know them, to remember them, to live in their planar world in a seemingly less complicated time. Here is an overview of the process I used to make this print:
A. Preparing the Plates
- Using plate cutter, cut 16-gauge weldable steel in four 6”x6” squares. I also had to recut the “factory cut” edges of the steel, since when I bought it, the corners were not exactly 90 degrees.
- Used a large steel grinder to grind down the edges of the plates so they were exactly the same size.
- Sanded one surface of each plate using hand-held power sander. Started with one sheet of 400-grit for each, then one sheet of 600-grit. Imperial wet/dry sandpaper, found at auto body shops, is ideal.
- Backed each plate with con-tact paper.
- Cut a sheet of Mylar and, using a permanent marker, traced one plate.
- Measured two inches up from the top of the plate and drew a line that paralleled the top of the plate.
- Marked this line to match the center of the plate. (This is where I would lay the top edge/center of my paper).
- Taped the Mylar to a piece of Plexi so that I could simply turn the Plexi 180 degrees after running it through the press. I always wanted the top of the print to run through the press first.
- Note: I actually drew my lines on the underside of the Mylar so that the marker would not dissolve if I were to clean the Mylar with a solvent. This also means I wrote “TOP” backwards on the underside.
C. Soft Ground Drawing, Etching, and Proofing of Key Plate
- Cleaned and degreased each plate with copper-glo and whiting.
- Applied a layer of soft ball ground to each plate, working it on evenly with brayer atop hot plate.
- Placed drawing over my first plate (“key” plate, or black plate) and traced over the drawing. Using an H drawing pencil, I drew with the same pressure as if I were drawing normally on paper, giving different values and shading to different areas. Areas where I pressed harder would pick up more of the soft ground than areas where I pressed more lightly. I checked every once in a while by lifting the drawing to see where the soft ground had come off the plate and adhered to the drawing paper.
- Etched the plate in 1:20 nitric acid for approx. 15-20 minutes (acid was a bit weak that day).
- Removed plate from acid, rinsed with water and used mineral spirits to remove soft ground.
- Cleaned and degreased plate.
- Inked plate with Vine Black mixed with a bit of Burnt Sienna, transparent base and EZ wipe. Proofed on Rives BFK.
D. Image Transfers from Key to Color Plates
- Next, it was time to transfer the image from the key plate onto the three other plates. I was so glad to have had this process demystified for me! However, next time I do the transfer, I will cover the three plates in hard ground rather than soft; or, I’ll not put on a ground at all and transfer in black ink and use a stylus to trace.
- Cleaned the black ink from the key plate and degreased once more.
- Inked the plate with White ink mixed with a bit of EZ wipe. The white ink is especially viscous and messy.
- I thought that using a smooth paper would better transfer the image—after all, it had worked with my previous print—so, I placed the key plate on the registration and printed onto Domestic Etch paper. It printed fine; however, when I placed my first transfer plate (which, if you recall, I had already prepared with soft ground) on my register and ran it through the press, the paper stuck and pulled up most of the soft ground from the plate. Luckily, the image still transferred, but I had to throw away the paper.
- I re-inked the key plate with white. This time, I printed it onto a piece of Mylar, thinking that because plastic is smoother than paper, I wouldn’t need to worry about it sticking. Wrong. The Mylar also picked up some of the soft ground. Luckily, the transferred image was visible in white atop the remaining ground. I repeated this process with the last transfer plate, not re-inking the plate in white.
- Starting with my first plate, which I determined to be for my red, I took my drawing for the red plate that indicated, sort of in a color-by-number style, each area that would be aquatinted and for how long. For example, the areas I marked with a “1” were those that would be covered with ground first and not be etched at all. They would not hold any red on the print since the plate would be completely smooth—not bitten into at all and therefore unable to hold any ink. The areas marked with “5” would not be covered with ground at all, and might etch for a cumulative 20 minutes.
- Working into the soft ground with a pencil over my drawing paper (I used drafting vellum, which has a good tooth for picking up the ground), I didn’t realize until halfway through that so much ground had lifted during the transfer, that there were areas that would be etched where I really didn’t want any red. I decided to work with it, and let these areas have a bit of red tone. I would be able to intensify the blue and yellow, or add enough transparent base to the red ink later on that it wouldn’t make a big difference.
- Not wanting to make the same mistake with the blue and yellow plates, I decided to cover each of these with a layer of hard ground, then mark off my areas to aquatint with my needle. Fortunately, I could still see the white transfer once it was covered in hard ground. Then, I matched up my blue and yellow drawings to the transfer on their respective plates and, using my needle, traced over the areas on the vellum where I would aquatint.
- I then proceeded with my aquatint, doing about 4-6 etches for each plate. These gave different intensities of colors to various areas. For example, an area that was covered with hard ground from the beginning on the yellow plate, was covered from my 3rd aquatint on the red plate, and was not covered at all on the blue plate, after being placed in the acid cumulatively during the several etchings, will print predominately blue with some red, making a purplish-blue.
- When my aquatint was finished, I cleaned and degreased each of my color plates, then went back to work on my key plate. I needed to add more detail and definition to the black layer that would print over all of these colors.
- I decided to forgo the toxic solvent/asphaltum-based hard ground and experiment using a less toxic substance made with Future floor wax and a bit of water-based ink.
- Squeezed some Future directly onto the plate and evenly spread it out using a foam brush. Then, I added a bit of Akua water-based black ink and mixed it onto the plate using the same foam brush. I let this dry for about an hour (though it may have been dry sooner).
- I drew into the ground using a needle and was happy to see that it my drawn lines were very clear. It did flake more than the solvent-based ground, which was not unexpected, given that the beeswax makes that ground so smooth. But, the Future did smell much better than the solvent-based stuff! When I finished drawing, I etched the plate in the nitric acid for about 35 minutes, brushing it with a wide soft-bristled paintbrush every few minutes to remove the rust that accumulated on the surface. I took the plate out of the acid and rinsed with water. I was so excited to clean it off without inhaling paint thinner! I poured some salt on the plate and then added vinegar until I had a paste. It did take some scrubbing with a blue shop paper towel, but this mixture took off the ground fairly easily. Here is how the proof turned out (again, inked with Vine Black, Burnt Sienna, and a bit of transparent base and EZ wipe):
G. Running My First Color Proof
- After beveling and burnishing the plates' edges, I was ready to proof my print in color. Before I started inking my plates, I placed a piece of Rives BFK paper in the water bath. I had already torn it down and marked the top center in pencil.
- Inked my plates using the following colors, each mixed with a bit of EZ wipe (except for the black, which I wanted to remain more intense)
- Red: Indian Red with some transparent base
- Blue: Midnight Blue with some transparent base
- Black: 70% Vine Black + 30% Burnt Sienna
- Inking involves working the ink to the right consistency using a metal spatula, then spreading a thin layer onto the plate, working it back and forth into the etched lines using a piece of cardstock. The plate is then wiped gently using tarlatan (netting), silk or newsprint, and finally the side of one’s hand to remove excess. The plate is ready when the surface no longer feels sticky and one’s hand can glide over with no friction. I use a bit of whiting on my hands to keep them dry, and also use whiting to remove ink from the edges of each plate.
- It is also important to ink all plates at once so that whey they are run through the press, the paper does not dry out or shrink while waiting to run the next color.
- I arranged my register on the press with the “Top” closest to the roller. Since I needed to work from lightest to darkest, I placed my yellow plate in the square, matched up my paper at the center top, and used two small pieces of blue painter’s tape to secure the paper to the Plexi so that it would be in exactly the right spot for the next three plates. I ran the plate through the press, flipped the Plexi 180 degrees, lifted the paper and replaced the yellow plate with the red. I repeated this process for the blue and black plates and had finished my first proof! The entire process from degreasing to the finished print takes about one hour. I hope that with practice I’ll become more efficient at inking and cleaning up, as these are the parts that are most time consuming for me! I also need to work on keeping my paper extremely clean. Working with four plates and several colors of ink, it is not hard for an unintentional mark to make its way to the paper.
- The photo below is of my second proof. I wiped the yellow ink a bit more and didn’t wipe the red so much the second time around, resulting in a more natural, less yellow skin tone.
All in all, I am pleased with this print so far. will return to the red plate and maybe do an additional aquatint. I’d also like to go back in and rework the key plate with some burnishing and drypoint, particularly around the subjects’ faces and on the blanket they’re sitting on. It has a watercolor-wash quality now, and while I like the atmospheric quality, the scene doesn’t feel “finished” to me. I don’t want to touch the light on the figures because I am glad with how it appears now, but I do think I could do some burnishing in the water and sand areas to bring out some reflections.
One more note about working in steel: I LOVE that you get fabulous aquatints without needing rosin or spray. The nature of the metal lends itself to perfect open-bite aquatinting. I did have to watch it pretty carefully, as my first and second aquatints only needed 15-30 seconds when the acid was fresh. Plus, steel is more economical than zinc or copper. So fabulous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!